Lunch between feminist organizer Gloria Steinem, 81, and her longtime friend Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 82, made the papers this week when the pair invited Philip Galanes of the New York Times to join the conversation. Published as part of Galanes’ “Table for Three” series, the candid 90-minute chat reveals how the revolutionary pair became friends, their attitudes on gender after decades spent fighting inequality, and the stories of personal discrimination that really shook the women to their respective cores. The octogenarians are still shaking things up as each takes on the literary world: RBG is the subject of a popular tribute biography, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steinem released her memoir, My Life on the Road, this month. In keeping with Ginsburg’s ‘Notorious RBG’ handle, the group also consulted an online rap-name generator for Steinem (spoiler: it’s GlowStick, which she said may need some work).
For your enjoyment, we’ve put together our five favorite takeaways from the exchange between these two fun and insightful feminists.
1) Ginsburg was working at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Steinem was starting Ms. magazine when they met
“What comes to mind are these cases in which young African-American women were being sterilized without their permission,” Steinem said. It was the 1970s, and American women were still unable to get abortions legally but “there was this notorious obstetrician, and if it was a woman’s third child, he would automatically sterilize her,” Ginsburg added. She and her cohorts at the ACLU Women’s Rights Project took on the case. “I knew from other women that Ruth was our champion and teacher,” Steinem said. RBG, of course, was a proud Ms. reader.
2) Both stress that the women’s movement they helped champion was pioneered by black women, whose work preceded their own
Many critics of the women’s liberation movement believed that activists were riding the coattails of the civil rights movement, but Steinem and RBG see a connection between the groups. At the start of her professional career, RBG paid tribute to black civil rights activist and lawyer Pauli Murray by adding her name to the brief for Reed vs. Reed – her very first Supreme Court brief presented in 1971. The move was unheard of, but she wanted to make clear that her work was “standing on [the] shoulders” of those who fought before her. “[Civil rights and women’s liberation] are not two different movements; they are profoundly connected,” Steinem noted. “If you are going to continue racism, you have to control reproduction. And that means controlling women.” A mantra she always keeps in mind is “we are linked, not ranked.”
3) RBG once practiced “Aunt Tom-ing” in the face of blatant sexism
Over the course of their long, impressive careers, there have been moments when Ginsburg and Steinem failed to take a stand. Galanes made sure to take time for “galling” stories, including the infamous tale of when, as one of nine women at Harvard Law, Ginsburg was asked by the dean, “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?” Not only did she knock an ashtray full of cigarette butts onto the floor when standing to speak, but the answer that came out of her mouth was “so embarrassing,” she said. “I gave him the answer he expected: My husband is a second-year law student, and it’s important for a woman to understand her husband’s work.” She didn’t believe what she was saying, of course, but Steinem couldn’t help but chime in and poke fun at her friend for “Aunt Tom-ing.” She herself bit her tongue in a moment of blatant prejudice: in a cab with Saul Bellows, Gay Talese once said to Steinem, “Every year a pretty girl comes to New York and pretends to be a writer. This year, it’s Gloria.” “It wasn’t until we were out of the taxi that I got angry,” she said. “And it wasn’t until years later that I got really angry.”
4) Steinem kept thinking she’d marry when she reached her thirties, before realizing: “I’m happy”
While Ginsburg spent the majority of her life with her late partner, Marty, her friend Gloria was married briefly in her 60s until the untimely death of her partner, David Bale, in 2003. “I assumed I had to get married,” Steinem said. “But I kept putting it off: “I’m going to do it, but not right now.” Until I was in my late 30s and the women’s movement came along, and I realized: I’m happy. Not everyone has to live the same way.”
5) Some believe women must try to “have it all” or “do it all” — but these two are not convinced that it’s reasonable goal
RBG just finished reading Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book, in which the author talks about the pressure women face trying to “having it all.” “Who does?” Ginsburg said. “I’ve had it all in the course of my life, but at different times.” Steinem chimed in – “And the implication for women having it all is doing it all. But you can’t. We’re still far away from the idea of truly shared parenting.”
Read the full conversation between Gloria Steinem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Philip Galanes at the New York Times.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Gloria Steinem never married.