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Fact check: Ginsburg cared for her young child, sick husband while excelling in law school

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/5/2020 Devon Link, USA TODAY
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The claim: RBG supported her ill husband and young daughter through Harvard Law while simultaneously excelling as one of nine women in her class

Enrolling as one of the first women at one of America's elite law schools would be demanding for anyone. But now a meme highlighting how Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg managed to support a young daughter and ill husband throughout her studies is drawing special attention to her accomplishments at home.

“In 1956, Ruth Bader Ginsburg enrolled in Harvard Law School, where she was one of 9 women in a class of 500 men. After her husband was diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ginsburg attended class and took notes for both of them, typed her husband’s dictated papers, and cared for their daughter and her sick husband – all while making the Harvard Law Review,” reads a meme Weird Facts posted to Facebook on Sept. 26.

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USA TODAY took a look at each of the claims the meme makes and found the narrative to be true. Weird Facts declined USA TODAY's request for comment.

Ginsburg starts a family and law school

According to the 2015 biography "Notorious RBG," Ginsburg and her husband married in his family home in June 1954. On July 21, 1955, they had their first child, Jane Ginsburg.

Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956, a year after her husband. She was one of nine women in a class with 552 men.

She would manage studying between classes until she returned home around 4 p.m. to relieve the babysitter, whom "Notorious RBG" described as a “New England grandmotherly type.”

“Her hours with Jane before bed helped leaven the library time,” the book states.

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RBG and other classmates took notes for her husband while he was sick

Ginsburg’s husband, Marty, was diagnosed with testicular cancer during her second year of law school in 1957.

She didn’t take notes for her husband, but she did arrange for the best note-takers in each of his classes to do so.

According to "Notorious RBG," she gave each note-taker carbon paper and had them return the copies to her after each class. Each night she would type up those notes with the occasional help of the girlfriend of one of his classmates.

This story exaggerated in 2018 movie "On the Basis of Sex," which is based on Ginsburg’s life. In the film, the Ginsburg character attended her husband's classes in his stead. This is false.


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"Harvard was known as a competitive place. My experience was the opposite," Ginsburg said in a 2016 interview. "His classmates, my classmates, rallied around the two of us, and he got individual tutorials to help prepare him for the exams. How did I get through it? Well, I was able to get by with very little sleep."

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She took dictation and typed up her husband’s papers

"Notorious RBG" specifically recalls a time Ginsburg took dictation of her husband’s paper on loss corporations, as he was too ill to type.

“When Marty fell asleep around 2 A.M., RBG would begin her own work,” the book explains. “That was how she learned she could get by on just one or two hours of sleep, as long as she could sleep in a little on weekends.”

She helped him type many papers and made sure he completed his coursework, even meeting with the dean several times, to ensure he would graduate on time.

Ginsburg described how her husband would dictate his third-year paper to her between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m. since his radiation treatments would leave him incapacitated during the day. She would then prepare her own work for her classes the next day.

He was well enough to attend his last two weeks of class and received his highest grades that semester. Ginsburg attributed his success to his dedicated peer tutors.

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The Ginsburgs move to New York

After her second year of law school, her husband graduated and was offered a position as a tax attorney in New York. Ginsburg asked the administration at Harvard Law if she could finish her third-year classes at Columbia Law School but the dean at Harvard refused. Of the whole issue, that dean, Erwin Griswold, would say decades later in 1993 that Ginsburg "was not very happy about it."  

Columbia Law confirmed to USA TODAY that Ginsburg was one of 12 women in a class with 241 men. She graduated from Columbia Law tied for first in the class of 1959. She was invited for interviews at 12 law firms, but was not offered a job at any of them. She said she suspected she was not hired because she was a young Jewish mother.

“Just think what else she might have accomplished had she enjoyed the benefits of a Harvard degree,” the biography quotes the Harvard Law Record Editors from the late 1970s.

A policy change in the 1960s would have allowed someone like Ginsburg to receive a law degree from Harvard after doing her first two years at the law school, the Harvard Crimson reported in 1993 during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings. In May 2011, Harvard awarded Ginsburg an honorary doctorate of laws.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg et al. sitting around each other: Opera tenor Placido Domingo, left, chats with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, right, during Harvard University's 360th commencement exercises, on the school's campus, in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, May 26, 2011. © Steven Senne, AP Opera tenor Placido Domingo, left, chats with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, right, during Harvard University's 360th commencement exercises, on the school's campus, in Cambridge, Mass., Thursday, May 26, 2011.

Ginsburg and the Harvard Law Review

Ginsburg was the first woman to make the Harvard Law Review.  She ultimately served as an editor for both the Harvard Law Review and the Columbia Law Review.

Our rating: True

We rate as TRUE the claim that Ruth Bader Ginsburg supported her ill husband and cared for her young daughter while excelling as one of the only women at Harvard Law School in the mid-1950s. Ginsburg's biography "Notorious RBG" as well as her own words confirm the narrative in the Facebook post  describingGinsburg's many accomplishments during her time in law school.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Ginsburg cared for her young child, sick husband while excelling in law school

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