In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week, Supreme Court nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg said the "indignities" that Harvard imposed on women were what led her to spend much of her career fighting to break down legal barriers to the advancement of women in society.
But in interviews yesterday, the dean of the Law School at the time defended his treatment of women, and the current dean said the situation has much improved.
At Tuesday's hearing, Ginsburg told of being shut out of Lamont library, which was closed to women when she was a student at Harvard Law School in 1956 to 1958. She said women guests were not invited to the Harvard Law Review banquet, and that women were not given space in the Law School dormitories.
Ginsburg said when she was a visiting professor at Harvard Law School in the fall of 1971, the hostess at the Faculty Club asked her if she would feel "more comfortable in the ladies dining room." The judge said she ate in the regular faculty dining room.
Sen. Dianne G. Feinstein (D.-Calif.) said at the hearing that the law school dean in the 1950s asked Ginsburg to justify taking a place in the class that otherwise would have gone to a man." Feinstein said the dean "had begrudged [Ginsburg's] matriculation at Harvard."
In an interview yesterday, Langdell Professor of Law Emeritus Erwin N. Griswold disagreed with Ginsburg's assessment of his deanship and of the Law School's attitude toward women in the 1950s. "I think she was dead wrong," Griswold said.
"I think she completely misunderstood it and should have known better," he said.
Griswold said that as dean of the law school, he had always favored admitting women. He said the school's faculty had voted to admit women three times, beginning in 1890, but he said that the law faculty had been overruled by the Harvard Corporation.
Griswold said that in asking for justification, he was playing devil's advocate and trying to get justification for his own beliefs that the women intended to become lawyers.
The controversy over how welcoming the Law School was to women, however, is a minor issue, Griswold said, and should not detract from the broader issue of the nominee's qualifications.
"I think she's an excellent choice and I really hope she'll be confirmed," he said.
Current Law School Dean Robert C. Clark said yesterday that whatever the problems of the past, the Law School is now an excellent place for women.
"It's a very different world," Clark said. "I think she'd be very happy if she were a student here now."
Clark said his impression is that Ginsburg has positive feelings overall toward Harvard Law School, having participated in several alumni events there. "She's been very good toward Harvard Law School over time," the dean said.
One sore point for Ginsburg had been her Harvard diploma--or lack thereof. The nominee spent her first two years at Harvard Law School, then spent her last year at Columbia University, where she got her degree.
Griswold said that Ginsburg asked him at the time of her graduation for a Harvard degree, and he said no in accordance with what was then University policy.
"She was not very happy about it," Griswold said.
Ginsburg has never been awarded the Harvard law degree.
Clark said the law school adopted a hardship leave policy in the late 1960s, and he said that under the current rules, someone in Ginsburg's situation would be granted a Harvard diploma.
Clark said he is exploring the possibility of granting degrees retroactively to all students who spent their first two years of law school at Harvard