Former Chief Justice talks equality

Former Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall
LAW ’76.discussed fighting inequality in the workplace.
Former Massachusetts Supreme Court Chief Justice Margaret Marshall LAW ’76.discussed fighting inequality in the workplace. Photo by Carly Lovejoy .

This Wednesday, former Chief Justice Margaret Marshall LAW ’76 spoke at the Yale School of Management about her experiences fighting racial inequality and trailblazing a place for women in the workplace.

Marshall — who is best known for leading the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage in 2003 — was the first woman to head the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and currently serves as the first female senior fellow of the Yale Corporation. Her talk, moderated by Jim Levinsohn, director of the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs, centered on inequality, women’s rights and Yale University.

“I was born in a particular time period that allowed me to work on gender rights, racial rights, disability rights [and] same-sex marriage,” Marshall said of her various experiences.

Born in South Africa, Marshall said she did not question the apartheid system until she visited America as a high school student and became motivated to fight for rights back home. Returning to South Africa to attend college, Marshall became the head of the National Union for South African Students, which combated racial inequality.

She was the first woman to hold this position, which she attributed to the fact that “every man [previously] in the leadership position was either arrested or in prison or outlawed.”

“There was nobody else to lead, and they asked me if I would do it,” she said.

After returning to America to pursue a doctorate in Art History at Harvard University, Marshall attended the Yale Law School and eventually became a partner at two law firms in Boston. In 1992 Marshall became General Council to Harvard, again the first woman to hold the position.

Though Marshall said many of her achievements have resulted from serendipitous circumstances, she added that it is important to take advantage of these situations.

“The opportunity presents itself, a tiny crack in the door,” she said. “You have to walk [through], you can’t pass up the opportunity.”

In 1996 Marshall was elected to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and was confirmed three years later as its head, a position she held until her retirement in 2010.

Marshall’s landmark case as Chief Justice was Goodridge v. Department of Public Health in 2003, which resulted in the first decision by a state’s highest court to legalize same-sex marriage.

Asked by Levinsohn whether she was particularly proud of any specific rulings, Marshall said a great judge should care deeply about each and every case brought before the court.

In April, Marshall became the first woman to be appointed as senior fellow of the Yale Corporation, for which she previously served a term from 2004–2010.

Marshall said she is passionate about higher education and wants Yale to be the place where leading international scholars want to come. Marshall added that students should be passionate about their careers and not stress about choosing a career path.

“My Ph.D. in Art History did not prepare me for my role as Chief Justice,” she said. “Take every opportunity … if you don’t have apartheid to fight, find something else.”

More than 40 people attended Marshall’s talk, many of them students at the Yale School of Management.

Athena Zhang SOM ’16 said Marshall provided broad insight on not only United States law and government but also on society in general. Zhang added that it was helpful for business school students to relate law and social policy to their own careers.

Sam Silverlieb SOM ’14 said talks like Marshall’s enhance students’ educational experience.

“Anytime you can get someone who is so accomplished to speak about their career — not just their career but the small things that have made them successful — it’s a really unique opportunity,” he said.

Marshall is serving a five-year term on the Corporation and will step down at the age of 72.

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