Before she was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or even Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg, much less the Notorious RBG, Ms. Ginsburg was a lawyer who taught at Rutgers in Newark and then headed the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, also in Newark.
Even then, before she was turned into an icon, she was inspirational —physically tiny and apparently shy, she also motivated countless girls and young women to become doctors and lawyers or whatever else they wanted to it.
She changed the life of a high-school student in Teaneck who started out just wanting to play tennis, and ended up with enough self-confidence to do whatever else it was she wanted to do.
That high school student was Abbe Seldin, who was born in Yonkers in 1956, moved to Teaneck when she was 9, belonged to the Jewish Center of Teaneck, and was an avid tennis player.
That would have been fine, except that Abbe was a girl. There were no girls’ teams. What to do?
For starters, let’s go back just a bit.
Abbe was an only child, and she had what sounds like a textbook happy midcentury childhood. “One of the best things was when I got my first dog, when I was 12,” she said. Her parents were Arthur and Shirley Seldin; Arthur’s Bronx-based business was being a wholesale distributor of cosmetics and notions. “He always had little gimmicks he brought home,” his daughter said. “Those were called notions. Things like Colgate toothpaste and Procter & Gamble’s Head & Shoulders shampoo and deodorant and paper products and pens and sunglasses.” (You’d probably have to be a notion wholesaler’s daughter to identify Head & Shoulders as a Proctor & Gamble product.)
“I loved going to my father’s place in the Bronx,” Ms. Seldin said. “It was on Ogden Avenue, in Highbridge. I played tennis after school there. It was cool.”
She was happy in Teaneck. “It was good,” she said. “I went to public school, and I went to Hebrew school all the way through at the Jewish Center, which was of course a different synagogue than it is today. It was Conservative then, and that definitely suited my mom and dad.” And she played tennis.
“When I turned 12 or 13, I started playing every afternoon,” she said. “I would go into the city after school to play in the Bronx, and on the weekends I’d go to Long Island, to the Port Washington Tennis Academy, or to Harlem.”
She really wanted to be able to play at home. She wanted to cut out the travel, and even more, “I really wanted to learn what it was like to play on a team.” But she couldn’t. There weren’t any for girls.
“When I was 15, I wanted to try out,” she said. ‘There was no girls tennis team, so I wanted to try out for the boys team. But I couldn’t.” The coach, Arthur Christiansen, “was really nice.” He wouldn’t have objected to her joining the team, Ms. Seldin said, but the Teaneck High School team was part of the Interscholastic League, and girls weren’t allowed to play on any of its teams. Yes, it was frustrating, well-meaning people told Ms. Seldin, but after all, the rules are the rules.
The family had considered hiring a lawyer, but never seriously. “We couldn’t afford that,” Ms. Seldin said. “And I didn’t want to do that to them.” Then Shirley Seldin had brainstorm. Maybe there was help to be had somewhere. “We figured out that maybe the ACLU in Newark could help. So my mom called, and that’s how we got hooked up to our attorney.” That was Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
They never met in person, but “I ended up speaking to her several times, I think five or six times over the course of the year that it took,” Ms. Seldin said. “She was soft-spoken. She was kind and understanding. She wanted to make sure that I was going to be able to hang out, because it might take a year or so. And I assured her that I was.
“When I first started to talk to her, she was a professor at Rutgers,” Ms. Seldin continued. “BY the time the case was over, she was a professor at Columbia. And she was only 39. She was very young. This was early in her career.
“I didn’t know that I would be talking to someone who would be one of the most famous people in the world,” she continued. “To me, back then, it was just a normal conversation.”
Why did Justice Ginsburg take her case? “Because at that time she was only taking cases of women’s quality, gender equality, race equality,” Ms. Seldin said. “That’s what she fought for.
“There was nothing equal for girls in tennis. There was nothing like a tennis team. And it was a noncontact sport, like golf and swimming,” where arguments about a girl’s smaller size making her likely to be injured would be irrelevant.
“Also, this was at the cusp — really, the beginning of the iceberg — of Title 9 cases. That was huge. After that, the rest of the 70s and 80s paved the way for women’s sports.”
The ACLU handled this case, as it did all cases, at no cost to the defendants.
In the end, Abbe Seldin won. She was allowed to try out for the boys tennis team, and she made it — but she did not play any matches.
During the time it took to get her the legal right to join the team, the coach who had supervised it — and whom she liked — was replaced by another man, who was deeply hostile to her and everything she represented.
That did not go well.
“There was a practice, on a rainy day. We were inside the high school, and the coach had us doing exercises. He knew nothing about tennis” — he’d been a football coach, Ms. Seldin said — “and he had us do a football exercise. We had to climb the stairs with our arms, with someone holding our legs.
“Obviously this is not a tennis exercise, and a girl does not have the same upper body strength as a boy. I was a strong kid, but I was skinny. But I did it — and when I got to the top of the stairs, the guy dropped my legs, and I went back down the stairs on my belly.
“I had the wind knocked out of me. It took me a minute to get my bearings. I didn’t cry in front of them. I walked out of the door, I walked out of the school, and I went home to my mom. When I got home, I said ‘This is not for me.
“‘I’m glad that we did it, but this is not right for me.’
“So I never got to play a match. I quit.”
Despite that end to her stint on Teaneck’s tennis team, “There are no regrets from me,” Ms. Seldin said.
“It taught me about discrimination. And it helped me in so many ways. It helped my self-confidence. It helped me in my career. It gave me the ability to speak up for what needs to be done.”
Ms. Seldin lives on Cape Cod now; for about 35 years she worked in marketing, changing as techniques, technologies, and the world around her changed. Now, she’s in real estate, which she loves.
She played tennis for many years, she said; “I was a tennis pro out of college, and I was the youngest person to ever get certified by the United States Professional Tennis Association. I was certified at 21, and I kept up my certification, although I have not taught tennis since I was about 24.”
And she still plays, “with my two new titanium knees, I am very strong in the game,” she said. “I am always advising my friends.”
And, she added, despite the many interviews she’s done since Justice Ginsburg died, she was particularly pleased to talk to the Jewish Standard. “My parents read it every week,” she said.