At the age of 15, Abbe Seldin didn’t know or care too much about gender discrimination or equal rights or other weighty subjects.
She just wanted to play tennis.
The problem was, Teaneck High School in New Jersey, where she was a sophomore, didn’t have a girls’ team. This was 1972, before the Title IX federal law had fully reshaped the amateur sports landscape for American girls and young women. And when Seldin asked school administrators if she could play with the boys, they refused.
So began Seldin’s brief, but meaningful connection with a young law professor named Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Early that year, Seldin’s mother, Shirley, had reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union. Ginsburg, who had just started there as a volunteer lawyer, and her colleague, Annamay Sheppard, quickly led the family to file a lawsuit in United States District Court in Newark, charging that the rules barring girls from competing alongside boys violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
Stories like Seldin’s can feel like footnotes in the life of Ginsburg, who became the second woman to be named to the Supreme Court and built a towering legacy crusading for gender equality. Yet they are indicative of her operating philosophy, that true progress in any realm was best attained in small, purposeful steps, with every increment carrying real significance.
And for Seldin, now 64, her brush with Ginsburg was a formative experience, one that shaped her view of society and of herself, buttressing a lifelong sense of self worth.
“It ended up being a great life experience for me,” she said in an interview this week. “A lot of the successes in my life came from the lessons I learned from that.”
Ginsburg, who died Friday, was teaching at Rutgers Law School in Newark — one of only a handful of female law professors in the United States at the time — when she began working for the A.C.L.U. in New Jersey. In 1972, she co-founded the A.C.L.U.’s Women’s Rights Project, which would tackle hundreds of gender discrimination cases in the next few years alone.
Seldin’s predicament at Teaneck High School, then, was right in Ginsburg’s wheelhouse.
“She saw her goal at the time as challenging the larger framework of gender discrimination as it existed throughout the country, and going piece by piece, step by step, fighting for this larger principle of gender equality and specifically equal protection under the 14th Amendment,” Shana Knizhnik, the co-author of “Notorious R.B.G.: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” and a staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society, said of Ginsburg.
She added, “It speaks to this larger philosophy of hers that there was no case too small and no arbitrary distinction in how men and women were treated in any aspect of society that she didn’t feel should be challenged.”
Seldin had four long phone conversations with Ginsburg as the case unfolded. As far as she remembers, the two never met in person. And though some details of those interactions have grown hazy over time, there are snippets of conversation, probing questions, gentle reassurances and generally positive feelings from those talks that have remained lodged in Seldin’s memory over the years.
“I remember she asked me, ‘How do you feel about going through with this?’ ” Seldin said. “And I said: ‘I want to do this. I really want to do this. I want the competition.’ ”
Ginsburg was soft-spoken, personable and kind, Seldin said. She recalled Ginsburg telling her that equality for boys and girls was overdue. Ginsburg, who later in life came to be known for a fierce fitness regimen, asked Seldin about herself and about tennis, about why she enjoyed playing the game.
For Seldin and her parents, pursuing the case was not meant to be some grandiose statement for civil rights. It was all about tennis.
Seldin inherited a love for the sport from her father, Arthur, who thrived in amateur tournaments around New York and New Jersey, collecting a stash of medals that she has kept.
She began playing seriously at age 11 and was a natural. She received instruction from top coaches, going to Harlem to work with Sydney Llewellyn, who coached Althea Gibson, and Port Washington, on Long Island, to work with Harry Hopman, who coached Vitas Gerulaitis and John McEnroe.
Teaneck had a girls’ tennis club, but the level was far below that of Seldin, who was a regionally ranked player with aspirations of playing professionally.
With Ginsburg leading the way, Seldin sued several Teaneck schools officials and New Jersey state agencies.
The case received considerable coverage in the local press and generated passionate debate in the community.
The head of the the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which was sued, contended at the time that there were psychological, physical and practical issues with having a girl play with boys. The association argued it would be difficult, for example, to treat a girl for injuries, like leg cramps, if there were no other women around.
At the same time, Arthur Christenson, the team’s coach, expressed support for Seldin’s cause, even though he was among those school officials being sued.
“I’m all for her,” he told The New York Times in 1972. “She’s an excellent tennis player. I’d like to see them change the rule.”
In time, the case was put on hold, and eventually dropped, after the state reversed course and agreed to allow girls to try out for boys teams. But though the result immediately opened new doors for young female athletes across the state, the payoff for Seldin herself was short lived.
Christenson left the job before Seldin joined the team, and the new coach was much colder to her, she said, creating an environment where many of the boys taunted and mistreated her without repercussion.
Early in the season, the coach put the players through a brutal conditioning workout that involved crawling up a stairway while someone held their legs up in the air behind them. Seldin recalled that when she was doing the drill, the boy holding her up abruptly dropped near the top of the stairs, causing her to tumble painfully back down on her chest.
“I ran home,” she said. “I was black and blue. And I told my mom, ‘I quit.’ So I never played.”
But tennis stayed in her life. Seldin went to college at Syracuse, where she became the first woman to receive an athletic scholarship from the school after reaching out to its chancellor, Melvin Eggers, and pressuring his administration. At 21, she became a certified professional.
“The case had given me the courage to go on and go further and fight for myself,” Seldin said.
Seldin, who lives on Cape Cod, Mass., still plays tennis, rumbling around on two reconstructed knees.
“I wore them both out,” she said, “but these titanium ones are excellent.”
As years passed, she watched as Ginsburg, the lawyer, ascended to the apex of her profession, and their long phone calls in the 1970s took on a new significance. Remembering the case filled her with a new sort of pride.
“I would always tell people, whether they believed me or not, ‘Hey, she was my lawyer,’ ” Seldin said. “I was so proud of that. I’d say, ‘Google me!’ ”