The Pathbreaking Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Pathbreaking Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s Notorious RBG is an insightful and charming account of a woman who, by challenging unjust and sexist laws and defending constitutional definitions of equality over a period of two decades, defined and articulated many of the freedoms that Americans—both men and women—enjoy today.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, April 2016 (National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution / Flickr)

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
Dey Street, 2015, 227 pp.

In this playful yet serious book, two dedicated young biographers have chronicled the life and work of one of the leading jurists of our time, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Replete with illustrations and quotes from her decisions, and with serious attention to her many roles—as a civil rights lawyer, a law professor, and ultimately, a judge on the Supreme Court of the United States—this biography of one of the most notable women in United States history comes alive. Beyond the account of her contributions to our legal structure, it is also a love story of RBG (as the authors refer to her) and her husband, Marty Ginsburg, who took pleasure in her brilliance from the time they met in college. It recounts their mutual decisions to work in the legal profession, and the professional and personal support they gave each other throughout their lives.

Irin Carmon, a journalist, and Shana Knizhnik, a former law student, dug into the archives, interviewed RBG’s friends, colleagues, and kin, and combed through Supreme Court documents, texts, family photographs, and journal articles for the book. The result is an insightful and charming account of a woman who, by challenging unjust and sexist laws and defending constitutional definitions of equality over a period of two decades, defined and articulated many of the freedoms that Americans—both men and women—enjoy today.

The book starts with RBG’s childhood and young adulthood. Although always concerned about injustice, Ruth Jean Bader didn’t initially think about becoming a lawyer. The decision was influenced by her attachment to Marty, her boyfriend at the time at Cornell University. Marty was eager that they, as a couple, share their work as well as their personal lives. She might have become a doctor, had he chosen that life course, she later said. But Marty decided to become a lawyer and since the law appealed to Ruth as well, they began the intellectual and personal partnership that led him to a successful career as a tax lawyer and her all the way to the Supreme Court.

Although not a conventional biography, the book takes us through RBG’s early years, the premature death of her mother, and her student days at Cornell. As a government major, she studied constitutional law and worked on a project on book burning. She learned the necessity of legal redress when Senator Joseph McCarthy targeted professors whom he accused of “anti-American” behavior because of their membership in Marxist political organizations. RBG’s constitutional law professor at Cornell, Robert Cushman, was stripped of his professorship because of McCarthy’s actions, an incident that influenced her own political outlook.

Soon RBG, with Marty in tow, moved on to Harvard Law School. But then, because Marty was obligated to serve as an army reserve officer, the two moved to an army base in Oklahoma for two years, where RBG working as a claims adjuster. There they had a child, Jane (who is now a professor at Columbia Law School). At the end of Marty’s service, RBG had to win readmission back to Harvard and entered the school as one of only nine women in her class; eventually she secured her place in the traditionally male sanctum of the Harvard Law Review. (Women were only admitted to Harvard Law School in 1950, and even then, only grudgingly.)

Life was not easy at the beginning of their marriage and careers. Marty Ginsburg developed testicular cancer and was bedridden in his last year of law school. RBG asked his classmates to bring him carbon copies of class notes. Often sleeping through the day, Marty would wake up at midnight, when he would dictate his papers to her; only then would she turn to her own work. A year ahead of her, Marty graduated from Harvard and got a job as a tax attorney in New York. Ruth, not wanting to be separated from him, decided to go to Columbia Law School to finish her degree, where she made law review for a second time and graduated first in her class.

From her earliest days as a law-school graduate, RBG faced multiple barriers to securing positions that a man with similar credentials could have easily attained, despite the advocacy of sympathetic professors. The otherwise liberal judge, Learned Hand, for instance, rejected her because he claimed he didn’t want to be constrained in using foul language in front of a woman. Her other advocates, however, didn’t hold such sexist attitudes; Gerald Gunther, a constitutional law professor at Columbia, negotiated a clerkship for her with Edmund Palmieri of the Southern District of New York. Palmieri, too, initially resisted employing her because she was a woman, but he later admitted that she was one of his best clerks.

She then went on to assist a professor with writing a book on comparative civil procedure. RBG accepted an offer to write the Swedish part, which required that she learn Swedish and go to Sweden, and so she did. The experience gave her a new perspective on women’s roles and rights. In Sweden, women were streaming into the workforce in large numbers and doing work nontraditional for their sex. Further, women had abortion rights. (In a much-publicized case in the summer of 1962, an American woman, Sherry Finkbine, who had taken a drug known to produce serious birth defects in the fetus, travelled to Sweden for an abortion, which was then illegal in the United States). These experiences fueled her growing dedication to challenging sexism, embedded both in common attitudes and in the law.

At the time when RBG attended law school, there were only fourteen women in the entire United States who held tenure-track jobs in law. RBG was eventually hired at Rutgers Law School, and in 1970, she taught her first class on women and the law. With other women faculty and law students from schools across the country she participated in the first “Women and the Law” conference in 1971. That year she also wrote her first brief to the Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed, a case that focused on a woman’s right to administer her dead son’s estate, initially denied because she was a woman.

As the woman’s movement progressed, RBG moved to Columbia Law School in 1972, becoming its first female tenured professor. In 1971 she had cofounded the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and published the first casebook on sex-based discrimination. These were years of ferment in the assertion of women’s rights, because of legislation created by the Equal Rights Act of 1964 denying discrimination on the basis of race and sex. Things were moving swiftly, and RBG led litigation teams that defined sex-based discrimination in a number of Supreme Court cases, including one regarding a man’s right to collect parental social security benefits after the death of his wife (formerly only widows could do so on the death of a husband). Her strategy was often to take cases where men suffered from sex discrimination.

After a decade of activism and scholarship, RBG was nominated by Jimmy Carter to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the premier federal court in the United States. And in 1993, President Bill Clinton chose her to serve on the Supreme Court.

I knew Ruth Ginsburg from her time at Columbia University, where I was researching women in the legal profession for my PhD dissertation, and I also met her at several conferences on women and the law, the Salzberg Global Seminar in Austria, and at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. And so, when the time came, I was one of a large number of academics and women in other strategic positions whom Marty Ginsburg called on to write letters to President Clinton vouching that RBG would be an advocate for women’s rights.

RBG has fulfilled that promise. She has been responsible for important decisions that have defined women’s place in the United States. She wrote the majority opinion that opened the Virginia Military Academy to Women in 1996. The sex discrimination case of Lilly Ledbetter and the abortion case of Gonzales v. Carhart laid out arguments that we continue to have about discrimination because of race or gender. And, of course, there are her notable dissents, including the case of Bush v. Gore.

Of particular interest in this book is the way in which RBG influenced some of the conservative members of the court. For example, in the case of a male worker who was denied the right to time off to care for his sick wife, she persuaded the court to rule that a man as well as a woman could be a caretaker. In an opinion that could have been written by RBG herself, William Rehnquist wrote, “stereotypes about women’s domestic roles are reinforced by parallel stereotypes presuming a lack of domestic responsibilities for men.”

The arrival of two other women on the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, bolstered Ginsburg’s presence, contributing to many important decisions and dissents—all of which are referred to in the book with useful and entertaining notes.

But lest the biography pay too much attention to the important cases RBG won and those she lost but wrote important dissents for, it turns in the last pages to the woman herself—to her daily workout, her clothes, her multiple illnesses (which didn’t deter her from her court duties at any time), and of course, her strong association with generations of feminist lawyers, from her earliest days as a lawyer, to becoming one of the most inspiring judges of this century.

Cynthia Fuchs Epstein is Distinguished Professor Emerita at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the author of Women in Law (Basic Books, 1981; second edition by University of Illinois Press, 1993).