As a young woman practicing law in New York City, I am blessed with many wonderful, generous mentors and role models. But would I have become an attorney if I belonged to a different, older era? Could I have? Women were not always welcome in the legal profession. In 1873, nearly a century after this country’s formation, women were still not admitted to the bar. When confronted with the constitutionality of excluding half of the population from the bar based solely on their gender, the Supreme Court swiftly relegated women to the kitchen and not to the courtroom. The Supreme Court declared that the “paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfil the noble and benign offices of wife and mother” (Bradwell v. State of Illinois, 83 U.S. 130, 141 ). This divine, domestic role, this “law of the Creator” rendered women “incompetent fully to perform the duties and trusts that belong to the office of an attorney and counsellor.” Since the Court delivered this opinion — an opinion that often appears to the contemporary, urbane lady as a quaint relic of ancient civilization; but is it really so? — the status of women in the legal industry and women in the law has evolved. For this, we owe our thanks to Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Two new biographies on Ruth Bader Ginsburg — Sisters in Law by Linda Hirshman, and Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik — explore Justice Ginsburg’s life story, her advocacy, her role on the Supreme Court, and her as an icon. The books vary in style but echo each other in substance. Hirshman’s writing, which juxtaposes Justice Ginsburg’s story against that of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s, is more classically written and academic. Contrastingly, Carmon and Knizhnik’s writing is a visual ode to Justice Ginsburg (and the book that cult followers of Justice Ginsburg never knew how much they needed). Using photos, timelines, annotated briefs, as well as intimate interviews, Notorious RBG affectionately illustrates Justice Ginsburg as champion for human rights and contemporary icon.
Sisters in Law, which was previously thoughtfully reviewed for this publication, primarily argues that Justice O’Connor’s prior presence on the Court paved a path for Justice Ginsburg. In her book, Hirshman seamlessly weaves Justice Ginsburg and Justice O’Connor’s lives, providing an intriguing account of each and a fascinating contrast of both. While Justice O’Connor is painted as the lively socialite from the Midwest who works within the establishment, Justice Ginsburg is portrayed as the brainy Brooklynite who works against the establishment. Both had husbands who supported their ambitions; both are mothers. These similarities, emphasized by Hirshman, can be inspiring to young women, eager to succeed not only in the professional realm but also in the private.
Notorious RBG, also previously reviewed for this publication, celebrates Justice Ginsburg and her impact on women’s rights. The book contains the same important factual details as Hirshman’s, but is adorned with photos, timelines, and annotated briefs. These details may appear, at first, kitschy. The Supreme Court — and the Justices belonging to it — is a serious institution. This seriousness can seem stern to outsiders. Notorious RBG disposes of this austerity. Justice Ginsburg, her life, the Court, and the law become accessible and eminently readable in this book. While one might worry that the proper decorum required of this subject may get lost, it does not. Justice Ginsburg is respected and revered by her writers and readers throughout.
This relatable writing is important. Justice Ginsburg is a human rights champion, one who devotes her life to expanding the definition of “We the People.” A book that compels all readers from all backgrounds echoes this goal. (When reading this book, I wished that I were teaching this semester, if only for the opportunity to share this book with a class of young university students who may not be acquainted with the Court. The charts and annotated briefs, which draw distinctions and parallels, elucidate Justice Ginsburg’s intent, highlight important excerpts, and even point out arguments that Justice Ginsburg disfavored later in her career, would be an asset to any classroom.)
Both books emphasize Justice Ginsburg’s relationship with her mother and the impact of her mother’s untimely death on her career. Hirshman describes how before Justice Ginsburg “could read on her own, [she] would sit in her mother’s lap while Celia Bader read to her.” Justice Ginsburg and her mother developed a “ritual of weekly outings, Ruth to the children’s section of the library, which was above a Chinese restaurant, and her mother to get her hair ‘done.’” These early forays into books and ideas established the foundation for Justice Ginsburg’s future as a civil rights champion. Carmon and Knizhnik quote Justice Ginsburg’s nomination speech, where Justice Ginsburg said:
I have a last thank-you. It is to my mother, Celia Amster Bader, the bravest and strongest person I have known, who was taken from me much too soon. […] I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.
Her mother’s impact on her personal and professional choices is evident. Jeffrey Rosen describes, in a New York Times article, how Justice Ginsburg attributes “her deliberative temperament to her own mother, who admonished her constantly, once she reached her teens, to ‘be a lady!’” Being a lady means holding fast “to your convictions and self-respect … Anger, resentment, indulgence in recriminations waste time and sap energy.” Thus, being a lady does not mean being a wallflower. As Hirshman describes, when Justice Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court, she was sent a fax saying that the guys in law school called her by the nickname, “Bitch.” “Better bitch,” Ginsburg responded, “than mouse.”
And mousy, she is not. Justice Ginsburg is notorious for her dissents. According to Linda Greenhouse, Justice Ginsburg’s “first official act as a Supreme Court Justice” was dissenting. Her most famous recent dissent is in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, 134 S.Ct. 2751, where she declared, “The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.” These dissents fuel progress. Her fiery dissent in the Lilly Ledbetter case stated that: “Once again, the ball is in Congress’ court.” Congress took this metaphorical ball and threw it into action in accordance with Justice Ginsburg’s dissent. When discussing this favorable outcome in an interview with journalist Katie Couric, Justice Ginsburg remarked that the Act has changed conditions for working women by “giving women the courage to demand what they are entitled to.” Courageousness, demandingness, entitlement: These are not the qualities of a meek mouse but of a civil rights champion.
She is an intellectual icon and an incrementalist. Her strategy as a civil rights lawyer was “keep your eye on the ball of equality / and / slowly kick it down the field.” Not unlike today’s “Merkelism,” Justice Ginsburg has slowly but steadily worked to alter the landscape of the law. Every “favorable word” in another opinion became “a potential building block” for Justice Ginsburg in her goal to build a more equal United States. For this reason, Justice Ginsburg has been called “simply the most important woman lawyer in the history of the Republic.” Surely it can be agreed now that Justice Ginsburg is the most important Justice in the history of the Republic.
On top of all this, she is also a style icon. Justice Ginsburg’s aura of intellectual glamour is complemented by her sartorial glamour. She wears her trademarked jabots or collars and she has special jabots for when she delivers majority opinions or dissent. (I have reached peak fangirl-dom and incorporated the jabot into my own wardrobe.) Jeffrey Rosen writes how it is “hard not to be struck by [Justice Ginsburg’s] improbable glamour” and describes her as an “exquisite figurine.”
This glamour coupled with her intellectualism emphasizes what makes Justice Ginsburg a feminist icon. Not only is she intelligent and savvy; but she also cherishes beautiful things and a beautiful life. Her love story, her commitment to her husband Marty Ginsburg, and his commitment to her and her ambitions, is romantic, inspiring, and aspirational. She proves that maybe you can really have it all. “You can’t have it all, all at once,” she warns Couric. But maybe over a lifetime. She lives the life we strive for as young feminists.
I identify with Justice Ginsburg. Another bespectacled, brainy petite Jewish brunette from New York, I am professionally and personally inspired by her life. I understand that I can dream my dreams because she advocated for that. I had the good fortune of attending the Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law at the New York City Bar Association earlier this year. It was simultaneously a rock concert and religious experience. The room was packed, brimming with young women (even 50 years ago, the composition in the room would have been drastically different). After the program’s conclusion, adoring fans, myself included, flocked to Justice Ginsburg. With her security detail at her side, Justice Ginsburg walked through the throngs of admirers, the path opening in front of her.
Justice Ginsburg loves the opera. She has declared that if she “had any talent that God could give [her], [she] would be a great diva.” But an opera singer only sings one song with one voice. Justice Ginsburg amplifies us all and gives an enduring voice to generations of women. We sing, together, of equality.