As a lawyer and a woman, you’d assume I would know more about the women on the Supreme Court than I do. Although I probably knew more about Ruth Bader Ginsburg than Sotomayor and Kagan, it was really only vague knowledge. I knew I liked Ginsburg’s opinions, and I agreed with her politics. I’d also heard something about cancer and falling asleep at some inappropriate place. Unfortunately, that’s about it.
I can’t remember where I first saw Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2015) by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, but both the topic and irreverence immediately drew me in. I was excited to learn more about such a groundbreaking woman in a fun way. With large, glossy pages, and lots of pictures, Carmon and Knizhnik provide a quick history of women in America for context, and then they focus on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life in particular. The book is full of interesting stories, detailing Ginsburg’s life from her childhood in Brooklyn to her most recent dissents on the Supreme Court. Every chapter begins with a relevant quote from the Notorious B.I.G. (with permission from his estate). This book doesn’t go into as much detail as a proper biography, which sometimes left me wanting more; and the writing sometimes felt a little choppy. However, I learned so many interesting details about RBG’s life, and I’m so glad I read it. I will give it five stars for content, timeliness, and originality.
I don’t think I had really appreciated just how groundbreaking the career of RBG (and Sandra Day O’Connor, too–another woman I’d like to read about now) really was until I read this book. RBG partly decided to go to law school because Harvard Business School didn’t accept women. When she attended Harvard, women had only been allowed in the law school for six years, and there were only nine women in her class. The Harvard dean asked the women in her class why they deserved a spot at law school over a male. At the time, RBG was embarrassed and muttered something about wanting to understand her husband’s career. Wouldn’t it just be delicious if she could have known the future and said, “So, I can be a Supreme Court Justice, asshole.”
I also did not know that RBG was co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU. She brought a number of important cases before the Supreme Court and had a huge impact even before becoming a judge. Once Clinton nominated RBG to the Supreme Court in 1993, there was pressure for her to downplay her role at the ACLU, which she refused.
“RBG did not apologize for the ACLU, for being a feminist, or for supporting abortion rights. ‘The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity,’ she said simply. ‘It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.'” (88)
Other interesting and unknown (to me) facts about RBG include a surprising friendship with Justice Scalia that involved opera outings and an elephant ride in India. Also, RBG is an incurable night owl and has her own personal trainer to stay in shape.
Perhaps most memorable for me, was the description of RBG’s relationship with her husband of over fifty years, Marty, who died of cancer in 2010. The two met as undergrads at Cornell before they both went to law school. He became a rich, successful tax attorney and his outgoing, playful personality was a perfect complement to the more serious RBG. They brought out the best in each other. It sounds like they had a much more progressive relationship than was common at the time, with both adjusting their careers for the sake of the other when it mattered.
“I have been supportive of my wife since the beginning of time,” he said, “and she has been supportive of me. It’s not sacrifice; it’s family.” (98)
“The principal advice that I have gotten from Marty throughout my life is that he always made me feel like I was better than I thought myself.” (99)
“…I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met at Cornell some 56 years ago. What a treat it has been to watch you progress to the very top of the legal world!! I will be in JH Medical Center until Friday, June 25, I believe, and between then and now I shall think hard on my remaining health and life, and whether on balance the time has come for me to tough it out or to take leave of life because the loss of quality now simply overwhelms. I hope you will support where I come out, but I understand you may not. I will not love you a jot less. Marty” (6/17/10–ten days before his death). (108)
I still cannot read that last note without tearing up. It was so refreshing to read about a husband who unabashedly loved and supported his wife. Without a doubt, and not discounting her hard work and pure talent in any way, she was able to get where she was because of his him.
Finally, RBG’s success was a little bittersweet since RBG had seen the same talent and drive in her mother, who would have been able to achieve so much more if she’d been born in another time.
“I have a last thank-you,” she said. “It is to my mother, Celia Amster Bader, the bravest and strongest person I have known, who was taken from me much too soon,” she said. “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.” (80)
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