This book should be mandatory reading for all first-year female law students. Strike that—it should be mandatory for all female attorneys. If there is one figure who has paved the way for women attorneys, women in general and the cause of gender equality, it is Ruth Bader Ginsburg. This biography is artistic, featuring charts, cartoons, recipes and timelines. But it is also comprehensive.
To understand Justice Ginsburg’s opinions, we must understand her early life. Her father was a Jewish immigrant furrier from Odessa; her mother a daughter of Eastern European immigrants who always longed for an education. Ginsburg would often say that her mother was the most intelligent person she ever knew.
Raised in Brooklyn, it became clear at a very early age that Ginsburg was profoundly gifted. She attended Cornell University where she met the love of her life, her steadfast supporter Martin Ginsburg. They both were accepted at Harvard Law School, married after graduation from Cornell but postponed law school while Martin went to the Army in Oklahoma. Ruth applied for a federal job and mentioned she was pregnant, her government ranking dropped to the lowest possible pay scale and responsibility level. This incident later influenced her pregnancy-related litigation.
In 1956, Ginsburg entered law school as one of only nine women in a class of 500 and the mother of a toddler. She was one of only two women to make the law review. She also tended to her husband who was diagnosed with cancer while in law school.
When Martin found a job in New York upon graduation, Ruth asked the dean of Harvard Law School if she could take classes in Columbia Law School and still obtain a Harvard degree. He refused. She became one of the few students ever to serve both on the Harvard and Columbia Law Reviews. At Columbia, she graduated tied for first place in her class. Despite this, Associate Justice Felix Frankfurter, who held the so- called Jewish seat on the Supreme Court, refused to hire her because she had kids and a sick husband. Her constitutional law professor at Columbia pleaded to get her a clerkship with Southern District Judge Edmond Palmieri. After clerking, she moved to Sweden, learned Swedish and wrote a book on civil procedure in Sweden. Her supportive husband stayed home, worked and raised their daughter, Jane.
Although Columbia Law School had no female professors, Ginsburg was rejected and began her teaching career at Rutgers and simultaneously joined the ACLU, where she co-founded the ACLU’s Woman’s Rights Project. It was here that she began building a nationwide reputation as a top attorney, particularly in the area of gender discrimination. She argued many cases before the U.S. Supreme Court for the ACLU, including Reed v. Reed, which held that administrators of estates could not be named in any way that discriminated between sexes. In Struck v. Secretary of Defense, an Air Force nurse was told to quit her job or get an abortion when she became pregnant. Ironically, abortion was illegal at the time. She advocated for women who had been forced to choose between their pregnancies and their jobs whether in the military (Struck) or teaching (LaFleur v. Cleveland Board of Education).
Ginsburg’s search for gender equality was not reserved for women. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, she represented a father who was denied Social Security parental work benefits because he, a widower, wanted to care for his son full time. Similarly, her client in Califano v. Goldfarb, was a widower who, unlike a widow, had to struggle for survivor benefits.
Eventually in 1972, Columbia Law School recognized its error and hired Ginsburg to the faculty. She became U.S. District Court judge for the District of Columbia just under the wire at the end of the Carter presidency. She faced difficult years in which Reagan and Bush stocked the court with conservatives like Scalia, Thomas, Bush and Starr. Her ever-accommodating husband stopped practicing law and taught in Georgetown to be with her in Washington.
There are a number of factors that contributed to Ginsburg becoming in 1993 the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. She possesses an extraordinary intellect and she had the complete support of her “life partner,” as she called him, who liked to brag that she made law review and he didn’t. He died in 2010.
With an unparalleled work ethic, Ginsburg is known to work late into the night. She is indefatigable. She has the personal courage and strength to have beaten cancer not once but twice and to work out at the age of 82 on a daily basis with a personal trainer. Most importantly, she believes in her life’s mission “to help repair tears in her society” with all her heart.
Unfortunately, some of her greatest legal writing has been in her dissents most notably Shelby County v. Holder, which eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965; Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., Bush v. Gore and Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. These cases have had an enormous impact in the areas of voting, reproductive rights, elections and campaign financing.
To the 32-something authors of “Notorious R.B.G,” Ginsburg seems effortless and stylish in her pursuit of justice. They are adept at describing how gracious Ginsburg can be to anyone who is not like-minded. She maintains a close relationship with Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she clashes on almost every legal issue. Ginsburg’s mother instructed her to “be a lady,” she has said. “That meant always conduct yourself civilly, don’t let emotions like anger or envy get in your way.”
In a 2015 interview, Ginsburg said, “I just try to do the good job that I have to the best of my ability.” The authors dedicated this book to “the woman on whose shoulders we stand.”All women stand on the shoulders of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but particularly female attorneys who would not have the opportunities available to us all had it not been for this humble, brilliant, remarkable girl from Brooklyn.