According to John Kenneth Galbraith, all successful revolutions are the kicking in of a rotten door. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, no one has done more to revolutionize the status of women than Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In her new autobiography, Ginsburg describes her Brooklyn roots and the daughter, student, wife, mother, law professor, author, civil rights advocate, and federal judge who created equal opportunity for women and seemingly broke every barrier. The book proves that Molière was right; the greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.
Ginsburg employs a challenging format in the book, in which she embroiders key passages from her articles, speeches, legal briefs, and court opinions with details of her girlhood, education, marriage, law school professorships, landmark cases, judgeships, and judicial colleagues.
Mari Sandoz once wrote that the hills of one’s youth are all mountains. Born in 1933 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Ginsburg writes that her principal mountains were the “hypocritical rules and the inferior role assigned to women.”
Ginsburg writes that she acquired her resourcefulness from her mother, Celia, “who encouraged [me] to be independent and self-sufficient.” According to Ginsburg, her mother had “wished she’d had the chance to further her own education and career,” so was “very strong about my doing well in school and living up to my potential.”
Ginsburg’s earliest published writing was a June 1946 editorial that she penned as an eighth-grader for her school newspaper. The subject was the new United Nations Charter. The book notes that Ginsburg’s mother was an admirer of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose April 1946 appointment to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights likely inspired the piece.
Ginsburg attended Cornell University, majoring in government. She writes that she was influenced by two mentors, Vladimir Nabokov (novelist and literature professor) and Robert Cushman (constitutional scholar). Of Nabokov, Ginsburg recalls that he “changed the way [I] read and wrote.” Of Cushman, she notes that he raised her “consciousness” about civil liberties and urged her to go to law school.
If pessimism is the mark of a superior intellect, Ginsburg displayed both in a 1953 letter to the editor published in the Cornell Daily Sun. The piece questioned Attorney General Herbert Brownell’s proposal to admit wiretap evidence in federal criminal trials, cautioning that it “may place individual rights and liberties in peril[.]“
At Cornell, Ginsburg met her husband, Martin, whom she married following her 1954 graduation. She followed him to Oklahoma, where he performed his military service. During her time in Oklahoma, Ginsburg worked in a Social Security office. In this post, she received a demotion when she became pregnant.
In 1956, Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School, where her husband was already a 2L. Of about 500 students, the 1L class had just nine women. Despite these figures, Dean Erwin Griswold reportedly asked the women how they could “justify taking a spot from a qualified man.”
The book recounts Ginsburg’s 56-year marriage, which lasted until Martin passed away in 2010. Ginsburg refers to her husband as her best friend and life partner. A tax specialist who built a prominent career at large law firms and as a law professor, Martin Ginsburg promoted his wife’s career and actively helped raise their children (who, Ginsburg writes, much preferred his cooking).
At Harvard, Ginsburg’s academic success led to service on the Harvard Law Review. After her second year, however, Martin landed a job in New York. Following her husband, Ginsburg transferred to Columbia, where she served on the Columbia Law Review. Upon graduation, she was rejected as a potential law clerk by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, because of her gender.
After a stint in the early 1960s with the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure, Ginsburg served as a law professor at Rutgers between 1963 and 1972. At Rutgers, Ginsburg taught civil procedure but was informed that she would be paid less than male colleagues because her husband had a high-earning career.
Ginsburg’s first true calling in the legal profession was triggered by the 1964 enactment of Title VII. By the early 1970s, federal court dockets were populated with hundreds of discrimination suits. As Ginsburg’s devotion to gender equality issues evolved, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, where she became general counsel. By 1974, the ACLU was participating in over 300 discrimination suits.
One of the best parts of the book focuses on the five gender-discrimination suits that Ginsburg won before the Supreme Court in the 1970s, including Reed v. Reed (1971), in which the Court extended the Equal Protection Clause to women for the first time. Quoting from the Ginsburg’s legendary appellate briefs, the book richly details how she strategically turned modest cases into big victories against gender discrimination.
After a long tenure as a federal circuit judge (1980-93), Ginsburg was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the Supreme Court. Originally considered a moderate, Ginsburg has since become a progressive celebrity and a signature liberal voice on the court. Among the highlights, the book includes Ginsburg’s bench announcements in U.S. v. Virginia (1996) (striking down V.M.I’s male-only admission policy) and Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire (2007) (dissent; sex discrimination in pay). A model of judicial temperament, Ginsburg also includes moving tributes to three former colleagues, Sandra Day O’Connor, William Rehnquist, and Antonin Scalia.
At age 83, Ginsburg writes that she thrives on her work, follows a disciplined workout regime, and plans to remain on the court “as long as I can do the job full steam.” She has also stated that her former colleague, Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired at age 90, is her “model.” With the presidency of Donald Trump beckoning, liberals everywhere certainly hope so.