Ruth Bader Ginsburg is fierce. That’s the take-away from the social media inspired “Notorious RBG,” a newly published look at the life of the second female justice appointed to the Supreme Court. While highly entertaining, it is also informative and taught me a lot about the evolution of women’s rights in the United States as well as the woman who helped to cultivate the movement.
RBG’s life story is fascinating. She got a law degree when women just did not get law degrees; in fact, she had to go to two different law schools to complete her education. Her dedication to her education was such that she earned her degree after caring for her husband Marty during his first cancer battle as well as their young daughter.
That law degree would be the first on a long, impressive path: law lecturer at Rutgers, tenured professor at Columbia Law (her alma mater), co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project, and finally a judge for the appeals circuit in D.C. before being appointed to the Supreme Court by President Clinton. All along the way RBG was living by a set of values that was not just different, it was unheard of. People didn’t know why she wanted to work, or why Marty “let” her work. At one party she attended while they were both Harvard Law students, she was asked by the dean why she (and the other female students) felt they should be there when they took away spots from men who could be in the law program. Her response? She wanted to be a better conversation partner for her husband.
That story BOTHERS me. But what I like about it is it shows that our hero is not a revolutionary. At that time, she knew that the best thing for herself and her female classmates was not “teaching the men a lesson.” It wasn’t a teaching moment. The track had to be laid, quietly and with foresight, to build an environment to support lasting change. That’s what she continues to do today. She had issues with Roe v Wade, for instance, because it was too much change, too fast, and didn’t allow for society to keep up. How much grace, intellect, and courage does it take for a person to say, “No, not yet. We are not quite ready.” That is the wisdom of RBG.
So many stories in this book are incredible. The 56 year love affair she had with her husband, Marty, also an accomplished attorney, brought me to tears. His cooking skills and humor kept her alive and loved until she lost him (like her beloved mother) to cancer. Her two different collars that are famous in the Court – each one signifying a different personal opinion of the decision being handed down. There is even a brief bit of humor for those who, like me, are employed in the civil service industry, and wonder about the mundane restrictions we need to impose on the public that we “serve.”
Now, let me get past the title. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is NOT a rapper (I know, it’s hard to believe). The Notorious RBG was a Tumblr that was known for it’s hilarious likenesses of the justice disapproving of all sorts of things in a witty manner. This became popular a few years back, when RBG went on a dissent offensive against the conservative majority on the Supreme Court. As she felt the need to read her dissents aloud, in order to bring her grievances to the public, RBG was making waves like she never had before. The Tumblr, along with its memes, came to life and swiftly grew in popularity.
I just so happened to come up on the waiting list at the library for this book a few days before the death of Antonin Scalia, which made reading it all the more interesting. A lot of articles were printed about RBG’s unlikely friendship with the staunchly conservative Scalia, and the book includes some amusing photographs and anecdotes of the two of them, as well. Timelines, excerpts from famous opinions that are picked apart, sentence by sentence, by law professionals, photos, and tons of memes make this book entertaining and educational. The subject is its heart, though, and what a fascinating subject (and what a big heart).