Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a Life by Jane Sherron De Hart

My Aunt Diane and I have a tradition of exchanging books as holiday gifts. This year I was delighted to receive the new biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Jane Sherron De Hart. When RBG joined the Supreme Court as the second female justice, I was one of few women studying Political Science at M.I.T. In the new Millenium, M.I.T. has worked to correct its gender bias and the Supreme Court has increased female representation, however Roe v. Wade is under direct attack. Why now? The answer can be found in De Hart's biography of the person who has devoted her life to gender equality.

Ruth was born to impoverished Jewish immigrants and needed a scholarship to get to college. Even though Ruth graduated first at Columbia Law School (tying with a man), she faced double discrimination as a Jew and as a working mother. No corporate law firm would offer her a job. A judge only agreed to hire her as his clerk when a Columbia Law professor promised that a male classmate would take Ruth's place if she failed.

Ruth found a more welcoming work environment in academia and at the ACLU. To promote equality as a gender-neutral concept, Ruth often argued cases representing men in traditional female roles such as dependent widowed caregivers in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld. In winning this Supreme Court case unanimously in 1975, she created legal precedent to protect women from discrimination as well. The goal of feminism is gender equality, which is no more radical than civil rights. Although Ruth was a successful lawyer, she realized that she would be more effective on the other side of the bench. Having a like-minded husband, who was willing to help with childcare and do all the cooking, allowed her to pursue her dream.

Photo via Wikipedia
In 1993 Ruth Bader Ginsburg was considered a moderate judge when President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court, but now she is considered a liberal. De Hart makes a convincing argument that RBG's legal views have remained consistent while the Court has shifted conservative, contrary to the more liberal population. Her biography was published before the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh and the avalanche of state laws banning abortion, but the author predicted this attack on women's rights. As the Court swings, RBG remains the steady voice of reason. Her genius was in building consensus and reframing legal questions to get more progressive rulings. May she keep ruling!

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: a Life is not a fast read, unless you are my mother, who devoured my gift in under a week while recovering from back surgery. At 723 pages (150 of those are endnotes) it was too heavy to hold for long or to carry in a handbag. For months, I read a section every night before bed. Although written for the general reader, the style is more academic than commercial, but RBG's personal story humanized the text. I related to her struggles as a working mom and as a Jew, but sometimes De Hart's prose became a bit too flowery when recounting personal details as if the author was more comfortable with summarizing legal briefs. RBG is a few years older than my mother, and reading this biography brought home how much the world has changed in their lifetime and how grateful I am for their generation (my mom was at Smith College with Gloria Steinem) who fought for the rights that are now under threat once again. Read this New York Times bestseller book and be inspired to keep fighting for gender equality.

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@Barrie Summy