By Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Simon & Schuster. 288 pages. $39.99.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg has famously been given the moniker “Notorious RGB” — a pun on the name of the late rapper the Notorious B.I.G. – for her powerful dissents from the bench. We learn in her recently published book, “My Own Words,” that the Supreme Court Justice is also a notoriously bad cook. Her husband Marty, recalling one horrific pot roast recipe, explained, “Ruth is no longer permitted in the kitchen. This by the demand of our children, who have my taste.”
We are fortunate she spent her time elsewhere and has given us a wonderful collection of essays, speeches and legal writings, reflecting the trajectory of her life along with stories of other “waypavers” and “pathmakers“ whose insights, ideas and actions, drove enormous changes in the women’s rights movement.
Her book could not be more timely, published in the midst of this presidential election year when misogynistic comments and concepts have seemingly become embedded in our public discourse. The book’s narrative offers a positive counterweight to the negative language of ‘nasty’ women and ‘pussy-grabbing.’ I felt empowered upon reading Ginsburg’s reflections about the role women have historically played in rising above the fray to fight sexism and discrimination in our legal system.
The book begins with Ginsburg’s story about some of her earliest writings. The first selection is an editorial for her school newspaper, which she wrote at the ripe age of 13. While most of her teenage peers were writing about the glee club or school play, she penned an editorial endorsing the United Nations Charter, all the while discussing the principles of the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Ten Commandments and the Declaration of Independence, foreshadowing her intellectual spark and future career path.
But the fact that she was smart as a whip did not guarantee her success. Upon graduation from Columbia Law School with top honors in 1959, she received no job offer from any law firm in New York City, presumably because white shoe law firms were aghast that a woman, a mother and a Jew would dare think she was qualified for the job.
In spite of these barriers, Ginsburg pressed forward and was able to snag a clerkship with federal judge Edward Palmieri. She went on to become the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School. She also became an appellate litigator who shaped much of the feminist legal agenda of the 1970s, a decade when many landmark sex discrimination cases came before the Supreme Court.
One early sex discrimination client was a man. In the Moritz case, encouraged by Ginsburg’s tax lawyer husband, Ginsburg successfully defeated an IRS rule that denied single men a tax deduction for dependent care. The case gives insight into what became a key component of her litigation strategy: challenging gender stereotypes not only from a female perspective but also on behalf of men, making the point that sex discrimination means injustice for both men and women.
The tax discrimination case caught the attention of the director of the American Civil Liberties Union which then hired Ginsburg to take the lead in writing a Supreme Court brief in Reed v. Reed, the ACLU’s first sex discrimination case before the Supreme Court, which successfully challenged a state probate law that gave preference to a male administrator over a female. The book also provides her now famous ACLU brief in Frontiero v. Richardson where she argued that sex discrimination should receive the same heightened “strict scrutiny” that racial classifications receive. Sharron Frontiero was a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force who challenged the federal law’s less generous family benefits for female service members because that disparity violated her right to equal protection under the law. While Ginsburg lost the battle for designating sex as a suspect classification, she did win the Frontiero case and the court would later accept an intermediate standard of review for sex discrimination cases.
I was particularly touched by Ginsburg’s story of Captain Susan Struck, an Air Force officer who served as a nurse in Vietnam. Ginsburg recalls that when in 1970 Struck became pregnant while on the job she faced a stark choice: “have an abortion on the base or leave the service.” Captain Struck, a Roman Catholic, refused to have an abortion. According to Ginsburg, “she undertook to use no more than her accumulated leave time for birth and had arranged for the baby’s adoption immediately after birth.” Nonetheless she received discharge papers and subsequently sued the Air Force to remain in the service. While lower courts rejected Struck’s suit, the Supreme Court granted review. Fearing the government would lose the case, the Air Force granted Struck a waiver to the regulation and then moved to dismiss the case as moot. Ginsburg, hoping to keep the case alive, recalls how she called Captain Struck on the phone and asked her if she had been denied anything that justified opposition to the dismissal of the case. Struck replied, she wanted to become a pilot but that the Air Force did not provide flight training for women. Ginsburg recalled, “We laughed, agreeing it was hopeless to attack that occupational exclusion. Today, it would be hopeless, I believe to endeavor, to reserve flight training exclusively for men.”
Ginsburg is fascinated by society’s invisibles and underdogs — perhaps because their stories in some ways mirror her own. One chapter, “Remembering Great Ladies: Supreme Court Wives’ Stories,” is a reprint of a lecture she delivered on the wives of four Supreme Court Justices, three from the 19th Century — Polly Marshall, Sally Story, Malvina Harlan — and one from the 20th Century, Helen Herron Taft. Ginsburg views these wives as the justices’ “partners in life” and her devotion to bringing forth their stories reflects her respect for women whom history has forgotten: how they sacrificed for their husbands and family and yet managed to maintain their independence — a question that many a modern women still must grapple with.
She also pays homage to Belva Lockwood, a 39-year-old mother of two and experienced attorney, who in 1876 was denied admission to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court. Today, on the wall of Ginsburg’s chambers hangs a replica of a vote tally sheet showing the court’s 6-to-3 refusal. Lockwood was eventually vindicated: After relentless lobbying, three years later Congress overruled the Supreme Court with a decree stating that any woman possessing the necessary qualifications would be admitted to practice before the Court. Ginsburg urges women to embrace “Lockwood’s sense and steel to guard against backsliding, and to ensure that our daughters and granddaughters can aspire and achieve.”
There are also male heroes. First among them is her now deceased husband Marty, who was her “constant uplifter.” She credits him for accepting early on that she was not going to play a traditional 1950s housewife. I would have liked to know more about their husband-wife dynamic and whether the unusual relationship they had for their generation ever caused tension between them. I was curious as to how Ginsburg managed an evidently successful marriage and raising two children as well as being a hard-charging and eminently successful lawyer. I am confident many of us would appreciate her guidance about managing these different roles that she played.
Two chapters in the novel are dedicated to her relationship with Justice Antonin Scalia, a conservative icon, who may have been her ideological foe on the Court but was also a dear friend. At his memorial service this past Spring, she recalled how they first became buddies while sitting on the D.C. Circuit, each sharing a profound love for the opera (another chapter in the book republishes a parodic opera written by a law student-composer that is filled with Verdi-like arias about their differences in interpreting the Constitution, his originalist philosophy versus her more liberal interpretation). Ginsburg recalls how when she received a draft of a Scalia dissent, she was forced to hone in on the “soft spots” of her majority opinion and that his “searing criticism” made her final drafts more persuasive.
She also suggests that Scalia’s endorsement during her Supreme Court nomination process may have helped her clinch it. Scalia was asked, “If you were stranded on a desert island with your new Court colleague, who would you prefer, Larry Tribe or Mario Cuomo ?” — a reference to other contenders at the time. To which, Scalia immediately replied, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” Ginsburg then writes, “Within days, the president chose me.” In a day and age, when the U.S. is so bitterly polarized between red states and blue states, liberals and conservatives, reading about their friendship and how their differences made them better at their jobs and that they could be each others’ champions, was quite refreshing.
Overall, however, I was inspired by the book’s upbeat nature and its tone of optimism about the pace of change for women. At one point she asks, “What is the difference between New York City garment district bookkeeper and a Supreme Court Justice?” Her answer: “One generation, my life bears witness, the difference between opportunities open to my mother, a bookkeeper and those open to me.” In that line she marvels at her own narrative and the dreams she was able to pursue that her mother could not. In many ways, Ginsburg’s dramatic rise is a microcosm of the vast social changes that gave her and other women who came of age in the latter half of the 20th century, many more freedoms than any previous generation ever had experienced. Indeed, these stories remind us where we came from, how we got here, what is left to be done and possibly most importantly, that one woman, the daughter of a New York City garment worker, can change so much. Which means, of course, that each of us has something to contribute.