Saturday, March 11, 2017

I Was a Stranger, Day 11: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, affectionately known as Notorious RBG, is a badass and a crusader for equal rights for all. "America is great because what makes America great is 'the right to speak one’s mind' and the 'idea of our nation being receptive to all people, welcoming all people.'" As the child of immigrants, she remains optimistic about the future of what she believes will be a welcoming America.

Last month my book group read Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Israeli-American journalist Irin Carmon and lawyer Shana Knizhnik. The book grew out of Knizhnik's viral blog,, which she started in a tribute to RBG after her fierce dissent in a voting rights case. I've long admired RBG, but did not know of her history, legacy, or brilliance until I read this book.

Some highlights:

  • She was raised to be independent, but a "lady." Few mothers of her era taught their daughters to be independent, love learning, and hold fast to their convictions. After her mother died, the day before she graduated from high school, she learned that her mother had scraped together $8,000 for her daughter's education. "I knew she wanted me to study hard and get good grades and succeed in life, so that's what I did."
  • She broke new ground wherever she went, so she had to be twice as good as her male colleagues. When she entered Harvard Law, she was one of nine women in a class of 500. She was ranked first in her class at both Harvard and Columbia, where she transferred her senior year, but when she graduated, she was turned down by 14 law firms (she was a woman, a mother, and a Jew) she became a professor. She also founded the Women's Rights Project at the ACLU. Eventually she became the first tenured female professor at Columbia Law School. She was one of the first women nominated to a federal appeals court...and of course, President Bill Clinton's first nomination and the second woman (and first liberal, Jewish one) to be named to the Supreme Court).
  • She fought for women's rights AND men's rights long before she became a judge. While  a litigator for the ACLU Women's Rights Project, she represented a pregnant woman in the military who was told she had to have an abortion or leave the military (she wanted to give the baby up for adoption). It was all about reproductive rights and equality for women, including the right to make a choice about not having an abortion. In another case, she represented a man whose wife had died in childbirth and who wanted to get access to his wife's social security benefits so he could care for their child. RBG demonstrated that men were also harmed by gender inequality. 

  • She quoted Sarah Grimke, the abolitionist and suffragette, when arguing a case before the Supreme Court. "She spoke not elegantly, but with unmistakable clarity. She said, 'I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.'"
  • She is always evolving. She talks about how much she learned from the new crop of female law students (when she was teaching at Columbia Law), who made demands while students of her generation were afraid of making a splash. She recalls that time to be pivotal in her awakening. While soaking up everything she can read, she continues to learn and evolve, now wanting to tackle implicit bias.
  • She's pragmatic while also being radical. "If she didn't have this sort of conventional, traditional life with a husband and children, she would be seen as a flaming radical because of what she was working for," said Knizhnik in an interview with Rolling Stone. "So much of her persona, so much of how she actually sees the work she's doing and getting done, is by making compromises, by being tactical, by being pragmatic, and trying to figure out: What is the long-term strategy? How are we going to move toward a society that is more equal, more egalitarian, but without alienating the people who may disagree with you along the way?"
  • Friendships and family are important to her. AND she attended the opera, went clothes shopping, and celebrated New Year each year with Justice Antonin Scalia. They were close friends. RBG respected Scalia deeply for his wit and warmth, even though they disagreed on just about every case they studied. She is a better person than I am!
  • She is a supportive boss, mentor, and colleague. She believes in bringing people along with her, and she didn't like being the only woman on the bench for a while. I was touched to learn that when one of her clerk's parents was dying, RBG sent a letter to say how proud they should feel about the person they have raised.
  • She had a great romance and marriage. Married over half a century, she and Marty Ginsburg supported each other through several cancer diagnoses, two children, and ambitious, fruitful careers. Marty wanted them to find a shared career focus so they could keep working together. He loved the fact they were both lawyers so they could bounce ideas off each other and learn about the law together. RBG's new mother-in-law handed her a pair of earplugs and told her, "I'm going to tell you the secret of a happy marriage: It helps sometimes to be a little deaf." Marty brought the fun to their marriage and did all the cooking. RBG's former clerk described their marriage: "RBG didn't have a husband the way many men have wives. The model was of equality, where they both were crazy superstars in their own realms." Their long marriage and relationship were what we should all aspire to. As she said, "There's full marriage and then there's skim milk marriage." Toward the end of his life, Marty told a friend, "I think the most important thing I have done is enable Ruth to do what she has done."
  • She does pushups and trains with a trainer. Seriously. She used to do 30 a day, and now she's down to 20. Aging, you know.
  • She loves good English and good grammar. She is a brutal editor and careful writer. She's been known to copyedit minor punctuation in a draft of a speech that was only going to be read, never published. She sent a letter an applicant for a clerkship who'd made a typo in her application, saying "Note the typo." (The candidate was not interviewed.) One of her mentors told her that her writing was a little overwrought, so she took a knife to her adjectives after that.
  • She has no plans to retire. “I will do this job as long as I can do it full speed, and when I can’t, that’ll be the time I will step down." I hope that is a very long time away.
The book ends with these instructions from RBG. They are simple but powerful:
  • Work for what you believe in.
  • But pick your battles.
  • And don't burn your bridges.
  • Don't be afraid to take charge.
  • Think about what you want, then do the work.
  • But then enjoy what makes you happy.
  • Bring along your crew. 

Read more of my "I Was a Stranger" entries here.

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