RBG: First in Her Class

Forward Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Ju­lia M. Klein ●


Al red A. Knop , 752 pages, $35 Among the virtues of Jane Sher­ron De Hart’s mag­is­te­rial and timely bi­og­ra­phy of U.S. Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bader Gins­burg is that it prompts re­flec­tion on what it takes — for a woman in par­tic­u­lar — to reach the sum­mit of pro­fes­sional ac­com­plish­ment. Or, more pre­cisely, what it took in that not-so­long-ago era of sex-seg­re­gated clas­si­fied ad­ver­tise­ments and other forms of gen­der-based dis­crim­i­na­tion.

Gins­burg, nom­i­nated to the Supreme Court in ƒ„„… by Bill Clin­ton, was blessed with not only a first-rate in­tel­lect and a prodi­gious work ethic, but also with luck. De Hart, an emerita pro­fes­sor of his­tory at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Bar­bara, sug­gests that her cul­tural her­itage also mat­tered — that the †‡-year-old ju­rist’s com­mit­ment to so­cial change is rooted in tikkun olam, the Jew­ish im­per­a­tive to re­pair the world.

What is un­ques­tion­able is that Gins­burg’s le­gal ca­reer — as a pi­o­neer­ing fem­i­nist ad­vo­cate, law pro­fes­sor, fed­eral judge and Supreme Court Jus­tice — has played a con­sid­er­able, and in­creas­ingly cel­e­brated, role in low­er­ing the very bar­ri­ers that made her ac­com­plish­ments so rare.

In re­cent years, Gins­burg’s blis­ter­ing Supreme Court dis­sents have made her a pop cul­ture icon, spawn­ing T-shirts, In­ter­net memes and a Ž‘ƒ‡ book, “No­to­ri­ous RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Gins­burg.” Gins­burg’s close friend­ship with the late U.S. Supreme Court jus­tice An­tonin Scalia, in de­fi­ance of their po­lit­i­cal di˜er­ences, in­spired Der­rick Wang’s comic opera, “Scalia/ Gins­burg.” This past spring an ad­mir­ing doc­u­men­tary, “RBG,” di­rected by Betsy West and Julie Co­hen, showed Gins­burg work­ing out with a per­sonal trainer and em­brac­ing her pop-cult sta­tus. A fea­ture film slated for Christ­mas re­lease, “On the Ba­sis of Sex,” di­rected by Mimi Leder and star­ring Felic­ity Jones, will fo­cus on Gins­burg’s path-break­ing ƒ„œ‘s lit­i­ga­tion.

Some of the ob­sta­cles Gins­burg her­self en­coun­tered now seem as­ton­ish­ing as well as in­fu­ri­at­ing. De­spite a glit­ter­ing aca­demic record — she earned a cov­eted spot on the Har­vard Law Re­view be­fore trans­fer­ring to Columbia and grad­u­at­ing tied for first in her class — Gins­burg was rebu˜ed uni­ver­sally by cor­po­rate law firms, in­clud­ing the one where she had com­pleted a sum­mer clerk­ship. In ƒ„‡„, women lawyers were an anom­aly, and Jews, too, still faced dis­crim­i­na­tion. The fact that Gins­burg was mar­ried and a mother didn’t help.

In De Hart’s telling, only the force­ful in­volve­ment of one of her Columbia pro­fes­sors, Ger­ald Gun­ther, sal­vaged her prospects. He strong-armed and ca­joled a fel­low Columbia law alum into o˜er­ing her a ju­di­cial clerk­ship. Not sur­pris­ingly, Gins­burg ex­celled. After a stint study­ing the Swedish le­gal sys­tem, she chose a teach­ing ca­reer, start­ing at Rut­gers Law School be­fore mov­ing on to Columbia.

Gins­burg’s char­ac­ter and for­ti­tude were man­i­fested along the way. Raised in the im­mi­grant strong­hold of Flat­bush, in Brook­lyn, Ruth “Kiki” Bader was an avid reader whose early in­flu­ences in­cluded Anne Frank and Hen­ri­etta Szold, founder of Hadas­sah. She suf­fered a dev­as­tat­ing loss when her mother, Celia Bader, died of can­cer just shy of Gins­burg’s high school grad­u­a­tion.

Re­served and sto­ical, Gins­burg kept her trou­bles mostly to her­self. Over the

years, she out-per­formed and out­worked her male com­peti­tors, pulling col­le­giate all-nighters long into adult­hood and re­fus­ing to al­low ei­ther ill­ness or grief to de­rail her.

Her great­est piece of luck seems to have been her mar­riage to her Cor­nell Univer­sity school­mate, “the clever, supremely con­fi­dent” Martin D. Gins­burg, who would be­come not just a prom­i­nent tax lawyer but also the most ac­com­mo­dat­ing and sup­port­ive of hus­bands.

As De Hart re­lates the story, “Marty” spied Ruth Bader on cam­pus and asked his room­mate to ar­range a date. The ro­mance be­gan slowly, as a close friend­ship, but gath­ered steam. De Hart quotes a male friend’s rec­ol­lec­tions: “Ruth was a won­der­ful stu­dent and a beau­ti­ful young woman. Most of the men were in awe of her, but Marty was not. He’s never been in awe of any­body.”

De Hart, who was able to in­ter­view both Gins­burgs and many of their in­ti­mates, seems en­tirely smit­ten with Marty Gins­burg. She re­peat­edly touts his in­tel­lect, hu­mor, warmth and culi­nary prow­ess — ac­quired, it seems, partly in self-de­fense, given his wife’s hope­lessly bad cook­ing.

Not only was Marty Gins­burg un­threat­ened by his bril­liant spouse, he was un­abashedly her booster. A tax case he brought her — in­volv­ing dis­parate tax treat­ment ac­corded to a man, Charles E. Moritz, car­ing for his mother — helped launch her fa­mous se­ries of equal-pro­tec­tion cases. Later, her hus­band lob­bied for her ju­di­cial nom­i­na­tions, call­ing politi­cians and so­lic­it­ing let­ters on her be­half from their wide net­work of in­flu­en­tial friends. In his fi­nal, touch­ing note to her be­fore his death, in ”•–•, of can­cer, he writes, “What a treat it has been to watch you progress to the very top of the le­gal world.”

For all its en­gag­ing bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tail, the heart of “Ruth Bader Gins­burg” is De Hart’s anal­y­sis of the –˜th Amend­ment cases that Gins­burg ar­gued as di­rec­tor of the Amer­i­can Civil Lib­er­ties Union’s Women’s Rights Project and later ad­ju­di­cated from the bench. De Hart makes the point that Gins­burg’s grad­u­al­ist ap­proach as an ad­vo­cate was highly strate­gic, if not uni­formly suc­cess­ful.

Writ­ten in clear lan­guage and grounded in his­tor­i­cal con­text, these pages ably ex­plain Gins­burg’s in­flu­ence in shap­ing the evo­lu­tion of the stan­dards by which judges as­sess dis­crim­i­na­tion against dišer­ent groups in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. For some read­ers, though, a dis­cus­sion larded with terms such as “strict scru­tiny” and “ra­tio­nal ba­sis” may prove less com­pelling than Gins­burg’s per­sonal story.

De Hart her­self de­serves a nod for for­ti­tude. This bi­og­ra­phy was –› years in the mak­ing — not least be­cause a ”••œ Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire de­stroyed her home, her re­search and her man­u­script. She hardly could have been blamed for giv­ing up. For­tu­nately, one for­mer re­search as­sis­tant had re­tained ear­lier drafts of some chap­ters, and De Hart was able to back­track and re-cre­ate the rest. We should be grate­ful that she did.

Ju­lia M. Klein is the For­ward’s con­tribut­ing book critic. Fol­low her on Twit­ter, @Ju­li­aMKlein


PLEDG­ING HER TIME:Gins­burg de­liv­ers the oath of al­le­giance at a nat­u­ral­iza­tion cer­e­mony.

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