Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

Reviewed by Kristin

What could possibly turn a Jewish octogenarian grandmother into a pop-culture phenomenon?  After reading Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I’m not sure I can pin down an exact answer to that question.  (But I will certainly try.)  She’s much more than internet famous; RBG has served on the United States Supreme Court since appointed to that highest court by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

RBG was a pioneer early in her life.  When she was a young mother enrolled in law school in the 1950s,   her Harvard Law School class contained only nine female students.  All the women endured questions such as how could they justify taking a man’s place at the prestigious school.  Even as women were admitted to the law school, the playing field was not the slightest bit level.  Certain areas of the library were off limits to women.  The main law building had no women’s restroom.  In the face of professorial derision and societal disapproval, RBG persevered and excelled.  Due to family circumstances, she transferred to Columbia, earning a spot on the Law Review just as she had at Harvard, and graduated at the top of her class.

Nominated by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court.  O’Connor was followed by RBG in 1993, then Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010.  In the relatively short history of the United States, the Supreme Court has had 112 justices, only four of them women.

Co-author Knizhnik may have provided the impetus which made RBG a household name for the younger generations.  In 2013 Knizhnik created a Tumblr account in tribute to RBG’s dissenting opinion in the voting rights case Shelby County v. Holder.  This case weakened the power of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which protected poor and minority voters from discrimination.  Much fanfare ensued, with RBG’s image spreading like wildfire as a progressive symbol.  With captions such as “Fear the Frill” (referring to RBG’s lacy collars, often worn over her black robes), feminists of all ages have spread her image across the internet.  RBG is a collaborator, a uniter, a builder, willing to work to draw people together rather than to divide.  She is fierce in her defense of the disadvantaged and always ready to lead the way into battle for fairness and equality under the law.  In addition to her sharp mind, RBG is also known for her strict physical workouts.  As a concession to her age, she recently gave up water skiing.  However, she can still do twenty push-ups.  Of course she has to take a break after the first ten.  (Let me repeat: at age 84.)

An appendix gives guidelines on “How to Be Like RBG.”  Based on quotes from RBG herself, the headings include:
·         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.
·         Have a sense of humor.

This volume is accessible but informative, a bit irreverent, but still respectful.  It includes pictures of babies, little girls, and other women dressed up like RBG, with her tightly pulled back hair, large glasses, oversized robes and her well known collars.  Who knew that people would want to cosplay a Supreme Court justice?  I learned more about the relationships between justices, not just those tend to agree on their interpretations of the law, but those with widely varying opinions.  I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and it inspired me to read more about other figures in the federal judicial system.  But can they beat RBG?  Not likely.

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