I have to admit that I knew very little about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg before reading this book. I was aware of her dissent in the Hobby Lobby birth control case, but I was not aware of how tirelessly she has worked for equal rights throughout her career. In Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2015), authors Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik provide a thorough, yet highly readable and entertaining portrait of this influential woman.
Part of what makes RBG so remarkable is the simple fact that she’s a woman. She went to law school at a time when women were merely expected to follow their husbands and raise children. She was one of two women in her class to make the Harvard Law Review and became the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School. Most notably, in 1993 she became the second woman, one of only four, to sit on the Supreme Court. And she did it all married, with two children, defying stereotypes all around.
The thing that I was perhaps most surprised to learn was the indirect way in which RBG went about arguing for women’s rights. She took and won a series of cases in which men were discriminated against in their role as primary caretaker, a role that was previously assumed to be solely feminine. By claiming gender discrimination – and winning – she could use that as a precedent to lobby for women’s equal rights. In fact, she consistently asserted that she did not fight exclusively for women’s rights, but for equal rights for all. She exemplifies feminism in the best way possible.
If the reiteration of minute details turns you off of political biographies, rest assured that there is none of that here. Born from the #NotoriousRBG meme created by Knizhnik and classmate Ankur Mandhania, the book is a thoroughly 21st century amalgamation of traditional research and social media contributions. Portions of briefs and dissents from some of RBG’s most important and influential cases are included with annotations helping to explain the legal speak to lay readers (like me). Photos, a timeline of events, and even details of RBG’s workout accompany the text, set on beautiful glossy paper. There’s even an appendix filled with women dressed in tribute to the Justice. But where the book truly shines is in displaying for a younger audience how much this woman has fought, and how far we as a nation, have come in the struggle for equality:
Put another way, RBG was already a radical just by being herself – a woman who beat the odds to make her mark. Early in her career, RBG wanted to work at a law firm, maybe teach a little. The world as it was had no room for her. That injustice left her no choice but to achieve bombshells. It was easy to miss, maybe because it didn’t look like male bomb throwing. Or because she and her peers had transformed the world so much it was hard to remember, in retrospect and without living it, how hard it had been.
Though we may have miles to go, it’s important to remember how far we have come and who has done the work to get us there. Notorious RBG is an excellent introduction to politics and feminism and their effect on our everyday lives. It’s a book I would encourage every woman – and man – I know to read.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a biography, read a non-fiction book about feminism, read a book about politics]