Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Truth About Ruth

Ever since it was published in 2015, I have been keen to get my hands on a copy of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. I couldn't find it in the bookshops I browsed but my local library came to the rescue and I have just enjoyed a week of reading.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG) has been a feminist hero of mine for three decades. During my undergraduate studies of American Constitutional Law and my thesis on the undermining of Roe v Wade, I repeatedly relied on the wisdom of RBG, the cases she argued and the opinions she gave. She was also the inspiration that lead me to law school.

RBG was appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States in 1993. During her 25 years on the bench she has written opinions and dissents on some of the most important civil rights cases to come before the court. In Ledbetter v Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co 550 US 618 (2007), the plaintiff was paid significantly less then her male colleagues working in comparable roles. RBG's dissent was read from the bench, arguing that with each pay check the company was reinforcing pay discrimination. In Gonzales v Carhart 550 US 124 (2007) and Burwell v Hobby Lobby 573 US __ (2014) , Ginsberg's dissents focussed on women's personal autonomy and equal rights to control fertility.

But long before she joined the Supreme Court, RBG had developed a solid reputation as a diligent, progressive litigator, committed to equality and human rights. Raised in Brooklyn, New York,  and educated at Cornell University, RBG's early career was marred by discrimination, in an age where women with young children did not work. She went on to be a professor at Rutgers Law School and later Columbia where she was the first woman to receive tenure. She co-founded the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and took six gender discrimination to the Supreme Court. In 1980 she was appointed to the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia.

Co-author Shana Knizhnik was a law student when she began the 'Notorious RBG' Tumblr blog as a tribute to the Supreme Court justice who routinely defended the rights of minorities and women. Journalist Irin Carmon interviewed RBG, and came together with Knizhnik to produce this wonderfully unique biography. While the book follows some elements of conventional biography, what makes the Notorious RBG so delightful is the inclusion of fan art, photos of RBG tattoos, even a recipe from RBG's devoted husband, the late Marty Ginsburg. The authors interviewed RBG's children, her clerks, her colleagues and even her personal trainer.

Each chapter is named after lyrics by the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie Smalls), a homage to a hip-hop music trailblazer who has influenced all who came after him. While pop culture permeates this book, it doesn't detract from the seriousness of the subject and the message it is trying to convey.

At 84 years of age RBG has no plans to retire. She is fit and healthy, her mind is sharp. Given the increasingly conservative make up of the court, she still has a lot of work to do. Long may she reign.