The 1950 James Madison High school yearbook got one thing right: their class would produce a Supreme Court justice. But they backed the wrong horse. Joel Sheinbaum became a dentist. And Ruth Bader (later Ginsburg) made it to the court.
Normally, we don’t know too much about our Supreme Court justices. They’re mysteries, shrouded in their long black robes, handing down decisions about our country from their high perch. Their faces don’t decorate t-shirts. They’re not satirized on Saturday Night Live, they’re not popular Halloween costumes. Well, at least they weren’t. Until Ginsburg conquered the Internet.
In 2012, after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, a frustrated law student created a Tumblr post in honor of Ginsburg’s impassioned dissenting opinion (“Hubris is a fit word for today’s demolition of the VRA” Ginsburg wrote). She called it “The Notorious RBG”- a play on the Notorious B.I.G. aka Biggie. The name stuck. At first glance, it doesn’t look like the two had a lot in common. Ruth is a tiny, Jewish woman, and Biggie was a 300 pound rapper. But, as the author points out, they were both from Brooklyn and could pack a verbal punch.
Notorious RBG is a continuation of those initial internet posts. Part biography, part pop culture and part legal writings, the book is a love letter to Ginsburg. And there’s a lot to love. Back when she was in law school, I’m sure no one could have imagined a woman on the bench. In her orientation, one of her professors asked her how she could justify taking a spot away from a man. She panicked and told him it was so she could better understand her husband’s law career. She didn’t have access to the law school’s reading rooms. A judge refused to even consider her for a clerkship because he didn’t want to be forced to watch his language around women. She hid her pregnancy in fear of being fired from teaching. When she argued her first case before the Supreme Court, Justice Blackmun gave her a C+ in his diary, noting her as a “very precise female.”
She became a stealthy women’s rights lawyer, deliberately taking on cases concerning males who had been disenfranchised for taking on traditionally female roles. In doing so, she created a body of legal work that said no one’s rights should be diminished or denied due to their gender. It’s worth noting that a lot of prominent feminists at the time really didn’t like the backdoor way she was going about arguing equal rights-a fun reminder that our movement (like all others) has always had its fair share of
Some of the most touching aspects of the book concern Ginsburg’s relationship with her husband, Marty. My (very feminist) mom has told me that the most important decision I will make is who I’m going to marry, because it will impact every aspect of my life in a way that my career won’t. Ruth and Marty Ginsburg prove her right. He was her biggest cheerleader, waited for her outside her office, and made sure she remembered to eat. He once said “I think the most important thing I have done is enable Ruth to do what she has done.” They were married for 55 years until his death from cancer in 2010. The book includes a letter he wrote his wife 10 days before he died. You will cry.
Notorious RBG isn’t an unbiased review of a Supreme Court justice. It’s a celebration of an influential women. As a result, a lot of her more controversial stances are whitewashed, like her notorious 1993 speech where she denounced Roe v. Wade, saying the decision to legalize abortion should have been established on a state by state basis. But it’s still an inspiring read about a living legend. I work in an office full of lawyers and I’ve been recommending it constantly. Even those not of the legal persuasion would enjoy this book.