If you read one biography published this year, choose “Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life” by Jane Sherron De Hart (Knopf). It makes the case, in 752 pages, that the Notorious RBG, as Ginsburg, the 85-year-old Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, has become known in popular culture, was born and bred to promote and protect equal rights for minorities and for women.
“Justice, justice thou shalt pursue,” reads a placard at the entrance to Ginsburg’s judicial chambers at the Supreme Court in Washington. The meaning of that biblical imperative (Deuteronomy 16:20) was instilled in her from an early age. Born in Brooklyn in 1933, she took from her Jewish upbringing the aspiration of tikkun olam, repairing the world, as well as shared empathy for anyone subject to discrimination, as she herself was, she learned, when she saw a sign posted outside an inn in Pennsylvania that read, “No Dogs or Jews Allowed.”
Her mother Celia also modeled the importance of acts of lovingkindness. One such example was celebrating the young Ruth’s birthday every year at a Jewish orphanage in Brooklyn, the Pride of Judea, where they would all share ice cream and cake together. Ruth herself attended Hebrew school, the family celebrated Jewish holidays at home, and Celia marked the onset of Shabbat by lighting candles.
She retained her grounding in the ethical ideals of Judaism, despite her anger at being told, even as she sat shiva for her beloved mother, that men only could be counted as part of the minyan required to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. The death had occurred just two days before the 17-year-old Ruth’s high school graduation. Though Ruth remained outwardly calm — obeying her mother’s lesson to “be a lady” — inwardly she was incensed. From then on, she decided, she would be a secular Jew, proud of her heritage but no longer a practitioner of ritual observance.
That was among her first lessons, but not her last, that females were not necessarily considered equal. Even so, as an undergraduate at Cornell, she excelled, impressing her instructors and her classmates with her mastery of logic and reason, as well as her literary skill—qualities that would subsequently characterize her legal arguments, briefs and opinions. She also fell in love with Martin Ginsburg, whom she married shortly after they graduated.
Unusual for the 1950s, and even today too often, from the get-go, Marty believed in a dual-career marriage akin to a team of equals. Indeed, throughout their 56 years together, each cheered the other on professionally while also sharing much of the parenting for their two children. In his own legal career, Marty distinguished himself as one of the country’s top tax lawyers and law professors—and also excelled as a self-taught gourmet chef, an expertise, he liked to joke, developed as self-protection from his wife’s very limited culinary skills. Their shared passion for opera and travel also offset her lifelong tendency towards workaholism.
They lived their marriage as an equally shared journey, but it was a concept in deep contrast to the ingrained gender stereotypes of the 1950s. When she accompanied Marty to Oklahoma for his military service, for instance, her employer, the local security service office, immediately demoted both her job level and her pay-grade upon learning of her pregnancy. And by the way, she was also told, don’t bother to come back once the baby’s born.
The academic world was not any better. In 1956, Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School as one of only nine women in a class that also included 552 men. Along with the other eight females, she was (in)famously asked by then Law School Dean Erwin Griswold what was she doing taking the place of a man? Her answer was as neutral as she could make it: that being there would be helpful to her husband Marty, who was in his second year at Harvard Law.
Another question she faced: How could a law school graduate who made the law review and graduated tied for the top spot in a leading law school fail to get a job offer? Answer: In 1959, all the credentials in the world could not overcome being female, Jewish and a mother. Only after a mentor lobbied hard on her behalf was she hired as a clerk to a federal judge. When that gig ended, she again had to scrounge for a job — no corporate positions were offered — and instead accepted an offer to study and write a book about the Swedish legal system. As it happened, though, that position was fortuitous: it opened her eyes to a society where women were viewed and treated more equitably, in the workplace and at home.
By contrast, when Ginsburg was appointed as a law professor at Rutgers in 1963, there were still only 18 tenured female law professors in the United States. And when she told the dean who had hired her that her salary was less than that of her male colleagues with comparable qualifications, he saw no problem. Wasn’t it fair that the men, who were the breadwinners for their families, should earn more than she, a married woman, who had a husband to support her?
And yet she persevered. She taught classes on women and the law at Rutgers, and then at Columbia, where she became a tenured professor in 1972. She also co-founded the first law journal exclusively focused on women’s rights, Women’s Rights Law Reporter, co-authored the first law school casebook on sex discrimination and began working with the American Civil Liberties Union, a collaboration that resulted in her winning five out of the six gender discrimination cases she argued before the Supreme Court.
De Hart chronicles each of these cases in detail, and pays equally close attention to Ginsburg’s decisions and dissents as a judge, starting with her appointment to the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in 1980, and continuing through the years since her 1993 confirmation to the Supreme Court. In these chapters, De Hart is particularly attuned to the different legal philosophies and approaches that different judges bring to the bench. Anyone sensitive to the political shifts over the last decades will find especially instructive De Hart’s descriptions of the impact of each new judicial appointment on the tenor of the decisions rendered by the court. De Hart also charts with acute insight Ginsburg’s shifting role, from being known primarily as a coalition and consensus builder in her years on the Circuit Court and then, as the Supreme Court has consistently moved to the right, her more frequent presence today as a liberal voice of dissent.
These chapters make clear the central conflict that is being played out today, on the Supreme Court as well as in our country, of two very different approaches to legal interpretation. In her legal thinking, Ginsburg has embraced a belief in what can be called a “living Constitution” that has evolved over the centuries as our country has evolved, as opposed to the concept of originalism, which calls for the constitution to be interpreted strictly the way it was originally written in 1787. Originalism was the approach of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who also happened to be Ginsburg’s greatest friend on the court; they overcame their disagreements on the bench through their mutual love of opera and music.
Ginsburg’s life changed with the death of her husband Marty in 2010, yet she continues to find pleasure in her family, shows no sign of letting up on her almost non-stop work schedule, and is genuinely amused by her unexpected celebrity.
Ginsberg has also displayed an evolving relationship to Jewish ritual, as influenced by her granddaughter Clara, who had on her own come to embrace Judaism. In 2013, while staying with her “bubbe” during an internship in Washington at the Brookings Institution, Clara had convinced RBG that they should go to High Holiday services together. Ginsburg was impressed. She told De Hart, “The cantor was a lovely soprano. Then there were all those women going up on the bima and reading from the Torah.” Would she have felt differently about Jewish ritual, she wondered, had she been counted in, rather than out, of the shiva minyan when she was 17?
We’ll never know. What is certain from this biography is that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s pursuit of justice and equality has served us all.