You down with RBG?

Anna Minard

July 25, 2016

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, surely familiar now with adoring internet coverage of her dissents, her turns of phrase, her fancy collars, her meme status, made headlines earlier this month in a new and entirely surprising way: She was chastised widely by those on the right and the left for impropriety, after criticizing Donald Trump in interviews. For someone whose status as a hero and internet star is just a few years old, and whose prior reputation was as someone quiet, moderate, and exceedingly proper, this must have been an odd reversal. But an embodiment of contradictions is not in itself new for the justice, not at all. A women’s rights lawyer who often argued for male plaintiffs, an octogenarian renowned for her vigorous workout routine, a Jewish grandmother and jurist whose popular nickname ties her to a murdered rap star—surely her public persona can support yet another layer of complexity.

Ginsburg has since apologized, saying her remarks (that she “[didn’t] want to think about” and “can’t imagine” a Trump presidency, that Trump is a “faker” with an “ego”) were “ill-advised” and she would, in the future, be “more circumspect.” The precise level of transgression isn’t clear to everyone—endorsing or opposing candidates is against the official code of ethics for judges, but that code does not apply to Supreme Court justices. The right has called for her head; Trump said that her “mind was shot” and told her to resign. The left was alternately embarrassed and defiant. But in a signal of how accustomed the press and the public have become to her status as a moral leader of the left, many mused that she must have crossed this grayish ethical boundary on purpose, precisely to signal how serious a political moment this is.

Regardless of this current moment and controversy, her legacy seems safe, in large part because of the bounty of goodwill she’s gathered in the last few years, as her previous moderation and quietness gave way to a sort of shocking judicial audacity in the company of a newly conservative Court hell-bent on unraveling the kind of civil rights law to which she dedicated her career. The online response to that behavior transformed her into an icon within just a few years, and that in turn made room for a book dedicated to her iconic status and the blogs and memes that fueled it.

It’s clear that Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg started as a normal blog-to-book deal—there was an online fan base that a publisher figured would snap up an under-$20, dust-jacket-free coffee-table-looking thing. “Slap a great cover on it, and it’ll be everyone’s favorite Christmas present for educated millennials,” you can hear some marketing manager saying in a meeting. And while the design might at first signal something light, authors Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik turned it into something that feels so much bigger, something with staying power. It’s smart and accessible. It also serves as a proactive retort to any future shots at the justice’s reputation.

Smartly, the authors (both researched, Carmon wrote) right away acknowledge and tease the larger phenomenon of which the book itself is a part. “RBG, the woman once disdainfully referred to as ‘schoolmarmish,’ the wrong kind of feminist, ‘a dinosaur,’ insufficiently radical, a dull writer, is now a fond hashtag. Her every utterance is clickbait, and according to the headlines, she no longer says anything, but rather ‘eviscerates.’” She’s a T-shirt, a cocktail, a character on the Cartoon Network and SNL, fingernail art, babies’ Halloween costumes. The dissent from the bench that inspired the earliest stages of this internet adoration came in June 2013, in response to the Court’s invalidating key portions of the Voting Rights Act. “By the spring of 2015, RBG was being namechecked anywhere a woman wanted to signal feminist smarts,” Carmon writes.

But if you let Carmon and Knizhnik take you back with them to the very beginning, to before Ginsburg was even born, and then follow their rich storytelling through to the end, you’re left with an unshakeable feeling of reverence for a woman who has always valued hard work over almost all else and who never sought notoriety. They make no secret of their total adoration of the justice and her historical role. This is a love letter, well-researched. One highlight is a series of annotated excerpts from her decisions, giving non-lawyers a good understanding of some of her finest arguments. In what feels like an apt visual metaphor, the second chapter is a timeline, starting in 1820, that mixes women’s legal and political history (the Seneca Falls convention, the 19th Amendment) with Ginsburg’s personal biographical history (the birth of her children, her graduation from law school), until the two merge, as the latter becomes a central part of the former.

And in fact the book makes a strong case for reading the personal as political, for the inextricability of our deep beliefs and lived experiences from our political positions, from public policy. For the importance of acknowledging the facts of bodies, and the way the law falls differently on them. That conversation is ongoing in contemporary feminism—is everything about your life and your body political? Is it always a political act to shave your pubes? To wear heels? To not get married? To watch a movie? Is there a line, anywhere? Should we check everything we do through a feminist lens? Is there a personal cost to slipping on or off your officially licensed Feminist Goggles™? Does it degrade the fight to put what kind of underwear you wear or sex you enjoy on the same platform as whether or not the government should force every pregnancy ever conceived, in any circumstance, to be carried to term? Or is it impossible to divorce them? Without wading directly into that fight, Carmon and Knizhnik let the elements of Ginsburg’s history that have affected her view of the law serve as irrefutable reminders that the only people who can comfortably argue that the law doesn’t fall unevenly on different bodies are those who inhabit privileged ones—straight, white, cisgender, male.

Ginsburg’s body is politicized all the time, even now. She’s the child of European Jewish parents whose families fled oppression and violence, who felt lucky to live in Brooklyn but was totally aware of sexism in her faith and racism in American policy. From a “NO DOGS OR JEWS ALLOWED” sign on a bed and breakfast in her childhood, to a law school where she stood in a doorway begging the guard to fetch a book for her from a library women weren’t permitted to enter. She hid her second pregnancy in her mother-in-law’s borrowed, baggy clothing to keep a professorship, after the disclosure of her first had blocked her from good jobs. Having to map out where the distant women’s bathrooms were in formerly all-male spaces—law school, the Supreme Court—has been part of her life. She’s also beaten cancer, twice, and is well-known for being able to do push-ups into her 80s. The book includes a two-page illustrated guide to the “Notorious RBG Workout.” “People who think she is hanging on to this world by a thread underestimate her,” writes Carmon. “RBG’s main concession to hitting her late seventies was to give up waterskiing.” She steadfastly refused to retire through repeated calls for her to step down during Obama’s first term (when there would’ve been a safe shot at a liberal replacement). She got herself a lifetime appointment to the bench after decades of being refused entry to spaces for being a woman, a wife, a mother, a Jew, and damn it if she won’t stay there till she’s outlasted every critic yammering about her health.

It seems impossible for people to avoid comment on her physicality, and she doesn’t shy away from the political implications of her appearance, either. She wears different decorative collars over her robes, and started doing it precisely because the judicial robes were made for men, with a place for a collared shirt and tie to peek through at the top. Even those become more literally political, as she wears different ones for different occasions: She has a recognizable beaded black velvet “dissent collar,” and a gold-trimmed “majority-opinion jabot.” Her slight stature inspires repeated mention. She is tiny, liftable, a “figurine.”

The book’s structure is excellent: Chapters begin with an immersive anecdote from the Court, giving the reader an extreme close-up, Ginsburg-eye view, then zoom out and backwards, sliding expertly into new focus as Carmon and Knizhnik delve into background and detail. The details are so personal, so illustrative: Ginsburg stays up late, sleeps through the weekend, isn’t a morning person, lives off coffee. She watches PBS NewsHour while working out with her feminist, ex-military personal trainer. She cries at the opera. She doesn’t cook. Her mother, who expected academic diligence from this brilliant daughter, died the day before her high school graduation; she found out only after that her mother had secretly saved up thousands of dollars to pay for her education. Leading the ACLU Women’s Right’s Project in the ’70s, she fought for male plaintiffs, believing that gender equality works both ways. She’s a fan of incremental change, and not a fan of Roe v. Wade, as she had a different legal strategy in mind. She helped file class-action lawsuits on behalf of underpaid women at two of the universities she worked at, Rutgers and Columbia. (She won them both.)

And then there’s her love story. Her uncommon marriage—the fact that she lived in a world repeatedly limited by bullshit gender-role expectations but married a man in 1954 who loved her for her intellect—is a small miracle. Since college, Marty Ginsburg bragged to friends about her academic superiority; in their later years he challenged a reporter who had called RBG “frail” to do as many push-ups as his wife. The central chapter all about her and Marty Ginsburg will make anyone cry, and in a testament to Carmon and Knizhnik’s research and relationship with the Ginsburg family, includes a handwritten deathbed letter from him to her, complete with a margin note from RBG. “I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met at Cornell some 56 years ago,” the letter reads. Next to that line, RBG has appended a correction: “nearly 60.”

So: Justice Ginsburg got a little bold with some interviewers lately. Perhaps it was a secret signal to us all, the queen of decorum dropping her polite act long enough to call a Trump a Trump. Maybe this is a personal, public version of a dissent. Or maybe it’s just far too much to ask of anyone, SCOTUS or no, to stay silent in the face of a reality with a potential President Donald J. Trump. Regardless, calls for a dark mark on her legacy seem silly weighed against the facts of her life. The clickbaity Internet-brand fan club can be a little much (actual headline: “17 Reasons Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is Goals AF”). And for now she’s even more of a target for right-wing political yellers. But this written testament is a bright flare shot into the future, helping light the way to her permanent place of affection in our hearts.

Books in this review:
  • Notorious RBG
    by Irin Carmon
    Dey Street Books
    October 26, 2015
    240 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Anna is a mammal, writer, copy editor, former City Hall reporter for The Stranger and author of the music column Never Heard of 'Em. She's done digital organizing and communications work for progressive workers' rights and reproductive rights organizations, and spent six years as a bookseller in Seattle.

Follow Anna Minard on Twitter: @minardanna

Other recent reviews

April 25, 2018

"These are very scary times"

Tatiana Gill

writes about
  • So You Want to Talk About Race
    by Ijeoma Oluo
    Seal Press
    January 16, 2018
    248 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
April 24, 2018

Loyalty to whom?

Paul Constant

writes about
  • A Higher Loyalty
    by James Comey
    Flatiron Books
    April 17, 2018
    304 pages
    Checked out from library
    Buy on IndieBound
April 17, 2018

The voices in your head

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Freshwater
    by Akwaeke Emezi

    February 13, 2018
    232 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound