Linda Clark, former journalist, now lawyer, reviews Conversations with RBG and laments not just the passing of a true force for justice, but also a squandered opportunity by the author to ask some hard questions.
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg, US Supreme Court Justice, died in September 2020, aged 87, more than 100 of her former law clerks stood in formation outside the US Capitol as her casket was carried in. She lay in state for two days, the first woman ever to be so honoured.
At the time of her death, RBG, as she is both reverently and irreverently known, had served 27 years on the Supreme Court, her life's work an embodiment of Martin Luther King's famous quote (cited often by Obama) - that the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.
In one of the best chapters in this new book of conversations with RBG, acclaimed author (and another feminist fav), Margaret Atwood is much less optimistic. But more on that later.
Appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993 as a softly spoken moderate, no one could have predicted that Ginsburg would, by her 80s, have evolved from bluestocking jurist to pop culture feminist icon. In case you've been sleeping, there are RBG bobblehead dolls, "Notorious RBG" T-shirts and shirts, fridge magnets and mugs emblazoned with "You can't spell truth without Ruth" and "What would RBG do?"
Chances are many who covet the merch couldn't name another judge and have never read one of her opinions. No matter.
"Ginsburg defies stereotypes," New York University student Shana Knizhnik tells Jeffrey Rosen. A 2013 blog by Knizhnik, inspired by one of Ginsburg's dissenting opinions, launched the jurist as the "Notorious RBG" as a sly joke and the rest, as they say…
Ginsburg clearly embraced her latecomer notoriety. For an extremely serious woman, she allowed herself some playfulness, understanding well the unsettling effect it had on those around her. Exhibit A: the trademark lace collars she became known for. One particular collar – pointedly worn the day after Trump's election – was referred to as her "dissenting collar" since she always wore it when presiding over a decision she disagreed with. It had many outings in her later years.
On a gossipy note, in conversation with Rosen (another former young law clerk she befriended and coached) she reveals that Supreme Court President John Roberts unilaterally added gold stripes to his robe so as not to be overshadowed by RBG's fashion statements.
Knizhnik again: "People expect this meek, grandmotherly type. She is a grandmother, but she shows so much strength and she is who she is without apology. Ginsburg allows women to imagine a different kind of power and to visualise a woman in power well past an age where she is usually invisible to society." Well, I'd wear a T-shirt for that.
In her own well-chosen words, in this collection of conversations, Ginsburg describes a period – from the 1950s to the present day - of sweeping social change. For one moment sounding her age, she says young people have no idea how much things have changed. True, of course. None of us can ever really fathom the world our parents and grandparents wrestled with.
For Ginsburg, arriving at Harvard Law School in 1956, baby daughter in tow, she was one of just nine women in a class of 500. The Dean invited the women to consider why they were "taking the place of a man". She graduated first in class and still found it difficult to get a job.
Ginsburg expresses no bitterness about any of this. It is, she shrugs, just the way things were. Attitudes thankfully shifted (now the majority of New Zealand law grads are women) and it is up to the author to note that, quietly and using the powers of her legal persuasion, Ginsburg played no small part in bending the arc towards justice for women.
As she sets out in the conversations, Ginsburg carved her reputation winning small but significant victories in the 1950s and 60s to advance gender equality. She tactically pursued an incremental strategy, often representing male plaintiffs who had been denied legal benefits designated for women.
The widowed young father denied social security benefits payable to widows. The husbands of servicewomen denied housing allowances that wives of servicemen always received. Her reasoning (brilliant as it turned out) was that judges would be more likely to identify with male plaintiffs.
The idea, she said, was to "break down the stereotypical view of men's roles and women's roles" and the assumption that "men earned the family's bread and women tended to the home and children". Of course history will show that while Ginsburg (and others) won in the courts the real lives of working women continue – even now – to be profoundly impacted by old tropes and unconscious bias. Life really is a bitch.
Rosen's book is a fascinating legal primer and social history but, for my taste, the author's reverential relationship with his old mentor acts as a barrier. At times I was aching to ask some harder questions. The later conversations especially took place when Trump and the misogynist backlash he championed was at full throttle.
Brought to you by yet another carefully sculpted blonde in a body-con dress and no body hair. I never picked that trend when I went to consciousness raising meetings in the 80s! Don't you want to know what she thought about that? About the re-emergence of old roles? The vilification of outspoken women?
Undoubtedly since Ginsburg was still a sitting member of the Supreme Court she needed to tread carefully but surely not so much? In the encounter with Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale author asserts that the #MeToo movement will in time provoke another backlash to set back women's progress and equality.
The vilification of Hilary Clinton was, she says, just the start. Ginsburg's response to this challenge is to say she has faith in the younger generation of women coming through, including her own grand-daughters. Well, that seems another great burden to leave behind for a generation with many other problems to solve (climate change, anyone?). It also seems, for such a careful thinker, surprisingly glib.
Still a long life probably teaches patience. For a long period, Ginsburg was the only woman Justice on the Supreme Court. They were, she recalled "the worst times".
"The image to the public entering the courtroom was eight men, of a certain size, and then this little woman sitting to the side. That was not a good image for the public to see."
To the end, Ginsburg was stubbornly optimistic. In the toxic pond that US politics has become it must have taken a power of will for her to remain so. She really did not let ordinary obstacles (family responsibilities, unpopularity, cancer) stop her. To that I say, bravo.
This week the US Supreme Court cleared the way for the first execution of a woman in 67 years. Lisa Montgomery - a victim of horrific abuse as a child - was executed on Wednesday. Her lawyers argued she was too mentally ill to understand her fate. I imagine Ginsburg would have dissented.
Conversations with RBG, by Jeffrey Rosen, Macmillan, $38.
Linda Clark is a partner at Dentons Kensington Swan