Certainly, there are readable biographies out there. Certainly, I have read some (though none come to mind at the moment). Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg (HarperCollins, 19.99 USD) is most definitely one of those readable biographies that is as engaging as any good work of fiction and an excellent choice for the “biography” category of the 2016 Book Riot Reading Challenge. At no point did I put it down because I wanted to take a break from it. No, I put it down because my toddler needed to be changed, or I had to figure out something to feed my family for dinner, or because I had to put a couple of little boys in bed. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has led (and still is leading!) an utterly fascinating life. I looked up to her before I read this. Now, she is definitely in my top five heroes. (Gloria Steinem was pushed out in early February – you know what you did, Gloria – but RBG would have eclipsed her anyway.)
The writers did an excellent job, yes, but to be fair, their subject matter would be hard to not make interesting. As a somewhat studious person, my chief complaint with this book is that it didn’t delve further into RBG’s life, especially in certain chapters. My own particular interests would have appreciated a closer examination of her law school years; this woman did law school at a time when very, very few women were admitted – alongside her husband, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer when they were both in the middle of studying at none other than Harvard Law School. Oh, and while she was juggling law school and a husband being treated for cancer, she was also RAISING A TODDLER. I would have appreciated some charts that explained how exactly RBG accomplished all of this, but the only answers given are that she got by on very little sleep (well, duh), which she found out she could do if she slept in on the weekends, and also that her father-in-law told her, “Ruth, if you don’t want to go to law school, you have the best reason in the world and no one would think less of you. But if you really want to go to law school, you will stop feeling sorry for yourself. You will find a way.” Indeed, she did.
Raising a toddler while attending law school ALONE should earn her a statue somewhere, but while she was dealing with temper tantrums, Advanced Legal Research, her husband’s radiation treatments, and collecting notes from the courses he was missing (she made sure he pulled through law school, too), she also had to deal with an academic institution that was so ill-equipped to even conceive of a woman darkening its hallowed doorway that its dean, Erwin Griswold, had the audacity to ask each of the nine female students in RBG’s class how each of them could justify taking the place of a man (there were about 500 men in the class, too). Having not yet developed the strong presence that earned her the nickname “Notorious,” RBG mumbled, “I wanted to know more about what my husband does, so that I can be a sympathetic and understanding wife.” Griswold didn’t let on that he knew she was lying.
Of course, her law school days were only a small part of the octogenarian’s life (and, certainly, a new edition of this book should be published when RBG retires from the Supreme Court, since she no doubt has more landmark decisions ahead of her), and she spent an illustrious career fighting for women’s rights as a lawyer – something that law school showed her the world was in desperate need of. She spent time in Sweden writing a book on civil procedure in Sweden, where she learned that women there had been liberated to join the workforce after the war, but, like American women, they still had a long way to go to reach equality. She learned the hard way that revealing a pregnancy before she had to lead her employer to make her take a lower-paying job with less responsibility – and that pregnant women were expected to quit before giving birth, anyway. Maternity leave was not a thing back then, of course. She argued multiple cases in front of the Supreme Court, including Reed v. Reed, which challenged a law that automatically gave the right to handle a dead son’s estate to his estranged father, rather than the mother who had raised and cared for him all his life, because men were presumed to be better equipped to handle states. Another case, Struck v. Secretary of Defense, didn’t make it to the Supreme Court but led the way for pregnancy cases that did. Struck dealt with a female air force nurse who found herself pregnant and had to choose between having her baby and keeping her job – basically, the Air Force would force her to have an abortion at a time when abortion was illegal in most of the United States, unless you were in the military. Struck didn’t want to keep her baby, but she was Catholic, so forcing her to have her baby would also have violated her First Amendment rights.
RBG feels strongly that discrimination based on sex hurts men AND women, and she also argued cases where men had been discriminated against. One of her favorites was Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, in which the wife of Stephen Wiesenfeld died in childbirth. In those days, if a woman’s husband died, she would be eligible to get “mother’s benefits” to help her take care of the children. This precedent assumed that only men would be primary breadwinners in their families and only women would be primary homemakers. However, Wiesenfeld was ahead of his time; for years, his wife had worked as a teacher and paid into Social Security while he “played homemaker.” In the wake of her death, Wiesenfeld wished to continue in his role of the primary caregiver to the children – but widowers were not eligible to receive death benefits as widows were. RBG took on this case while working on the Women’s Rights Project with the ACLU, and many questioned her decision to represent a man – didn’t that go against the whole point of the WRP? However (and this is yet another reason to love RBG), she “firmly believed that for women to be equal, men had to be free.” Years later, RBG corrected a guest at a dinner party who introduced her as someone who worked for “women’s liberation.” “It is not women’s liberation,” RBG said. “It is women’s and men’s liberation.” In order for women to have the same opportunities as men in the workforce, men must have the same opportunities as women to be primary caregivers.
I could summarize dozens more fascinating cases RBG argued or heard on the Supreme Court. I could describe the progressive marriage she shared with Marty Ginsburg for 56 years. Even her sense of style is fascinating – and coming from someone who wears t-shirts with either jeans or yoga pants seven days a week, that’s saying something. But, I hope that this summary – which I promise is just a glimpse of the remarkable woman’s life – makes it clear just how worthwhile it is to read about RBG, in this biography or another. So, now, I should probably spend a little time reviewing this particular biography, its format, and why it is one of the most reader-friendly biographies out there.
As anyone born in the 1980s or 1990s is likely to know, Notorious RBG is borrowed from the name of a rapper, Notorious B.I.G., who was murdered in 1997 and often wore a crown in his publicity photos. Thus, the crown on RBG’s head on the cover of this book. The nickname Notorious RBG started circulating the internet following RBG’s strong dissent on the Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act. A Tumblr page followed, and this book is a compilation of much of the Tumblr’s content, plus a thoroughly-researched (featuring 19 pages of notes) biography. Aside from the Notorious B.I.G. allusions, each chapter’s name is taken from his lyrics and works surprisingly well with the content, considering that all B.I.G. and RBG really have in common is that they both come from Brooklyn.
I would argue that the highly-visual style the book is presented in is unnecessary (photos, memes, timelines, charts, tables, etc. adorn nearly every page), but when I consider the world today’s teenagers have grown up in, with the entire internet (including Google Image Search) available to them on a device that fits in their pockets since childhood, this book is a perfect marriage of the internet world and the literary world. It is shelved in the adult biographies (at my library, anyway), and rightly so; the text includes excerpts from court rulings that, even with the helpful commentary in the margins, requires a bit of mastication even for this relatively well-educated mom. However, the photos, charts, and timelines provide a solid overview of RBG’s cases. The tables, especially, break the cases down into categories like “What Was At Stake,” “RBG’s Role,” and “Result.” With a table like that, a middle school student could easily walk away with at least a cursory understanding of what happened. And I think that’s the point. Young people, especially, need to know that, because of RBG, not only is it easier for them to do what seems impossible (like graduate law school while caring for a seriously ill husband who is also going through law school AND raising a toddler), but it is also their cause to take up as young women, to make equality more attainable for the next generation. Would a 12-year-old pick up a 400-page biography with no pictures for a school project? Unlikely. Would a 12-year-old pick up this biography, with cool memes and helpful timelines throughout? Quite possibly. Would a 35-year-old mom read it and appreciate both the court ruling segments and the cool memes? Absolutely.