The passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg has rocked America. We’ve lost an icon and her death has sent our government spinning in a dozen different directions. Before we get too tangled in the aftermath, we should take the time to celebrate a life, which no matter what side of the political spectrum you fall on, is undoubtedly remarkable. She has forever left her mark on the United States. Something few of us will ever do. So today at Book Smart we’re providing the “Essential List” of books and films about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
RBG was a fighter, pithy and intelligent. She became a role model for millions of women, showing it didn’t take physical prowess, or a Y chromosome, but logic and intellect to make an impact. If you studied hard, you could break the glass ceiling into a million shards.
I count myself as one of the lucky few, someone who actually met her more than once. She’d never remember me, but despite her unassuming appearance, RBG was a woman no one could ever forget. Ironically, of all the things she could have spoken about during that first meeting, she chose to talk about a book, so dear to her heart, she fought for its publication. (To read more about my first time meeting Ginsburg, please go HERE).
Justice Ginsburg spoke about her difficulties publishing the memoir written by Malvina Harlan, wife of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan, the lone dissenter in Plessy vs. Ferguson. Perhaps as the court’s frequent dissenter, and nicknamed, “the troublemaker,” she found solace in knowing the dissenter could be wise beyond his or her fellow justices.
Malvina, from a family of passionate abolitionists, married Harlan, whose family owned more than twelve slaves. He also owned slaves while they were married. Perhaps it was Malvina’s influence, but Harlan eventually stood with the Union against the Confederacy and later despised the “separate but equal” doctrine of the poorly judged Plessy case. This is from his dissenting opinion:
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth and in power. So, I doubt not, it will continue to be for all time if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty. But in view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved. It is therefore to be regretted that this high tribunal, the final expositor of the fundamental law of the land, has reached the conclusion that it is competent for a state to regulate the enjoyment by citizens of their civil rights solely upon the basis of race.
In my opinion, the judgment this day rendered will, in time, prove to be quite as pernicious as the decision made by this tribunal in the Dred Scott Case.
Source: McKenna, George, ed. A Guide to the Constitution That Delicate Balance (New York, 1984), pp. 384-386.
Like other great women such as Dolley Madison and Eleanor Roosevelt, Malvina witnessed and also tremendously influenced history. Whether to document those events, or in a gesture of support for her much maligned husband, after Justice Harlan’s death in 1911 Malvina wrote Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911. When Justice Ginsburg started researching women involved with the Supreme Court, a topic she as the second ever female justice was greatly interested, the Library of Congress sent over Malvina Harlan’s manuscript. It had never been published. From that moment, Ginsburg became determined to do as Abigail Adams decreed, “remember the ladies,” and get the book published with the recognition it deserved. She also added an ample forward to the book that greatly enhanced the work.
Most publishers saw the memoir of a woman who never strayed from her supporting role as boring. Not Ginsburg. Instead, she saw it as a first hand account of the life and times of people who quietly changed their world. It is a description of race relations, and trying times, which still mirror our own. While women’s roles have changed, the need of women to support one another, even across centuries, is still the same.
Listen to Ruth Bader Ginsburg talk about Malvina Harlan on NPR:
Ginsburg’s own publishing journey didn’t stop there. Of course, the courts have mountains of her opinions and legal papers, but for the general public, her autobiography, “My Own Words,” is a wonderful place to start understanding how her mind worked, and what she held dear. In it, she covers everything from how the Supreme Court works, to being Jewish, to lawyers in opera. Her wry wit and analytical mind shine in every page.
In 2020, RBG participated in: I Know This To Be True: on equality, determination & service, a global five-year project of interviews about leadership. Unfortunately, at present, this volume is very hard to come by. The complete set also contains volumes by Nelson Mandela and Gloria Steinem.
Her other books are possibly of lesser interest to the general public, but still show a relatively unknown side of her despite the wealth of interviews and material about her life: Civil Procedure in Sweden (1965); A Selective Survey of English Language Studies on Scandinavian Law (1970); perhaps more predictable: Workways of the United States Supreme Court (2001); and of course her iconic: Text, Cases, and Materials on Sex-Based Discrimination (1974). Who knew she was such a fan of Sweden? Smorgasbord anyone?
Of the books written about her, some good ones include Conversations with RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Life, Love, Liberty and Law by Jeffrey Rosen and Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. Another fun book is: Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda R. Hirshman.
There are literally dozens and dozens of books about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, all published during her life. There are memes, Saturday Night Live skits, posters, T-shirts, sunglasses, and children’s books. At one point she was called the “Meme-Supreme.” Her bun, lace collar, and pearls are as iconic as Albert Einstein’s wild white hair and cheeky grin. The dichotomous image of a Jewish grandmother, who claimed to be 5’1″ but seemed even more diminutive in person, who wrangled the bad boys and the press, and put the world in its place, is too hard to resist.
RBG also cooperated with biographer Jane Sherron De Hart in the National Bestseller: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, A Life. Ginsburg gave the author access to her husband, children, friends and associates. It comes in at a whopping 700 pages in hardback, but if you have any question about Ginsburg, this lengthy tome is sure to answer it.
Most Supreme Court justices are not well known. They revel in their incognito status, In fact, myriad complex rules about using a Supreme Court justice’s image or name abound. For some reason, all of that was eschewed in the case of Ginsburg who loved signing books and talking to her fans. Her “I dissent,” and “You got Ginsburned,” tags are even more popular than Donald Trump’s, “You’re Fired,” or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Hasta La Vista, Baby.”
Here is a clip of the SNL parody that helped make her even more beloved and well-known.
If the thick volumes on her life are not something you have time for, there are also a number of excellent films about her life.
RBG is an Academy Award nominated documentary that shows real news footage and interviews with Ginsburg. It starts with her quote:
“I ask no favor for my sex, all I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks“
Ginsburg repeats the quote twice in the film, it’s obviously very close to her heart. In fact, the words are not her own, but that of Sarah Grimke’, a pioneering feminist born in 1792 in South Carolina, the daughter of a judge and one of the first women in the American Anti-Slavery Society.
But RBG does make other memorable quotes throughout the film. Such as:
“I’m 84 years old and everyone wants to take a picture with me.“
On the Basis of Sex, another excellent movie, is a fictionalized, dramatized, based-in-fact movie about her first important case and the factors in her personal life which shaped her from obscure University professor to prominent lawyer. Staring Felicity Jones, it is well worth seeing.
And in another moment of kindness toward her fitness coach, Ginsburg allowed her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson, a man she’s called “the most important person” in her life (after her family, of course), to write The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong … and You Can Too! Amazingly, not only did she allow him the use of her name, but also of her image doing the workout.
There are clearly people who disagreed with her, some disliked her intensely, but there were few who disrespected her. I cannot stress how much more interesting she was in person. Each time, as I left the vaulted ceilings and intricate architecture of the Supreme Court, I would marvel about the petite woman, the quiet tiger, who was even more impressive than the incredible building that surrounded her.