Coffee mugs, T-shirts, tattoos, notebooks, greeting cards, cocktails and Halloween costumes are but some of the products featuring the name and visage of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman in U.S. history to be tapped for the highest court in the land.
Nearing her 83rd birthday, Ginsburg has somehow become a pop-art icon. Her character is constantly portrayed on “Saturday Night Live,” young feminists dream of being like her, and an unconventional biography called “Notorious RBG” has been on The New York Times best-seller list for over a month.
How did a petite Jewish grandmother become a Twitter hashtag? The answer is in the biography, a creative endeavor by Israeli-American journalist Irin Carmon and American law student Shana Knizhnik. The two expanded on the "Notorious RBG" blog that Knizhnik had created in 2013.
Following the blog’s surprising success, Harper Collins decided to publish a biography. “They approached me because I had spent about six years working as a feminist journalist,” the 32-year-old Carmon told Haaretz at a Manhattan café.
Carmon was approached by a Harper Collins editor who wanted to break the mold of how a biography should look. The idea was to tell the story of Ginsburg’s life but also engage her admirers.
Coincidentally, Carmon requested an interview with Ginsburg for MSNBC shortly before she was approached by the publisher. The interview, which aired in February 2015, led to a series of meetings with RBG. Eventually she gave the authors full access to her archive and let them print the letter that her husband, tax lawyer Martin Ginsburg, wrote her on his deathbed in 2010.
Carmon and Knizhnik wanted to write a book that would accessibly state why Ginsburg’s legal battles were important and how she became an inspiration to a new generation of feminists.
“Shana and I were looking for ways to make it something more substantial than Tumblr turned into a biography,” Carmon says. “People want a book to be something beautiful they can hold in their hands, and that’s what we wanted to give them. We wanted this to be a serious project – the way RBG is a serious person – while still having the irreverent spirit of Tumblr.”
Indeed, the best-seller will surprise biography readers who expect a thick tome describing every detail of the subject’s life chronologically. Well, the book does begin with Ginsburg’s early childhood, ending with a survey of her tenure at the Supreme Court that’s still well underway.
But it also includes a chapter on her workout routine, not to mention recipes penned by her husband. There are also dozens of photos from Knizhnik’s blog, attesting to Ginsburg’s impressive presence in the digital world.
In a short prologue, Carmon writes: “We are both millennials who like the Internet but wanted to make something you could hold in your hands.” Sure enough, millennials appear to be the target readership.
The title “Notorious RBG” is an homage to the American rapper Notorious B.I.G., and the chapter titles are inspired by his lyrics. The authors consider their book a conversation between younger women looking up to a woman over 80 who paved the way for them.
While Knizhnik did the research and collected the images, it’s easy to see why Harper Collins tapped Carmon for the writing. Like Ginsburg, Carmon has devoted her career to the advancement of feminist issues.
Carmon, who lives with her partner in Brooklyn’s upscale Park Slope neighborhood, was born in Israel and moved to the United States with her family in 1985 when she was 2. Her father Haggai is an international lawyer who represents the United States in Israeli courts. Her mother Rakefet is an attorney specializing in immigration law.
Her journalism career began early. When she was 14 she knew she wanted to be a journalist, so her father – a friend of Amos Shocken – asked the Haaretz publisher if maybe she could intern at Haaretz. The English edition was just starting out, so Carmon did some translating and ended up working closely with London-born David Landau, the English paper’s editor in chief who later took on that role for the Hebrew edition. He gave her a lot of responsibility and told her she should skip high school and go straight to the working world.
At 16 she interned at the New York-based feminist magazine Ms.; she later worked at The Village Voice and The Boston Globe. “I’ve been lucky to be educated as a feminist journalist very early on, which helped me understand why it’s so crucial to practice journalism from a feminist standpoint,” she says.
Keeping Jon Stewart honest
Over the last decade Carmon has written stories on gender discrimination and crafted opinion pieces for The New York Times and Salon. In June 2010, while working for the website Jezebel, she wrote that Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” systematically discriminated against women while ignoring talented female comedians.
The piece, “The Daily Show’s Woman Problem,” quickly went viral and inspired other op-eds and even a “30 Rock” episode. In the end, Stewart addressed the issue in his final interview upon his departure. “I think that post changed the atmosphere at the show’s editorial board, making the show more diverse,” Carmon says.
Following a series of other stories on gender discrimination, Forbes chose Carmon as one of the 30 most influential young people in the media. New York Magazine crowned her “the new face of feminism,” someone following in Gloria Steinem’s footsteps.
Like Ginsburg, Carmon studied at Harvard. The decades separating the two reflect the feminist struggle’s success. Ginsburg started her law studies in 1956 and was one of nine women in her class of 500. Carmon studied literature for her undergraduate degree and says she felt no gender discrimination at university.
Just like Steinem’s new autobiography, also a New York Times best-seller, the Carmon-Knizhnik biography describes Ginsburg’s fight to prove to men, women and mainly herself that she’s brilliant and no less diligent than the men around her. But in contrast to Steinem’s radical feminism, Ginsburg was careful not to draw the ire of the patriarchal system.
In the first chapter, Carmon describes how Harvard Law School Dean Erwin Griswold invited the nine women admitted in 1956 to dinner at his home. As described by Carmon, Griswold asked them: How could each of these female students justify taking the place of a man?
While Ginsburg – then a young married mother of 23 – froze, another student said without batting an eyelash that she thought Harvard would be an ideal place to find a husband. When her turn to answer came, Ginsburg said drily she wanted to know more about what her husband did so she could be a sympathetic and understanding wife.
Carmon and Knizhnik’s book is full of such anecdotes; Ginsburg employing sophisticated tactics to blur her talent or hide that she was a mother of two. Even though she edited the Harvard Law Review and came in first in her class, 12 prestigious law firms turned her down because she was a woman.
So she won a job as a legal assistant to U.S. District Court Judge Edmund Palmieri. She later taught law at Columbia University. In 1964, when she started teaching at Rutgers, the dean told her it was only fair to pay her modestly because her husband had a very good job.
She thus joined a class-action suit by Rutgers’ female lecturers and won. Whereas the book’s first chapters are filled with the fury against the glass ceiling, the later chapters provide catharsis, culminating in 1993, when U.S. President Bill Clinton appointed Ginsburg to the Supreme Court.
It probably wasn’t Clinton’s toughest decision. In 1972 Ginsburg cofounded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1973 she became the organization’s legal counsel.
Starting in 1971 she filed several petitions with the Supreme Court claiming that discriminatory legislation against women required strict scrutiny. This was an extraordinary legal procedure that had previously been employed only in terms of racial discrimination.
Ginsburg, for example, argued that there was no essential difference between a woman in advanced stages of pregnancy and a man who could not work temporarily for other reasons. Accordingly, Carmon and Knizhnik devote much space to the 1971 case Reed v. Reed in which the court expanded the law providing equal protection to women.
Shades of the civil rights movement
Another chapter is devoted to January 1973, when Ginsburg asked the all-male Supreme Court to recognize that gender discrimination breached the Constitution, just as racial discrimination did. In what would become her signature style, she quietly and confidently discussed the heavy price that men, not just women, paid due to gender discrimination.
It seemed radical at the time: assuming that women needed special protection was discriminatory and based on a false stereotype.
Ginsburg’s last case as a lawyer, before her appointment as a judge, came in 1978. This was Duren v. Missouri, which led to legislation making it obligatory to include women as jurors. That year Congress passed a bill forbidding discrimination against pregnant women. This was largely influenced by earlier efforts led by Ginsburg.
Carmon says RBG was deeply affected by the 14th Amendment adopted three years after the U.S. Civil War. She devoted much of her early years as a lawyer thinking about how such protection could be afforded to women, not just African Americans.
“In her rulings she often quotes African-American feminists who led the struggle against slavery. She represented black women who were forced to undergo abortions or sterilization against their will. She very specifically – in various legal and philological ways – drew her inspiration from the civil rights movement,” Carmon says.
“The 14th Amendment was passed as one of the post-Civil War amendments for the rights of slaves, and the idea to use it to guarantee women’s equality came from a civil rights activist named Pauli Murray, who we mentioned several times in the book since her name is not known enough. RBG included her as an honorary co-author on a brief for Reed v. Reed in recognition of her pioneering work on gender discrimination.”
Meanwhile, Ginsburg’s marriage made her optimistic about men as partners in the fight for gender equality.
“She told me that ‘the thing that Marty does is make me feel that I’m better than I think I am. He always tells me when it’s time to eat dinner, or when I should go to bed and get some rest.’ Their interaction is amazing, which is why we decided to dedicate an entire chapter to their relationship,” Carmon says.
“A friend who read it told me it made her feel the way you’re supposed to feel after watching a romantic comedy. We wanted to account for her as a person as well as an icon, and Marty was a huge part of who she was and what shaped her life.”
Even though her sharp mind and great talent were never in doubt, Ginsburg found it very difficult to find work early in her career. In her book, Carmon notes three elements that worked against her: She was a woman, Jewish and a young mother.
“Her Jewish identity was an important component of her feelings of isolation and discrimination. Ginsburg said she learned her commitment to justice from Judaism, but she also felt a lot of exclusion from the Judaism of her youth. Ginsburg’s experience of her mother dying and her being enabled to join a minyan as a 17-year-old female was very formative in her life,” Carmon says.
“But at the same time it shaped her culturally. She was part of a Brooklyn-based Jewish milieu, and she knew people blacklisted under McCarthyism, and they were all Jews. When she was younger she once saw a sign saying ‘No Dogs and Jews Allowed’ in Pennsylvania .... [And] she was also aware of how, as a woman within Judaism, she was often excluded.”
Even nowadays, when she no longer has to work around the clock, Ginsburg displays an awe-inspiring work ethic. Judging by descriptions in the book, the justice is a kind of superhero who doesn’t need more than two or three hours of sleep a night.
From RBG to HRC
When Carmon is asked if these depictions don’t create an impossible model, she replies that “for Ginsburg, work is a coping mechanism for all the challenges and losses she experienced, like being on the bench a day after her husband died or working twice as hard because she knew her mother would have wanted her to. That’s a survival skill. When she was diagnosed with cancer in 1999, she scheduled chemotherapy on weekends so she wouldn’t lose a day of work.”
This doesn’t imply that this is what young women should be doing, Carmon adds. Not everyone wants to be a Supreme Court justice, she notes, but it’s inspirational to see how someone accomplishes that goal. After all, Ginsburg dedicated her life to promote the idea that people should be allowed to pursue their dreams without the state telling them they have a biological role or responsibility, Carmon says.
“She worked very hard to create a world in which women and men are free to chart their own course, and that generation of women had to be twice as good,” Carmon says. “She worked all night so we could sleep late.”
So has Carmon herself ever experienced sex discrimination?
“Like every young woman I sometimes encountered arrogant chauvinistic men who derided me or my intellectual capabilities. RBG quoted the abolitionist activist Sarah Grimké who said, ‘I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.’ Personally, I never felt the feet on my neck, but I think that my privilege has insulated me in some way. I had economic privilege, and access to Harvard education,” Carmon says.
“But like most young women I’ve been underestimated, patronized and sexually harassed. I think it’s a universal female experience to be talked down to, denied opportunities that you don’t even know about because you’re left out of the inner circle. At the same time, I was also lucky enough to work mostly in feminist media and collaborate with women and female bosses.”
Carmon notes that there is still a significant gender gap in salaries, and there are more men than women in the financial, legal and political power centers.
“If a woman like Hillary Clinton becomes president and is able to appoint Supreme Court justices, it will change the status of women for generations, including abortion rights, but also access to unions and wage discrimination,” Carmon says.
She thinks Ginsburg and Clinton have a lot in common; for example, they were both told they weren’t radical enough and made too many compromises or looked the other way. But they both have long-term strategies that forced them to work very hard, Carmon says.
“But there’s a huge difference between Bill Clinton and Marty Ginsburg. Imagine if Hillary’s partner had been more supportive and been able to step back and actively support her,” Carmon says.
“Bill undermined Hillary’s career several times, and not just because he wanted to be in the limelight himself. If it weren’t for him, she might have been elected president two decades ago.”
And what did the biography’s subject think of “Notorious RBG”? Carmon says Ginsburg supported her the whole way and loved the book.
“But when she saw photos of fans who tattooed her face on their bodies she reacted like a Jewish mother,” Carmon says. “‘They took it too far. Never do something irreversible you might regret.’”
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