Book Review: ‘Notorious RBG’ Explores The Legacy Of ‘An Underestimated Woman’
At first glance, it’s understandable to think that Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s ode to the Supreme Court Justice, is a breezy coffee-table collection of colorful images with a light fawning biography bound inside.
That’s the impression one gets from a quick glance at the elegant hardcover, picturing Ginsburg, drawn in ink with a lace collar and topped by a gold crown. It’s the iconic meme that exploded to include images of RBG with accompanying Beyoncé lyrics, RBG Halloween costumes, a Kate McKinnon impersonation and a skit by Broad City‘s Ilana and Abbi, among others. That’s the easy stuff, the stuff easily discovered by a Google search.
But the mission of Carmon and Knizhnik’s book is to explore who the woman behind the meme is. And while this is not a straightforward biography, Notorious RBG serves to give the life story and legal accomplishments of arguably the most popular Supreme Court justice.
Carmon is a reporter at MSNBC who specializes in stories on reproductive rights (and was previously a writer for Jezebel). Knizhnik is a judicial law clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit and the one who rocketed Ginsburg to Internet fandom with her Tumblr, which lends the book its name. Given their background, readers going into it clearly know what to expect. A tone of unabashed admiration and awe permeates the book, which they are upfront about in their author’s note:
“If you want to understand how an underestimated woman changed the world and is still out there doing the work, we got you,” Carmon writes (she is the sole writer, sharing researching and reporting roles with Knizhnik). “[RBG] is committed to bringing up other women and underrepresented people, and to working together with her colleagues even when it seems impossible. We are frankly in awe of what we’ve learned about her, and we’re pretty excited to share it with you.”
There is nary a criticism or an iota of confusion about how Ginsburg became the luminary she is. Carmon never uses the word “superhuman” — not that RBG would ever classify herself that way — though Ginsburg does seem to possess advantages the rest of us do not, such as her ability to get on with only a few hours of sleep and lots of coffee. We get a list, written by Ginsburg when preparing for a job interview for a judicial position on the Second Circuit, of her strengths, but Carmon opts to elaborate on everything Ginsburg missed: It “sold the star litigator rather short [and] focused not on her brilliant strategy or accomplishments.”
If RBG has any shortcomings, they’re addressed in the book only in some brief passages about qualities for which women are stereotypically judged: her terrible driving skills, her lack of finesse in the kitchen (her daughter said that it wasn’t until she was 14 that she saw a fresh vegetable), and jokes from her children about her having no sense of humor. Yet the book spends little time addressing how these conventional “flaws” might have affected her colleagues’ opinions of her or the progression of her career.
In fact, the tone of the book is uniformly triumphant and celebratory, leaving little sense of what RBG has struggled with, a seemingly curious omission, as Ginsburg’s career has been marked by fighting against and experiencing gender inequality. Though there are many examples in the book of sexism she faced and hardships she endured, they feel glossed over, given a romantic hue. Barely two pages are allotted to her husband’s battle with testicular cancer — which occurred when they were both in their 20s and in law school with a young child — and even less is given to the death of her mother when she was 17. Yet RBG’s views on abortion and Roe v. Wade are given at least five times the space.
RBG may not be a woman prone to reflection or worry, although there are moments in life when she recalls that she had been anxious or nervous or unsure of herself. A few more of those, delivered with less of a cheerful gloss, might have given RGB and Notorious RBG extra depth.
What does come across is a picture of RBG’s long, successful marriage with Marty Ginsburg. There’s a whole chapter devoted to Marty and Ruth’s devoted partnership, an egalitarian marriage that was admired by friends and strangers alike. Ginsburg called Marty her “life’s partner” since the 1970s, and said that Marty, her best friend, was the one who kept her fed, reminded her to come home to sleep, and from whom she drew her strength: “The principle advice that I have gotten from Marty throughout my life is that he always made me feel like I was better than I thought myself. I started out by being very unsure. Could I do this brief? Could I make this oral argument?”
At times the prose can appear jejune, as in a line like “RBG learned a lesson that would stay with her for the rest of her life,” which makes the book sound like it’s written for young audiences that have perhaps been lured in by the mashup of Notorious B.I.G. lyrics (each chapter is titled with a lyric from one of his songs) with RBG’s no-nonsense feminism.
But the playfulness and Millennial-friendly posturing of the book affords a useful primer for younger readers who may be unaware to the country’s history of discriminatory laws and the men and women who fought to abolish them.
The book takes care to commemorate the many remarkable people who influenced or encouraged RBG, some of whom deserve to be just as lionized in their own right, like the civil rights activist Pauli Murray and the attorney Dorothy Kenyon. It was Kenyon and Murray’s legal work on the intersections of racial and gendered oppression that Ginsburg used as the basis of her argument before the Supreme Court in Reed v. Reed (1971), the case in which the Court ruled that discrimination between the sexes when choosing an administrator for an estate was unconstitutional.
Much of RBG’s career was spent exposing how laws written with an eye toward “benevolence” to women actually harmed families in ways the drafters would not have realized. This was the genius of her strategy, to focus on the impact of sexist laws on men and children — in fact, many of her clients in her precedent-setting cases were men.
To highlight her legal ingenuity, Carmon and Knizhnik reprint passages from RBG’s dissents, opinions, and briefs, annotated with help from legal scholars, in addition to providing charts, letters, and notes from the cases she worked on, in order for the audience to understand how deep sexist laws actually reached and — by extension — RBG’s role in shaping our society.
It’s hard not to be in awe of a woman like RBG, and Carmon and Knizhnik in their eagerness to praise her may be said to have drunk the Kool-Aid. But RBG largely saw her role as a teacher – I “try to teach through my opinions, through my speeches, how wrong it is to judge people on the basis of what they look like, color of their skin, whether they’re men or women,” she told Carmon. And Notorious RBG is at its best when it stops cheerleading long enough to let RBG’s story and accomplishments come through — to let her teach — in her own words .
You can read an excerpt from the book here.
Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik; Dey Street Books (240 pages, $19.99)
Photo collage: RBG — Lawyer, Legend, Meme. L to R: Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Rutgers School of Law), Molly in Baltimore, RBG and Olivia (Matthew Winters). All images courtesy Dey Street Books.