Book Review: My Own Words


Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elena Kagan, 10/1/10 (the day of Justice Kagan’s investiture)

International Women’s Day seems like a great time to celebrate women who blazed the legal eagle trail.  I was delighted to read about them in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s My Own Words along with a wee bit of her wit and wisdom.  She quoted Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who became the first female justice on SCOTUS in 1981:

For both men and women the first step in getting power is to become visible to others, and then to put on an impressive show. . .As women achieve power, the barriers will fall.  As society sees what women can do, as women see what women can do, there will be more women out there doing things, and we’ll all be better off for it.

Amen.  Justice O’Connor’s approach was:  “Waste no time on anger, regret, or resentment, just get the job done.”

Ruth and Marty Ginsburg

In every good marriage,
it helps sometimes to be a little deaf.

This was the advice that Marty Ginsburg’s mother gave to Ruth on her wedding day.  She followed it every day of their 56 year marriage as well as at work ~ including at SCOTUS:

When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best tune out.  Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade. . .I have had more than a little bit of luck in life, but nothing equals in magnitude my marriage to Martin D. Ginsburg.  I do not have words adequate to describe my supersmart, exuberant, ever-loving spouse. . .without him I would not have gained a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Marty, Ruth, James, and Jane Ginsburg sailing near St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, 12/79

Mr. Ginsburg was a tax attorney who was also the family chef:

He’s so secure about himself, he never regarded me as any kind of threat to his ego. . .he took great pride in being married to someone he considered very able. . .He had enormous confidence in my ability, more than I had in myself.

Prejudice saves us a painful trouble,
the trouble of thinking.
– Jane Ruth Bader, 1946 (8th grade)

Ruth’s mother Celia was devoted to her.  Because three girls were named June in her elementary school class, Mrs. Bader suggested that June use her middle name Ruth.  Sadly, Ruth’s older sister Marilyn died from meningitis shortly after Ruth’s first birthday.  Mrs. Bader died from cancer two days before Ruth graduated from high school.  Ruth’s beloved husband and life partner Marty died of cancer in 2010.  She has survived multiple bouts of cancer.

We shall never have equal rights until we take them,
nor equal respect until we command it.
– Belva Lockwood

My Own Words was a disappointment.  I expected to read more of Justice Ginsburg’s notorious quips and quotes rather than dry-as-dust speeches and written words.  Yet, I was intrigued by the stories of legal trailblazers.  I didn’t know, for example, that Belva Ann Lockwood was the first woman to be admitted to the SCOTUS bar, the first woman to argue a case before SCOTUS, and the first woman to run for president.  She was born in 1830.  She was a prominent suffragist and civil rights activist.

Arabella Mansfield

I also didn’t know that in 1869 Arabella Mansfield became the first woman admitted to the practice of law.  She lived in Iowa.

In 1869, St. Louis Law School became the first to admit women.

Florence Ellinwood Allen

Florence Ellinwood Allen was the first female assistant prosecutor, the first female state supreme court justice (Ohio), and the first woman appointed to the federal appellate bench in 1934.   She became the first female chief judge while serving on the Sixth Circuit.  She made Pres. Harry Truman’s short list for SCOTUS in 1949.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg accepting Pres. Bill Clinton’s nomination to SCOTUS in the Rose Garden, 6/14/93

Not a law firm in the entire city of New York
bid for my employment as a lawyer
when I earned my degree.
– Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Justice Ginsburg is big on “we’ve come a long way, baby!”  But, I’m not so sure.  She graduated at the top of her class at Columbia Law, but her route to SCOTUS was via a legal clerkship, academia, and pro bono advocacy.  Pres. Carter appointed her to the DC Circuit in 1980.

Columbia Law Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1980 shortly after her appointment to the DC Circuit

It was sobering to read her summation written in 1992 on the country’s march to equality.  White privilege is rooted in financial affluence, misogyny, and racism:

Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall reminded us that while the Constitution’s endurance is indeed something to celebrate, the framers had a distinctly limited vision of those who counted among “We the People.”  Qualified voters when the nation was new bore more than a passing resemblance to the framers:  the franchise was confined to property-owning adult white males, people free from dependence on others, and therefore considered trustworthy citizens, not susceptible to influence or control by masters, overlords, or supervisors.  In 1787, only five of the thirteen states had abolished slavery, women did not count as part of the franchise-holding politically active community in any state, and wealth qualifications severely limited voter eligibility even among white males.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia shared a love of opera but were dramatically opposed on the issue of equality.

We often hear about “the talk” Black parents have with their sons, but we ignore “the talk” all parents have with their daughters.  In fact, I’m wondering whether equal protection cases would have ever gotten traction if her first “on the basis of sex” case had not been on behalf of a man denied a tax exemption by the IRS.  As she wrote in 1992:

The founders stated a commitment in the Declaration of Independence to equality and in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights to individual liberty.  Those commitments had growth potential. . .a prime portion of the history of the U.S. Constitution is the story of the extension (through amendment, judicial interpretation, and practice) of constitutional rights and protections to once-excluded groups; to people who were once held in bondage, to men without property, to Native Americans, and to women.

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