Book Group, Books

Book 450: Sisters In Law – Linda Hirshman

Hirshman, Linda - Sisters In LawFour the fourth installment of our nonfiction book group, we’re learning about the amazing Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor. I thought I knew a lot about the “Notorious RBG,” but I knew nothing; and then add in what I learned about the FWOTSC (First Woman on the Supreme Court) and I’d say this was a pretty good addition to our year of biographies and autobiographies.

As interesting as the book was, I felt like there was so much from both their histories and from their time on the court that was left out of the book. Hirshman seemed to rush the first half of O’Connor’s time on the court and the last part of Ginsburg’s continued time on the court. It was disappointing because there are clearly so many additional amazing cases they had to decide that weren’t as glamorous as LGBT rights, women’s rights or racial equality.

All of this being said, the book did do one thing in making me want to find out even more about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I mean when an author compares the “Notorious RBG” to Jane Austen and Mozart,

“Mozart had, by many accounts, five operatic masterpieces. Jane Austen’s reputation rests on five novels. As the chief litigator for the Women’s Rights Project from 1971 to 1980, Ruth Bader Ginsburg argued in five great Supreme Court victories (and one loss).” (69)

How could I not be enamored. You know aside from her just being a legal bad-ass.

My favorite section, by far, was “No Truth Without Ruth” where Hirshman discusses Ginsburg’s time after O’Connor retired. Hirshman talks about all of the cases in which Ginsburg wrote scathing dissenting opinions and then read many of them out from the bench which doesn’t usually happen. Many of her opinions have been turned into soundbites or even this awesome rap song:

Even the song mentions her dissenting opinions being quoted in other cases because RBG’s mind was such that when she started fighting for women’s rights through the legal system she built a long and intricate chain of cases that have slowly progressed things forward.

I also don’t want to completely neglect Justice O’Connor. My politics may not align with hers, but it was fascinating to learn that as much as Ginsburg has spent her career on the offensive for equality (women’s, LGBT, racial), O’Connor played defense. She didn’t actively push things forward for any minority population, but she actively kept the court (at its most conservative) from moving them backwards, so that must also be said.

Recommendation: If you just want a quick crash course about the first two female Justices of the Supreme Court then this book is for you. I think there are probably better biographies of both Supreme Court Justices out there, but this is a great sample of what could be on offer. I would gladly read another book about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and would consider reading one about Sandra Day O’Connor.

Opening Line: “By the time the nation celebrates the birth of its democracy each Fourth of July, the nine justices of the Supreme Court have mostly left town.”

Closing Line: “When, during the flap over Sotomayor’s confirmation, an interviewer asked Ginsburg if the results might be different in discrimination cases if more women sat on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg gave this answer: ‘I think for the most part, yes. I would suspect that, because the women will relate to their own experiences.'” (Not whited out as this is a work of nonfiction.)

Additional Quotes from Sisters in Law
“Each had a long, hard journey to the place where their stories peaked. Forty-plus years before the announcement of the decision in the VMI case, Justice O’Connor, then a new law school graduate, had been offered a position as a legal secretary. When Justice Ginsburg arrived at Harvard in 1956, the Law School’s dean asked all nine women students in her class to explain how they justified taking up a place that would otherwise have gone to a man.” (Intro., Loc. 276)

“When they could not get even, they would act as if they were not mad at all.” (Intro., Loc. 392)

“When Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1993, someone sent her a fax relating that one of her old law school classmates told a meeting of his Rotary Club that the guys in her law school class used to call her by the nickname ‘Bitch.’ ‘Better bitch,’ Ginsburg responded, looking back on her journey from the derisive Harvard Law School scene to the highest court in the land, ‘than mouse.'” (Intro., Loc. 420)

“As an only child for eight years and treated like a son, she had also internalized a sense of entitlement normally associated with straight white men. For the rest of her life she would combine her confidence in her own equal value with a unique ability to absorb a high level of injustice without complaint.” (5)

“As she saw it, the arc of American history bent toward including all marginalized groups into equal participation in national life. Her strength lay not in inventing overarching new approaches, but in her meticulous command of the game by the rules set down. It would be a masterful performance.” (11)

“The greatest gain of increased equality between the sexes would be, of course, that nobody should be forced into a predetermined role on account of sex, but should be given better possibilities to develop his or her personal talents.” (22)

“The racial civil rights movement had given birth to the women’s movement. Now the racial legal rights movement would give rise to the women’s legal rights movement.” (40)

“Despite the abortion opponents’ propaganda, the seminal reproductive rights decisions did not involve bead-wearing hippies wanting to have sex without consequences in the mud of Woodstock. It was the right to have a child that the Court protected first, in a time perilously close to the Nazi era of racial sterilizations. From that principle sprang the decisions that the government could not force people to reproduce any more than it could forbid them from doing so.” (61)

“Change the standard for reviewing presumptions about women and you change the entire body of law.” (71)

“Sex like race is a visible, immutable characteristic bearing no necessary relationship to ability. Sex like race has been made the basis for unjustified or at least unproved assumptions, concerning an individual’s potential to perform or to contribute to society.” (74)

“Ginsburg later shared her unhappiness with the abortion decision. Abortion was not the business of the Women’s Rights Project, but, from the sidelines, she developed a much more radical theory about abortion. To this equality advocate, abortion prohibitions stereotyped women as breeders and kept them from realizing their full potential in life. Hence, the laws violated the equality provisions of the Constitution.” (80)

“Planning a wet T-shirt contest and defending discrimination in law-firm hiring in the same year, King & Spalding hit a rare double. It presented the Court with a classic example of sex discrimination pure and simple and gave the nation a glimpse into the devilish connection between sex as in sex and sex as in inequality, a much fuzzier concept.” (162)

“Almost without exception she used the vehicle of the concurrence to make the conservative rulings more liberal and liberal opinions more conservative, usually by tying the outcome to the particular facts in the case. This pattern drove the lower courts to distraction from the lack of guidance on how to apply the decision in cases with similar issues but different facts.” (183)

“Common sense—the practical wisdom of the common man—by definition requiring neither theory nor expertise, is an effective tool for allowing unexamined intuitions and prejudices into decision making.” (195)

“In 2003, she voted to declare the criminal sodomy laws unconstitutional. O’Connor was the only justice of the five who had upheld the criminal sodomy laws in 1986 to change her vote.” (260)

“He won the task of writing the opinion striking the last of the laws making sodomy criminal; Kennedy’s obviously heartfelt paean to the respect owed to gay men and lesbian women is rightly seen as a high point in his time on the bench.” (260)

“Ginsburg’s project from the beginning was to remove that formal legal support for the old behaviors as a means to make room for new ways of acting. The law should not enshrine social distinctions that seemed like common sense to people like Anthony Kennedy.” (264)

“…no social movement in America has made better use of social media than the gay revolution.” (292)


5 thoughts on “Book 450: Sisters In Law – Linda Hirshman”

    1. It’s been a lot of fun but also challenging. With fiction we can critique the story and talk about what we like or don’t but with nonfiction it’s mostly just facts and writing style.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s a good point! I feel as though picking a controversial topic or something that otherwise inspires discussion might be necessary to keep the conversation around a nonfiction read going.

        Liked by 1 person

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