By Rana Bickel
“My Own Words” by Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016. 383 pages. $30.
“My Own Words” is not a classic autobiography. It is a collection of speeches, introductions, essays, statements, articles, opinions and more written over the years by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sometimes known as Notorious RBG.
Ginsburg’s personality shines through her carefully crafted remarks. She writes about being Jewish, her husband and the fun traditions of the Supreme Court justices. The earliest entry in the autobiography is an editorial she wrote in 1946 when she was 13 for her school newspaper. The most recent entry is remarks she made in July 2016 on the Supreme Court’s 2015-16 term.
The book is divided into five sections; the first is “Earlier Years and Lighter Side,” and the last is “The Justice on Judging and Justice.” The sections in between are about her work for gender equality and her journey from judge to justice.
Although most people consider Ginsburg a trailblazer, here she pays tribute to the women who came before her. She frequently speaks about Belva Lockwood, the first woman to gain admission to the Supreme Court Bar, argue a case before the court and run for president. Ginsburg’s respect for her colleagues is clear, as in a speech she gave about Sandra Day O’Connor in 2015. She also explores the stories of lesser-known women, such as the wives of the jurists on the nation’s highest court.
Ginsburg delves into Judaism as well. In a speech titled “From Benjamin to Brandeis to Breyer: Is There a Jewish Seat on the United States Supreme Court?” she examines the lives of Judah Benjamin and Louis Brandeis and concludes with gratitude for the opportunities open to the Jewish people today. “What is the difference between a New York City garment district bookkeeper and a Supreme Court justice? One generation — the difference between opportunities open to my mother, a bookkeeper, and those open to me.”
She mentions having the words “tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” “justice, justice shalt thou pursue” on the walls in her room. She talks about Gloria Steinem and in a speech she delivered to the National Council of Jewish Women after receiving their award titled “Three Brave Jewish Women,” she speaks about what she respects in Emma Lazarus, Anne Frank and Henrietta Szold.
Ginsburg frequently mentions her husband, Martin Ginsburg, and she tells of their life together. She writes beautifully about her colleagues, telling of her unlikely friendship with conservative Justice Antonin Scalia.
“My Own Words” is sprinkled with the occasional classic photograph, such as Ginsburg next to President Bill Clinton in the Rose Garden when her nomination to the Supreme Court was announced. The book contains fun things, such as the Scalia/Ginsburg Opera script. Each speech in the book is introduced by Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams, who are Ginsburg’s friends and biographers. They tell which in year each speech was given and often include helpful background and context.
The book also focuses on the earlier years when Ginsburg was a professor, advancing gender equality as a teacher and lawyer.
Reading her work from the 1970s and her comments on the Equal Rights Amendment demonstrates how far we have come. The last section of “My Own Words” features Ginsburg’s work on the Supreme Court.
A few of her many dissenting opinions are quoted, as well as her remarks on landmark cases. The cases get a bit technical, but the introductions are helpful in explaining the context. Ginsburg’s writing is at a very high level but is worth concentrating on.
“My Own Words” does justice to the 83 years of friendship, brilliance and hard work of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.