Book Review: Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life by Jane Sherron de Hart

Ruby Sutherland
July 19, 2022

Genre: Non-Fiction / Biography

Content warnings: abortion, rape, suicide (This text deals with real legal cases, such as Roe v Wade. If you are easily disturbed, then please skip this review.)

Perfect for when you’re in the mood for: some political activism and becoming an attorney

Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lived an extraordinary life, and this recent biography by Jane Sherron de Hart chronicling Justice Ginsburg’s life lives up to its 540-page count. I have taken a personal interest in Ginsburg and her work as I am a current law student, so reading this massive book was no challenge for me (I didn’t even flinch at the size). The book is separated into five parts (like my lecturer said to me: it is a marathon not a sprint), and thus the marathon through this book begins. The first part deals with Ginsburg’s early years and how her relationship with her mother affected herself and her career. Ginsburg’s mother, Cecilia, always encouraged her to read (let's be honest, that is why we are all in this society, right? Or is it for the tea and food . . . ). This part goes into great detail about Ginsburg and her family dynamic, setting the foundations for her future.

The second part focuses on Ginsburg’s life at university and her courtship with her lifelong partner, Marty. What particularly caught my attention was how much time this book spends building up Ginsburg’s life and the people around her. De Hart’s writing is very fluid, and it feels at points that you are reading fiction and not something that is non-fiction. This section also gives us an insight into the blatant sexism and sex discrimination (it works both ways for men and women – keep this in mind for later) that Ginsburg was up against, being one of the only women admitted to Harvard Law.

Photo of a paperback copy of 'Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life' by Jane Sherron de Hart.

The third part deals with Ginsburg’s challenges of being a mother and finding a clerkship. This was a hard task to master as most judges would not accept women, or as they put it, were ‘not ready to accept women’ (I was starting to feel the marathon burn). Eventually, Ginsburg does acquire a clerkship and starts to work her way up the ladder of the legal world. Her main focuses were the then current women’s rights movements, women’s representation in court and being victorious in a court of law for her client. One case of Ginsburg’s that stuck out to me and deals with the sex discrimination argument is Weinberger v Wiesenfeld. To sum up, this case revolved around a recently widowed father appealing for a pension. He was not legally allowed to receive it as the pension was only allowed to be given to widowed women – this is an act of discrimination against widowers and men in general. Ginsburg did win this case, and her client became one of her closest friends. There are many other cases that are mentioned in this book, such as the Roe v Wade case, and many cases deal with sexual assault against women and in some cases suicide, so please keep that in mind if you are interested in this book.

The fourth part chronicles Ginsburg's rise to becoming a judge on the DC Circuit and then a Supreme Court judge (this was the point of the marathon where the fatigue kicks in). By the time I had made my way to the fourth part of this book, I was starting to feel tired of reading. Not because it wasn’t interesting but because I think de Hart tried to include as much as she could and provide as much detail as possible, which is great but the downside is that readers can forget what is going on if they haven’t read the book in a couple days (this happened to me a lot – it became like watching an episode of Game of Thrones and guessing who was who).

The fifth and final part chronicles Ginsburg's final years on the bench, and it is appropriately titled ‘Standing Firm’. This section really touches on Ruth becoming the icon (and queen) that she is as the Notorious RBG.

In conclusion (I finally reached the end of this marathon, crawling to the finish line . . . I now realise in hindsight that I should have taken notes on who was who), I wouldn’t recommend this book to a causal reader as it is too long and tends to get stuck cramming as much as it can into its 540-page count. If you are studying law, you should pick up this book. If you are an RBG fan, you should definitely pick up this book. However, this is a one-time read. I do not see myself going back to this one, but I felt like I had conquered a mountain and lived Ruth Bader Ginsburg's life with her.

I rate it 4/5 stars.

Illustration of four stars drawn onto a torn slip of paper.

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