There are few judges like the“Notorious RBG”. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court—and an inspiration for women and men alike.
This week, I picked up a book on Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG), in conversation with Jeffrey Rosen (a law professor at George Washington University and writer for The Atlantic). While we can’t claim RBG as ours over here in Australia, the closest equivalent in would be the former High Court Justice Michael Kirby, also a “great dissenter”.
Conversations with RBG is a surprisingly accessible book. Despite the differences between US and Australian law, the book provides enough explanation of landmark cases, so you don’t lose the flavour of RBG’s personality or her judgments.
The book is set out in Q&A format under various themes. We start with the earliest cases RBG argued for as an advocate, to her more recent thoughts on the #MeToo movement.
As an octogenarian, RBG is unapologetically feisty and advanced in her thinking. It was fascinating to read about her ongoing advocacy for greater gender equality both for men and women. This extended to her support for working from home back in the mid-1990s (long before it was popular, or necessary in the age of COVID-19).
Given last week’s LB blog post on the Australian Constitution, it was fascinating to compare how cases might be decided under a rights-based US Constitution versus the Australian Constitution. RBG goes through cases before her in the US Supreme Court, which are eerily similar to the discussions we’ve had here in Australia. The cases include:
- The bounds of religious freedom: Whether an employer can impose its religious belief (against the use of contraceptives) on its non-religious employees: Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U.S. 682 (2014).
- Discrimination on the basis of sex: A pregnant woman who was fired because she couldn’t lift heavy packages at the courier service she worked at. Her employer claimed that they had no obligation to accommodate her because her pregnancy was not classed as a disability: Young v. United Parcel Service, Inc., 575 U.S. (2015).
- Who you sell wedding cakes to: A baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple on First Amendment grounds (i.e. prohibition on laws limiting the free exercise of religion, amongst other matters): Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 U.S. (2018).
- Equal pay for equal work: A woman who was paid less than the most junior man in a company after 19 years of working there. While her case was ultimately struck out by the majority in the US Supreme Court for exceeding the 180-day limitation period within which she had to bring her case, it led the US Congress to clarify the law based on RBG’s dissent: Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., 550 U.S. 618 (2007).
The conversation also turns to RBG’s exercise routine, her love for opera, her incredible work ethic, respect for those who don’t agree with her, and her empathetic approach to life and people (which extends to the cases she decides).
RBG also provides sage advice to young people, and women, on how to steer the course in a meaningful life.
JR: If you had to give advice to young girls or boys about how to muster the self-discipline and focus to lead productive and empathetic lives, what would it be?
RBG: If you want your dreams to come true, you must be willing to put in the hard work it takes to make that possible. We live in a society where, with will, determination, and dedication, you can be whatever you have the talent to be. I would also advise that good citizens have obligations as well as rights, the obligation to help keep our democracy relevant. Young people should pursue something outside themselves, something they are passionate about: ending discrimination or keeping our planet safe, for example.
—Conversations with RBG, page 232
And always standing your ground, not giving in to naysayers:
JR: [In the context of Malala Yousafzai’s Nobel Peace Prize and her work in ensuring young women can access education.] … Would you encourage young women to be lawyers, to be activists, to be Supreme Court justices—how can they make a difference?
RBG: By not taking no for an answer. If you have a dream, something you want to pursue, and you’re willing to do the work that’s necessary to make the dream come true, don’t let anyone tell you, you can’t do it. And you have, nowadays, many like-minded people to join you in opposing unfair treatment, treatment of you as less than a full citizen.
—Conversations with RBG, pages 199–200
Conversations with RBG is a worthy (and contemporary) read for anyone who wants to know more about RBG’s inspiring life and work.
- Sabrina Siddiqui, “Supreme court sides with former UPS driver in pregnancy discrimination suit” (26 March 2015, Guardian)
- Liz Morris, Cynthia Thomas Calvert and Joan C. Williams, “What Young vs. UPS Means for Pregnant Workers and Their Bosses” (26 March 2015, Harvard Business Review).
- National Women’s Law Center (US), “UPS Settles Pregnancy Discrimination Case, Marking the End of Peggy Young’s Nine-Year Legal Battle” (1 October 2015)