In 2016, Teri Kanefield wrote a captivating biography of one of the giants of the U.S. justice system – Free to Be Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Story of Women and Law. In it, she starts with Ginsburg’s humble beginnings as the younger daughter of two Jewish Eastern European immigrants. She then follows her through her education, personal experiences, and her impressive judicial career first as an attorney and law school professor, then as a judge, and finally as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. In every capacity she held, she broke new ground and furthered the quest for equality and fairness in the country’s jurisprudence. Kanefield doesn’t just list facts and figures, she shows the reader a portrait of an incredible person of integrity and perseverance striving for fairness and equality across the board.
The facts and progression of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life are well-chronicled by numerous authors and websites. Kanefield’s book cites many of the same events reported elsewhere, but this book feels more intimate as she makes the Ginsburg family come alive recounting much more than just the facts. She gives the reader a feel for how extraordinary her subject truly was throughout her life. Ginsburg grew up in a time when women were not encouraged to pursue academics except in a small number of fields such as nursing or teaching. In that time, women were actively discouraged from other studies because they would be taking seats away from the men. Despite that, we learn that Ginsburg’s mother encouraged her to excel in academics and enjoyed watching her study and learn. Sadly, her mother died the day before her high school graduation ceremony, so she never got to see the full scope of her daughter’s accomplishments. It’s clear from the book that Ginsburg strove to excel in everything she did, for herself, for the good she could do for others, and for her mother who she loved deeply and missed.
Kanefield makes the reader feel Ginsburg’s pain from when her mother died, relating not only the fact that she lost the person closest to her, but also showing the reader how events surrounding the family’s mourning process awakened something in Ginsburg. Having taken her Jewish education seriously growing up, in that tradition at that time, women were not counted toward the minyan needed to execute the public prayers of mourning. In the orthodox tradition, they still aren’t, but things are changing in the reform and conservative branches of the faith. Still, the situation at the time stung Ginsburg, and while it didn’t necessarily make her an avid feminist by today’s standards, this heavily influenced her becoming an activist for fairness and equality from a practical perspective.
Ginsburg didn’t consider herself a feminist as we define the term today because she recognized that equal rights required a few things, some of which couldn’t come from a strictly feminist perspective. Among them, men had to be willing to step into traditionally female roles before women would be able to regularly break through into traditionally male roles. Also, the laws that favored one group over another under the guise of protection hurt everyone. Through the course of her career, she argued some and judged other cases along those lines.
Kanefield shows how and why Ginsburg turned away from her original goal of becoming a high school history teacher to study the law, and how through her college years she also stopped hiding her intelligence from her peers. She didn’t flaunt it or lord it over others, she was just confident and knew what she knew which was all the more impressive given her diminutive stature. Kanefield also takes great care in discussing the Ginsburgs’ private lives, and how Ruth and Marty were truly life partners in every sense of the word well before it became fashionable. As Kanefield puts it:
“The Ginsburgs became, in effect, a nineties family in the fifties.”
The convoluted story of how Ginsburg got her first position out of law school was far more difficult than it should have been for someone with her exemplary academic record. With the help of one of her mentors, she was finally able to secure a clerkship. She so impressed the judge who finally agreed to hire, that his very next clerk after Ginsburg was also a woman.
Ginsburg’s path after her clerkship was a little convoluted taking her on a detour to Sweden to work on a new international project. Her time in Sweden completed her call to arms for the cause of equality for all. Sweden was ahead of the U.S. at the time, and Ginsburg took it to heart. Her work in Sweden inspired her anew to pursue equality and fairness when she got back to the states, and she was always on the lookout for cases to edge closer to that goal. She learned early on that in order to make progress, she couldn’t ask for everything all at once. She had to push just enough to make some progress with each case. Once she was on the high court, she also used her dissents at times to further equality, if not through a court decision directly, by inspiring Congress to take action to fill the void. It’s interesting that when she began her SCOTUS tenure, she was seen as a moderate incrementalist, but over time, she became one of the most liberal justices on the court. She hadn’t changed and still pursued incremental, moderate changes. Alas, the court’s composition had lurched to the right, and as we know now, it moved even further right after her death.
It’s clear that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a razor sharp mind seeing things that often eluded others. Throughout her life, those who really knew her were largely in awe of her, except Marty. He too had an intellect that rivaled hers, and they each had unbridled admiration and respect for the other. They were very much in love. There were a few duties that they agreed to split on however. It’s amusing that one thing that Ruth couldn’t do was cook. Marty handled that part of their household duties partially out of self-interest, and Ruth didn’t mind at all.
Kanefield is above all a skilled storyteller no matter whether she’s writing a legal brief for an appellate case, a Twitter thread, a blog post, a compelling life history of a legal giant, a children’s story, or recounting her dog’s latest adventure. Whether writing fact or fiction, Kanefield grabs the reader’s attention from the start and leaves them wanting more at the end of the story.
Early in the book, Kanefield includes a chapter entitled Axiomatic Truths About Women. In it, she lays out the history of women in the law and the obstacles that prevented them from qualifying to practice for much of the country’s history. She discusses a few extraordinary women who tried valiantly to buck the system. The laws putting women on a pedestal for their protection created a cage from which they couldn’t escape in most states, except sometimes those closest to the frontier as the country was being settled and expanded. Those laws ensured that women had no identity separate from their fathers or once married, their husbands and as such were excluded from the Fourteenth Amendment. It would be some time before a woman was considered a person under the law.
The chapter titles themselves tell a story giving the reader a high level overview of what is to come. Kanefield also includes a short glossary of legal terms, a notes section, and an extensive bibliography. The only thing missing is an index to more easily use the book as an RBG reference, but a digital copy of the book combined with the search function could be a useful substitute.
Free to Be Ruth Bader Ginsburg: The Story of Women and Law, by Teri Kanefield