Charlotte Brontë and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Before the World Knew Them


Ginsburg has come to seem almost superhuman in her ascent to pop culture stardom. (Name another justice who has graced tea towels, action figures and Christmas ornaments alike.) In the wake of the memeification of the Notorious R.B.G., there has been a string of attempts to rehumanize the woman behind the jabot. As a result, the high-impact moments in this book will not be news to most readers. But Levy, drawing on copious research and interviews with the justice herself, fills in many less familiar details, laying out a path from the shy, smart child to the force she would become.

When a teacher tries to make young Ruth write with her right hand because that is “the correct way,” the left-handed Ginsburg stands her ground. When another teacher tells her she should mouth along to the choir’s songs because of her unfortunate singing voice, the music lover turns to piano lessons instead.

Like Fawkes, Levy skillfully incorporates examples of her subject’s writings into the text, from a column in her eighth-grade school paper on the United Nations Charter to an article in her synagogue’s newsletter about building community after the Holocaust. As Ginsburg moves on to college, law school and beyond, Levy weaves in briefs, letters and arguments the young lawyer made before the Supreme Court — and includes explanations for readers who may not be familiar with the distinction between district and circuit court or the nuances of civil procedure. She is especially effective at distilling language in Ginsburg’s key cases to be easily understood by a layperson.

Much of the book is dedicated to Ginsburg’s influences — from Eleanor Roosevelt to the soap opera character Helen Trent and the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, who was Ginsburg’s professor at Cornell. Levy can be heavy-handed, telling the reader how these figures are shaping her protagonist instead of trusting readers to follow the thread she is laying out. At 191 pages, “Becoming RBG” is more than twice as long as Fawkes’s biography of Brontë, but tonally and visually it skews younger. The patriotic color palette of Gardner’s illustrations reinforces Levy’s narrative: This is the story of an American hero in the making.

Perhaps the greatest influence in “Becoming RBG” is Ginsburg’s mother, Celia Bader, who died of cancer days before her daughter’s high school graduation. Celia haunts the book long after her untimely death, her advice on how to be “ladylike” a refrain that recurs as Ruth grows up and forges her own definition. In the book’s final scene, as Ginsburg accepts her nomination to the Supreme Court, she calls her mother “the bravest and strongest person I have known.” Her speech ends, “I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons.”

We still have work to do until we arrive at that time. But these biographies show how far we have come, and how much girls — and all children — can aspire to. To paraphrase Brontë’s most famous protagonist, no matter how obscure or little they may be, they are still full of heart and soul, much like these books.



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