Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World, by Linda Hirshman

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Three and a half stars, read from November 2015 to February 2016.

I finally, finally finished this book! It took three months, and I had to return it to the library three times because people kept placing holds on it. I had it checked out on Overdrive, too, but for some reason I could never get into it when I tried reading the digital copy.

Between the lengthy title and subtitle, you pretty much know everything you need to know about this book from the cover. It follows the careers of Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the first two women on the Supreme Court of the United States, from law school through the present day. Both are incredibly influential people, and it’s interesting that they have so much in common when they’re so different in a lot of ways—O’Connor a tall, blonde conservative who grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona; Ginsburg a tiny, dark-haired Jewish liberal from the city.

Their story is written here with an unsettling combination of dry legal jargon and junior high school attitude. From  section titles like “Girls Don’t Rule,” “From Woo Hoo to Boo Hoo” and “He’s Glad to See You and It’s a Gun in His Pocket,” to acronyms like WWTFWOTSCD (what would the first woman on the Supreme Court do) and WWKD (what would [Anthony] Kennedy do), to quotes like this:

In a Girlz Rule string of citations, [O’Connor] reiterated to the Court: ‘We have made abundantly clear in past cases that gender classifications that rest on impermissible stereotypes violate the Equal Protection Clause, even when some statistical support can be conjured up for the generalization.’

I felt more than once that Hirshman was trying too hard to be funny, to make up for the density of the legal information.

It was too brief a section of the book, but I loved how Hirshman characterized their respective positions on the Court as offense and defense. O’Connor often interpreted as narrowly as possible in moving forward—frustratingly, to me—but she also “would not permit the courts to roll the equality ball backward.”

O’Connor’s clerk Stephen Gilles and the ACLU’s Aryeh Neier, an astute social observer, both credit her with laser judgment about what the court—and the society—would digest at any particular moment. Certainly Anthony Kennedy . . . repeatedly demonstrated his lack of sympathy for women’s equality in the years after 1992. Had O’Connor used their brief agreement on abortion to strike down any more of the Pennsylvania law, he might well have walked. Sometimes a courageous rearguard action is exactly what an army needs.

Ginsburg played offense, strategically approaching each case with the goal of advancing human rights. “Deliberately or coincidentally, the two women were more effective together than separately.”

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The book wraps up with O’Connor’s retirement, the additions of Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan to the court, and an entire chapter on Shana Knizhnik’s fabulous creation, Notorious R.B.G. There is a good amount of personal information on each of Hirshman’s subjects, and I enjoyed learning about their careers, but the real value of this book is the broader perspective it provides of how these two women, separately and then together, changed and shaped U.S. history. It could have been a little shorter, but they’ve played such important roles that I can understand the temptation to include every little detail. I’m coming away with increased admiration for both of them, a new desire to learn about Sotomayor and Kagan now—and renewed determination to own that t-shirt.

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2 thoughts on “Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World, by Linda Hirshman

    1. So have I. Actually, if you exclude graphic novels, I read more nonfiction than fiction last year, which is just bonkers for me! I’ve always been a fiction reader.

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