The most surprising thing Ruth Bader Ginsburg‘s biographer learned about the Supreme Court Justice has nothing to do with law, the courts, or even her intense workouts.
Jane Sherron De Hart, author of the new book Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life, told Kveller that the most unexpected thing she learned about Ginsburg was her unique parenting style.
“One form of discipline she used when her children misbehaved was to make them write an essay,” De Hart says. “And then she would make them re-write it and re-write it.”
De Hart’s book — the first definitive biography of the iconic Jewish justice — covers Ginsburg’s childhood in Flatbush, Brooklyn, through her 25-year (and counting!) tenure on the highest court in the land.
But what we loved about the book were the incredible insights into RBG as a mom and grandma. Her legacy will long be remembered in the courts and her fight for women’s equality, but also in the personal impact she had on those who knew her.
Take, for example, those essays, which Ginsburg deployed “because she wanted them to be able to be very articulate in their writing,” said De Hart, adding, “I was interested to discover that her daughter then used that same method with her children.”
As De Hart says, while a large part of Ginsburg’s legacy is “her litigation to achieve women’s rights,” another part “really is behavioral.”
“She has been such a model,” De Hart says. “You could see this once she began teaching at Columbia; what a model she was for her women students and for other young women lawyers. She made such an impact on people’s lives, and real changes in the law.”
And one way in which she models her behavior very self-consciously? Her ideas of parenting — something that shaped her both at home and at work.
For example, when Ginsburg founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project in 1972, it was during “a period when you did not talk about bringing your babies to work,” De Hart says. Yet, Ginsburg created an atmosphere in which kids were welcome.
De Hart recalls one of her favorite Ginsburg anecdotes: “One of the founders of the ACLU, [who] must’ve been in his 80s at that time, and he wandered into the Women’s Rights Project to ask a question of one of the young lawyers there, and she was nursing a baby!”
Of course, it wasn’t easy — the biography does a remarkable job of showing how Ginsburg balanced the struggles of law school and starting a career while raising a young daughter. “During the early years, when his hardworking wife’s time was stretched so perilously thin, Marty considered it his job to inject some playfulness into her life, enlisting his daughter in a dinner-table game,” De Hart writes. “Jane’s job was to count the number of times either of them could succeed in saying something or telling a story that would make her mother smile. So caught up did Jane become in the game that she later produced a booklet titled ‘Mommy Laughed.'”
The biography illuminates Ginsburg’s status as a feminist icon, as well as her more private roles as a mom and grandma. “She really had a very well-honed, well-defined vision of family roles,” De Hart explains. “She really [believes in] the idea that you not only had to have changing gender roles, but that men’s roles had to change, too.”
In one interview De Hart conducted with Ginsburg in her chambers — she would interview her nine times over the course of 15 years — De Hart remembers one particular photograph on her bookshelves. It was a photo of Paul Spera, Ginsburg’s eldest grandson, with her son-in-law George. And while De Hart can’t recall exactly what was in the photograph, George was “doing something with [the] baby.”
Out of all the photographs Ginsburg could display, this seemed significant: “If you know her views about the importance of both sexes taking an active role in work life and family life, you just know that that picture conveys than just more ‘this is my darling first grandchild.'”