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'Notorious RBG' the focus of Penn Law talk

‘Notorious RBG’ the focus of Penn Law talk

She is a revolutionary figure: a feminist, a progressive and a leader. She is the “Notorious R.B.G.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined the Supreme Court in 1993, becoming the second woman on the high court after Sandra Day O’Connor.

Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik gave a talk about their book “Notorious R.B.G.: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” on Tuesday night in Golkin Hall. Penn English professor Salamishah Tillet moderated the discussion.

Knizhnik started a Tumblr about Ginsberg in 2013 as a rising second-year law student around the time when the Supreme Court released a series of disappointing decisions for progressives.

She was inspired by Ginsburg’s stirring dissents. The justice “broke the record for the number of oral dissents given from the bench,” Knizhnik said.

“My peers and I were frustrated with what was happening,” she said, and they “needed space on the Internet to celebrate her.”

She started posting quotes from Ginsburg online on her Tumblr page, Notorious R.B.G. One of the pivotal moments for Notorious R.B.G. was Ginsburg’s dissent to the Voting Rights Case in 2013, Shelby County v. Holder, by which the Court struck down a part of the VRA that required states to pre-clear their voting laws.

Knizhnik attributed this change to the majority’s belief that the country no longer had a discrimination problem. Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away an umbrella in a rainstorm because you’re not getting wet.”

The idea for the book came when an editor from Harper Collins approached Knizhnik about her Tumblr page and suggested she turn it into a book. This editor connected Knizhnik with Carmon, a journalist, to write the book.

“It didn’t fit into the preconceived categories,” Knizhnik said, describing the unusual task of turning a Tumblr into a book.

Knizhnik described the inter-generational aspect of the R.B.G. phenomenon.

“It’s unusual for us to have these icons of older women. Now people are really curious about who Justice Ginsburg [is],” Carmon said. “We wanted our book to be for both [lawyers and non-lawyers].”

Throughout her professional life, Ginsburg’s views were formed in part by the circumstances of her ascent to the Court.

Knizhnik said, “I don’t think she did consider herself a feminist at first. She had a conventional trajectory,” despite being a Jewish girl in Brooklyn who was the child of immigrants.

“She was forced into radicalism again and again by her circumstances,” Knizhnik said.

During a stint volunteering at the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg received a stack of letters from women, Knizhnik explained. These letters helped her realize that she was not the only woman facing discrimination and sexism. “She needed to use her talents to change the status quo,” Knizhnik said.

Even today, Ginsburg is ahead of her time and still questions sexist laws. “Her life made her a feminist,” Carmon said.

The two authors also spoke about Ginsburg’s marriage. Her marriage to tax attorney Marty Ginsburg was anything but conventional for the time. Instead of playing the role of supportive housewife, she rose to success, and he supported her.

Ginsburg noted that traditional marriage does not exist anymore, as traditional marriage was the case where a woman was inferior to her husband, Knizhnik explained. This helped her support same-sex marriage before some of her colleagues.

When Sandra Day O’Connor left the Court, Ginsburg felt her absence. Ginsburg was pleased when Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor were appointed. Famously, asked when there would be enough women on the bench, Ginsburg said, “When there are nine.”


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