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Bar News - September 20, 2017

Book Review: Different Paths Led Ginsberg, O’Connor to the High Court


Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World
By Linda R. Hirshman
HarperCollins, 2016
paperback, 301 pages

In 1975, as some of us remember, women lawyers were scarce, especially outside of trusts and estates and real estate law.

Few courts had ever had a woman judge; few firms wanted female litigators; tony New York firms held wet T-shirt or bathing-suit contests for summer associates, while blocking the partnership track. The US Supreme Court lawyers’ lounge lacked a ladies’ room; several Justices still refused to consider women law clerks.

One hopeful glimmer was a terse Supreme Court notice of a change in the preferred form of address from “Mr. Justice ____” to simply “Justice ____.” With little fanfare, the Court was preparing for the eventual naming of a female justice.

Against this backdrop, lawyer, cultural historian, and women’s studies scholar Linda Hirshman has written Sisters in Law, an engaging double biography of the first two women to serve on the Court, tall Arizona Republican Sandra Day O’Connor and petite New York Democrat Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As Hirshman says, the two women, who served together from 1993 to early 2006, were “neither bosom buddies nor mean girl competitors,” but rather found “the sweet spot of affectionate alliance,” joining forces to alter the shape of jurisprudence and of women’s status in society.

Using a rich trove of sources, Hirshman deftly traces each woman’s life from childhood – an Arizona cattle-ranch, a Brooklyn Jewish immigrant neighborhood – through college (Stanford, Cornell) and law school (Stanford ’52, Columbia via Harvard ’56). She works in telling details of their lives, set against the shifting discourse about women’s roles from the 1950s to the present, showing how each, in quite different ways, challenged customs and legal doctrines embodying gender stereotypes. She ably demonstrates that O’Connor, while “not a robust voice for social change,” or as visionary a feminist theorist as Ginsburg, was nevertheless less conservative than her feminist critics sometimes claimed.

Hirshman traces each woman’s path to the Court, each one aided by social and professional connections and by their husbands’ active lobbying. She also details the two women’s professional relationship and mutual respect, both before and during their joint service on the Court.

This book also includes detailed accounts (with stories from inside the Justices’ chambers) of how sex discrimination and abortion law have changed over the past five decades, with background information on and legal analysis of the major Supreme Court cases, from the heady feminist wins of the 1970s to the more recent retrenchments with Ginsburg in bitter dissent. (New Hampshire’s own Justice Souter gets a few cameo appearances). Hirshman lightens the defeats with a chapter on Ginsburg’s recent Internet fame as “Notorious RBG,” “the only dissenter in history who had a rap song” – and an aria – in her honor.

This book is a good read, as well as a useful account of the Court’s grappling with key social issues and the changing role of women in the legal profession.

Elizabeth Cazden practiced law in New Hampshire from 1978 to 2004, including a significant appellate practice. She now lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she researches, writes and speaks about slavery in colonial New England. She welcomes comments by email.

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