Becoming Notorious: On Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Michelle Obama

(Photo credit: Michelle Obama by Jillian Tamaki; Notorious RBG by Adam Johnson)

One of the few silver linings for me during this quarantine is finally getting the time to read. My book list has been growing steadily over the last few weeks, which is probably already more than what I got to read for leisure during law school and bar review. Like I've said, I'm still trying to get my old reading groove back, i.e. easing back into actually enjoying sentences, taking my time, and not feeling like highlighting everything in preparation for a recitation or an exam. 

So far, it's been going along smoothly. One big factor is that I've fully transitioned to reading e-books on my Surface Go. It's especially great during this time, because I can't physically go out and buy the books I want to read. So the Internet saves the day. 

These two books on US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Former US First Lady Michelle Obama have long been in my to-read list. They were marked "priority" for me as soon as quarantine started, and immediately finished them both in about a week. (Yeah, this book review is delayed, obviously.) I suppose you could chalk it up to the fact that they've led such colorful and inspiring lives, especially in the legal profession, so I was truly interested in their stories. But more than that, the reason why I devoured these books so quickly was because subconsciously, I wanted to have someone to cling on to - a leader, a symbol of hope, an idol - someone to look up to. We are living in extremely difficult times - and not just because of the virus. All over the world, leaders with no regard for equity and compassion are becoming more and more emboldened. It's frightening and disheartening. But hearing the stories of these two women and their rallying cry to always remain steadfast in their commitment to justice is truly inspiring. It's exactly what we need right now. 

1. "Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg" by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

I was actually torn between this and Justice RBG's own book, My Own Words. But that comprises a collection of RBG's speeches and writings dating back to the eighth grade. It wasn't exactly her autobiography. So I chose this one instead, which was, significantly, written by one of the creators of the "Notorious RBG" Tumblr page that started her newfound popularity in the 2010s in the first place. (If Shana Knizhnik ever evaluates her life, she should give herself a thousand good points for having created this in the first place, because it made one of the most intelligent and significant figures in US legal history more accessible to the general public, especially the youth. )

RBG led an ideal, happy childhood, with parents who recognized her intelligence and always pushed her towards excellence. However, her life was marred at an early age by the untimely demise of a younger sister when she was an infant, and her mother (who lovingly encouraged her to pursue greater things and apply at Cornell) passing away just right before her high school graduation. This only propelled her to seek greater heights. Soon after graduating from Cornell, she went to Harvard Law School. She eventually transferred to Columbia, as she needed to be with her husband, Marty, who was invited to teach in New York (also a Harvard alum) but was also just recovering from cancer. It was unbelievable how she had to balance being a wife to a sick husband, a mother to a young baby, and a law student all at once - but she did it all with panache, allowing herself to be the first woman editor in both the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review because of her transfer, and graduating first of her class in Columbia. I mean, WOW. (I couldn't even finish a recit for Credit class without wanting to throw up.)

Most striking for me was the amount of misogyny that she had to encounter in the legal profession, from law school up to the practice. Being a "pioneer" in the field meant the glass ceiling was still very much in place during her time, and she had to do everything ten, twenty, fifty times better than her peers just to hammer down the point that she deserved her spot. During her time at Harvard, she was only one in nine women in a class of about five hundred men. Professors assumed that the ladies were there merely to secure themselves a good husband. Wow. (In fact, the Dean of Harvard Law reportedly invited all of the female law students to dinner at his family home and asked them: "Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?" UGH, THE AUDACITY.) Even RBG herself was forced to say, "I'm here so that my husband and I will have something to talk about," during their Freshman welcome dinner, because she feared being labelled as arrogant or too confident. 

Columbia turned out to be a much more liberal and accepting space. However, she was still met with varying degrees of sexism after graduation. She was declined clerkships based solely on her gender (and the fact that she was also a married family woman at the time). This only fueled her desire to fight for a cause: women's rights.

One very, very compelling part of her career for me was the manner by which she led the Women's Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Her strategy? Because she knew judges would not "listen" to or understand the concerns of a woman plaintiff, she selected cases where it was a man who suffered gender discrimination under the law. For instance, in Weinberger v. Wiesenfield, a widower, Paul Wiesenfield, lost his wife during childbirth and was forced to raise his son on his own. When seeking for a survivor's benefits, he was deemed ineligible by the Social Security since such benefits under the law were made available only to widows, not widowers. This illustrated that gender discrimination in all instances did not only harm men, but also women. It was harmful for everyone in society, as it placed individuals at a disadvantage simply because of a factor beyond their control. Such a brilliant strategy. It's unfortunate that it had to take male plaintiffs to make justices listen and strike down gender-biased laws one at a time, but it worked. As the director of the Women's Rights Project, she argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1976, winning five.

She eventually went on to become the second female Supreme Court Justice in 1993. And until now, even at 87, she shows no signs of slowing down. Colon cancer, pancreatic cancer, broken ribs, lung nodules - none of these seem to stop her from showing up to work each day and bringing her much needed brilliance in court. She knows that despite the strides made in the last few decades, the job is never over (especially now that more conservatives are being appointed back in Court, thanks to Trump. Hello, dark ages.) The movement towards equality and fairness is not finished. The key is to always be reminded that tomorrow is another day to fight, to do good, and to be kind. “Anyway, hope springs eternal. If I lose today, there’s hope that tomorrow will be better.”

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” she said. But then she added her own words: “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” 

2. "Becoming" by Michelle Obama

How good was this book? I finished it in a day. Less than twenty-four hours, even. I started before dinner and by 4:00 pm the next day, I was binge-watching Michelle Obama videos on YouTube. 

I've always known that Michelle was a fantastic individual, but I never really knew how inspiring she was outside of being the First Lady. She carried herself well, she represented the White House with class, and she looked like a very doting, affectionate wife and mother. But I did not realize how cool she was outside her relationship with Barack. 

That she grew up in the south side of Chicago meant that she experienced what living in a struggling community and being surrounded by people (and family) whose big dreams took a back seat because of institutional barriers. Poverty and race played a crucial factor in shaping Michelle's views. She was fortunate to have had parents who pushed her (and her equally intelligent and talented older brother, Craig) to excel in school so that they can reach greater heights. This led her to Princeton, and eventually, Harvard Law. 

Michelle writes with refreshing honesty and sincerity. She paints a colorful, compelling picture of her youth, but does not sugarcoat the realities of needing to overcome many obstacles before actually getting a decent education. The same goes for her candid depiction of her relationship and marriage with Barack, who has always been a visionary and an idealist - almost always to a fault. It really takes a strong, courageous woman to be able to admit the challenges that come with being married to a senator and eventually, the President. But through it all, not once did she ever succumb to being merely just "Barack's wife." She didn't quite outgrow her "southside mentality" of knowing what she's worth and always striving hard to do some good on her own.

Particularly, her relationship with Barack never made her put her own ambitions aside. If anything, it only fueled her to find her own causes. When they met, she was an associate at a big law firm, who lacked the passion for her job but felt she was good at it anyway and decided to just stick with it. After all, she had always been a "abide by the rules and follow the plan" kind of girl. But the detours in her life made her realize that sometimes it's okay to let certain goals go, if only to allow ourselves to find a greater purpose. After her resignation, she found herself in different positions that enabled her to actually help others and make a difference, especially for people like her. 

She worked in the Chicago city government as an assistant to the mayor and later on became the city assistant commissioner of Planning and Development. Then she became the executive director for the non-profit organization, Public Allies, which encouraged young people to see value in doing non-profit and public sector work. She later on served as the Associate Dean of Student Services at the University of Chicago, where she developed the University's Community Service Center, before becoming the Vice President for Community and External Affairs of the University of Chicago Hospitals. All this, Michelle accomplished by having one purpose in mind: to bring services to those who need it the most.

She also openly admitted suffering a miscarriage, and having difficulty with conceiving during the early part of her marriage. These are stories that need to be heard by women, especially those who are crippled by society's expectations. This part of the book was very moving for me personally, and I loved that she was candid about her own fears. 

This is what really inspired me the most about her: an unapologetic belief in her own value. And this is precisely what she wants to impart to her readers, particularly to young, ambitious women. Yes, there exists systemic barriers that are working against us; but when we are able to overcome them, we should work our hardest to help others overcome them too. She used her influence as a first lady to educate; to produce meaningful work for sectors that are largely ignored and underserved by the structures of government. She led by example. And she delivered.

“Do we settle for the world as it is, or do we work for the world as it should be? For every door that’s been opened to me, I’ve tried to open my door to others. And here is what I have to say, finally: Let’s invite one another in."

(Photo credit: RBG by Anthony Savage; Michelle by Monica Ahanonu

I'd be lying if I didn't say that I looked forward to reading about their relationships with their husbands, Martin and Barack. The truth was, their marriages weren't at all the highlight of their lives, but the strong partnerships certainly helped lead them to greater, higher pursuits.

Marty always acknowledged Ruth's brilliance. One of the things Ruth initially liked about him was that he saw her as an equal. When they first met, they had other partners, so they just started out as friends - which was crucial for Ruth, because she found out that Marty had always respected her brains, and not just trying to get in her pants. Throughout their marriage (and RBG's flourishing career), he never felt threatened by her and saw value in her capabilities. He enjoyed being the doting husband and family man; likewise, RBG willingly steps aside when Marty's career takes interesting turns. "He always made me feel like I was better than I thought I was. He was so confident in his own ability that he never regarded me as any kind of threat," RBG said of her late husband. And, most importantly, he cooked for her and always made her laugh. Ah, the dream.

Same goes for Barack, who slowly but surely swept Michelle off her feet, even though she was initially dismissive and reluctant (since he was a law student intern at the firm where she was an associate). He knew it had to take much more than just plain old charm to impress her. He acknowledged that she was an intelligent, hyper-critical woman with a background different from his own. He was open and curious and affectionate. He listened. And he never dismissed her aspirations; he kept encouraging her and never expected her to just remain in his shadow. 

(Side-note that the part in the book about how she and Barack started dating was such a kilig-fest!!!! YA novels have nothing on that entire chapter!!! It was so incredibly adorable! The movie "Southside With You," a fictionalized adaptation of their first date was one of my favorite flicks in 2018 because of how compelling their chemistry was. But MAN, the nonfiction version of their first few dates?! Even more kilig! 

Here's an excerpt I bookmarked about the night they snuck out of a performance of Les Misérables, and tried to avoid the suspicious looks of the other partners working in their firm. Tell me this scene isn't a short film script waiting to happen!)


Okay, so this book review turned out to be quite a lot. But the exponential increase of my admiration for these two women cannot simply be explained in a few paragraphs. True, these women are not like the rest of us: they're Ivy League-educated, in great positions of power and influence, and live their life under the gaze of public scrutiny. But in many other ways, they understand us intrinsically. They know what it's like to be discriminated against, to be treated unfairly, to be vulnerable, to feel deprived, to have to work twice as hard, to be defeated. 

And both of them came out of it with an important lesson: we have to keep pushing. Have a radical aim, but proceed with caution. Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.

Life was teaching us that progress and change happen slowly. Not in two years, four years, or even a lifetime. We were planting seeds of change, the fruit of which we might never see. We had to be patient. 

We still have a lot of work to do. It will take time, but we'll get there. We have to believe we will.

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