In their new book, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik capitalize on what is (perhaps) an unlikely recent obsession in our culture: an octogenarian Supreme Court justice.
Building on Knizhnik’s Tumblr, which documents Ginsburg-inspired manicures and RBG-Destiny’s Child memes, the book mixes cheeky fan art with a serious – and stirring – account of Ginsburg’s life and work, covering everything from her trailblazing legal career to her current exercise regimen. (The diminutive justice meets with a personal trainer a few evenings a week for a workout that involves squats, planks and push-ups.)
Rolling Stone recently chatted with Carmon and Knizhnik about their book, Ginsburg’s significance in the ongoing fight for gender equality and why it’s always bad news when the justice wears her sequin-studded collar.
Some people think of RBG as being a radical progressive, while others have characterized her as a moderate. “Ruth Bader Ginsburg cannot be called a liberal or a conservative; she has proved herself too thoughtful for such labels,” said Bill Clinton when he nominated her to the Supreme Court. So what is she, really?
SK: Both. In her principles, she’s much more radical than I think a lot of people realize. She’s fought for ideals that even today may seem pretty radical, and at the time were simply unheard of: the idea that marriage could be an egalitarian institution, the idea that gender norms really don’t mean anything and are not helpful to anyone. One of the quotes we have in the book is that if she didn’t have this sort of conventional, traditional life with a husband and children, she would be seen as a flaming radical because of what she was working for.
But at the same time, so much of her persona, so much of how she actually sees the work she’s doing and getting done, is by making compromises, by being tactical, by being pragmatic, and trying to figure out: What is the long-term strategy? How are we going to move toward a society that is more equal, more egalitarian, but without alienating the people who may disagree with you along the way?
One thing I think a lot of people have a hard time understanding about RBG is how she could be friends with Justice Scalia – who’s more or less her ideological opposite on the Court. They go to the opera together, and their families have spent holidays together. What’s up with that?
SK: Their friendship speaks to her broader life philosophy, which is that you can have principles that really matter to you, and you’re working toward achieving them, but she really cares deeply about meeting people halfway. And at the end of the day she finds Scalia hilarious. She says when they first met she saw him give a speech in which she disagreed with every substantive point he was making, but she thought he was hilarious.