Becom­ing RBG: Ruth Bad­er Ginsburg’s Jour­ney to Justice

Deb­bie Levy (auth.), Whit­ney Gard­ner (illus.)

  • Review
By – January 21, 2020

Appoint­ed by Pres­i­dent Clin­ton in 1993 as the sec­ond woman to serve as a Supreme Court jus­tice, Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg emerged as a fear­less advo­cate for the legal rights of women, peo­ple of col­or, and oth­er mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. RBG’s career has been gov­erned by her ded­i­ca­tion to the Unit­ed States Con­sti­tu­tion and her belief in uni­ver­sal human rights. Deb­bie Levy and Whit­ney Gardner’s out­stand­ing graph­ic biog­ra­phy, Becom­ing RBG, tells the sto­ry of RBG’s per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al life. From inspi­ra­tion to oppo­si­tion, RBG moved for­ward with an with an unfail­ing con­vic­tion in her own abil­i­ty to effect incre­men­tal change.

One of the book’s out­stand­ing fea­tures is Levy’s insight into the way in which young RBG ana­lyzes her sur­round­ings and choos­es to engage with chal­lenges. Gardner’s col­or palette under­score the ear­li­er era of the book’s events. Dur­ing RBG’s child­hood and beyond, she iden­ti­fies with pow­er­ful women and asserts her right to deter­mine her own place. When a teacher attempts to force left-hand­ed RBGin­to writ­ing with her right hand, she moves from frus­tra­tion, to con­sid­er­a­tion of the prob­lem, to a solu­tion. Lat­er in her career, she will sub­vert gen­der roles — which she finds just as irra­tional as lim­it­ing the use of her left hand. Argu­ing against dis­crim­i­na­to­ry struc­tures which deny women full par­tic­i­pa­tion in Amer­i­can life, RBG finds strength in a tra­di­tion of women’s defi­ance in the face of men’s objec­tions. Gard­ner visu­al­izes her as a strong young woman sur­round­ed by obtuse and sex­ist judi­cial quotes about women’s weaknesses.

Through­out the book, Levy empha­sizes the inter­con­nect­ed impact of RBG’s Jew­ish and Amer­i­can val­ues on her moral foun­da­tion. Read­ers famil­iar with the Holo­caust will learn how Jew­ish Amer­i­cans, many the chil­dren or grand­chil­dren of immi­grants, were wrenched from a sense of secu­ri­ty by learn­ing of the Nazi ter­ror. A map of Hitler’s assault and images of his vic­tims are com­pelling ele­ments in the sto­ry, as is Levy’s clear asser­tion that, while many oth­er groups suf­fered the effects of his hatred, the defin­ing tenet of Nazism was anti-Semi­tism — that is, hatred of Jews.” Just as com­pelling is her rev­e­la­tion that many Amer­i­cans, includ­ing two grand­moth­er­ly ladies” on RBG’s block, were active­ly incul­cat­ing hatred of Jews as Christ killers” into the fos­ter chil­dren in their care. Gardner’s pic­ture of the women, with boys seat­ed on their laps like ventriloquist’s dum­mies, con­veys how impres­sion­able chil­dren are. Suf­fer­ing is not the defin­i­tive aspect of RBG’s Jew­ish edu­ca­tion as she excels in Hebrew school and writes for her synagogue’s newslet­ter, always keep­ing Jew­ish val­ues of courage and fair­ness at the cen­ter of her activism. When her moth­er dies, Levy records RBG’s anger at her exclu­sion from the mourner’s minyan because she is a woman.

There are many cru­cial rela­tion­ships which guide RBG’s life includ­ing her lov­ing part­ner­ship with her hus­band Mar­ty, a man who believed in women’s equal­i­ty in the work­place as well as the need for men’s equal par­tic­i­pa­tion in rais­ing a fam­i­ly. RBG’s inte­gra­tion of her mother’s lessons into every deci­sion she makes and her grief at her mother’s ear­ly death are con­stant motifs in Becom­ing RBG. Gard­ner shows RBG at her mother’s knee, with a cloud-shaped bub­ble enclos­ing a sum­ma­ry of the First Lady’s ideals: Don’t be prej­u­diced. Be open to refugees who come to our coun­try. Don’t be cru­el, even to ene­mies.” Levy notes the poignant def­i­n­i­tion of fem­i­nin­i­ty which Celia Bad­er com­mu­ni­cates, which includes both finan­cial inde­pen­dence and avoid­ance of jeal­ousy and anger. RBG would trans­form this advice into a roadmap for change through a calm and mea­sured insis­tence that jus­tice for all is a basic human right.

Becom­ing RBG is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed. The book’s detailed back­mat­ter includes an epi­logue, a time­line, a bib­li­og­ra­phy, and the sources for the includ­ed quotations.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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