Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg, U.S. Supreme Court jus­tice, 2006

Col­lec­tion of the Supreme Court of the Unit­ed States, Pho­tog­ra­ph­er: Steve Petteway

Peo­ple always ask me how Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg and I chose the women fea­tured in our col­lab­o­ra­tion, RBG’s Brave and Bril­liant Women: 33 Jew­ish Women To Inspire Every­one. After all, there have been and con­tin­ue to be so many amaz­ing Jew­ish women — what were the cri­te­ria in select­ing our very eclec­tic group?

I just took a peek at my ear­ly notes for the book and the cri­te­ria went some­thing like this: A woman who defied the stereo­types of her time to be a pio­neer or amaz­ing suc­cess in her field or who saved peo­ple, made dis­cov­er­ies or cre­at­ed pos­i­tive change in the world. She refused to be defined by the expec­ta­tions and lim­i­ta­tions of her time. Her path paved the way for the advance­ment of women and/​or influ­enced the tra­jec­to­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple and/​or all peo­ple. She was not male-defined. She was not only a good and patient wife, a mar­tyr, or a vic­tim. She was a woman whose life and achieve­ments, in the face of gen­der dis­crim­i­na­tion and oth­er obsta­cles, we can learn from and be inspired by today. She was and is a role model.”

There are, of course, count­less women over time who could fit these criteria!

The book was born out of a con­ver­sa­tion in Jus­tice Ginsburg’s cham­bers, and in fact, the selec­tion process began the moment we decid­ed to col­lab­o­rate on it. We were sit­ting in Jus­tice Ginsburg’s exquis­ite­ly dec­o­rat­ed rooms, sur­round­ed by art she had col­lect­ed, pho­tographs and awards. The Jus­tice imme­di­ate­ly began list­ing the names of women who she said had inspired and sus­tained her through dif­fi­cult times.

Anne Frank,” she said.

Hen­ri­et­ta Szold.

Emma Lazarus.


And we have to include the five women of the Hag­gadah — Miri­am, Moses’ moth­er, and the two mid­wives. And of course, Pharaoh’s daughter.”

Pharaoh’s daugh­ter?” I asked, a bit tak­en aback. Was she even Jewish?”

It doesn’t mat­ter,” said the Jus­tice. She was one of the women of Exo­dus who helped save the Jew­ish peo­ple. With­out her, with­out them, Moses would not have grown up to lead the Israelites out of Egypt.” I lat­er learned of the tra­di­tions that teach that Batya, Pharaoh’s daugh­ter, mar­ried an Israelite and left Egypt with the Israelites.

Many wor­thy women have been lost to the shad­ows of his­to­ry, which until recent­ly was almost exclu­sive­ly record­ed by men. Doc­u­men­ta­tion was scarce.

That after­noon, Jus­tice Gins­burg also men­tioned Rebec­ca Gratz, Lil­lian Wald, and Gol­da Meir, as well as her friend Glo­ria Steinem.

She had oth­er duties to attend to that day and so did I, so we agreed I would do some research and come up with more names of women to dis­cuss. I did. It was tremen­dous­ly sat­is­fy­ing work but no easy task. Many wor­thy women have been lost to the shad­ows of his­to­ry, which until recent­ly was almost exclu­sive­ly record­ed by men. Doc­u­men­ta­tion was scarce.

Mean­while emails from the Jus­tice with new names kept arriv­ing in my inbox.

Nadine Gordimer.

Simone Veil.

Rita Levy-Mon­tal­ci­ni.

Final­ly, we came up with a group of about 150 diverse women span­ning ancient to con­tem­po­rary times. Then, for rea­sons of time and space, we had to nar­row the list down. In the end, we were back to the women who most fas­ci­nat­ed the Jus­tice. Some had inspired her as a girl and a young woman, such as Gertrude Berg and Rober­ta Peters; oth­ers she had read about or met as an adult, such as the ground­break­ing labor lawyer Bessie Mar­golin; Muriel Siebert, the first woman to pur­chase a seat on the New York Stock Exchange; and Levy-Mon­tal­ici­ni, who received the Nobel Prize for med­i­cine. The Jus­tice gra­cious­ly gave me space to sug­gest a few women who inspired me: the Judean Queen Salome Alexan­dra; the six­teenth cen­tu­ry Por­tuguese ship­ping mag­nate Gra­cia Mendes Nasi, who saved Jews from the Inqui­si­tion; Ros­alind Franklin, the sci­en­tist who iden­ti­fied the struc­ture of DNA; among oth­ers. In the process, both of us dis­cov­ered and learned about women we hadn’t known about before.

You might ask: There are so many great women, why focus on Jew­ish women in par­tic­u­lar? It’s a good ques­tion. Part of me longed to open up the field and include women such as Frances Perkins, the first Amer­i­can woman to be named to a pres­i­den­tial cab­i­net, and the bril­liant Eleanor Roo­sevelt. But at its heart, the book was fill­ing a hole for both of us. Although we were from dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions, we were giv­ing life to the book we had once longed to find on the library shelf, the book that would have made our child­hood Jew­ish edu­ca­tions more meaningful.

In fact, it took me awhile to under­stand just how impor­tant the Jew­ish women in this book were to the Jus­tice. They were part of her per­son­al Jew­ish jour­ney — a jour­ney that began when she was an ele­men­tary school stu­dent who duti­ful­ly absorbed her Torah lessons, then a teenag­er who was con­firmed by her syn­a­gogue. That seg­ment of her Jew­ish jour­ney, how­ev­er, came to an abrupt end when her moth­er, to whom she was very close, died. At six­teen, the Jus­tice knew the prayers and want­ed to say them as part of the minyan at the shi­va but was exclud­ed from doing so because she was a woman. That expe­ri­ence, at a very vul­ner­a­ble moment in her life, led her to reject the tra­di­tion­al patri­ar­chal Judaism of her youth. She remained deeply Jew­ish — liv­ing by Jew­ish val­ues — but her Judaism became man­i­fest in her pas­sion, even hunger, for the sto­ries of great Jew­ish women.

If only we could have fit in every woman who inspired us! Here are a few whom we couldn’t fit in to the book. Glo­ria Steinem, for instance: It was sim­ply too jar­ring to include a liv­ing woman amid women of his­to­ry, and we con­clud­ed that she might fit bet­ter in a fol­low-up book. Some women the Jus­tice admired, such as Dorothy Park­er and Bess Myer­son, had lives too com­pli­cat­ed to eas­i­ly fit into an inter­gen­er­a­tional book. For lack of time and space I had to let go of a few of my per­son­al favorites: the pre-Israel spy Sarah Aron­son, the pio­neer­ing sur­geon Fan­ny Berlin, and Seraphine Epsteinn Pisko who in 1911 was appoint­ed to lead the Nation­al Jew­ish Hos­pi­tal in Den­ver. I also would have liked to include the brave jour­nal­ist Ruth Gru­ber, who not only cov­ered some of the most impor­tant sto­ries of her time but also helped save Jew­ish refugees dur­ing World War II. I met and spoke with her sev­er­al times before she died at 105 in 2016.

And so, in the end, we chose thir­ty-three women. We were aim­ing for thir­ty-six, dou­ble chai, but ulti­mate­ly we ran out of time. I miss the pres­ence of the women we couldn’t include and, most of all, I miss the book’s true star — Jus­tice Ruth Bad­er Gins­burg. I hope she would have tak­en great plea­sure in see­ing the book in its fin­ished form and in know­ing that the sto­ries of these brave and bril­liant women are now part of her lega­cy. I know how strong­ly she believed that their sto­ries deserved as much atten­tion as pos­si­ble, and would con­tin­ue to inspire so many more!

Nadine Epstein is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist and edi­tor-in-chief of Moment Mag­a­zine. She is the founder of the Role Mod­el Project, cre­at­ed in mem­o­ry of Jus­tice Gins­burg to help young peo­ple iden­ti­fy and select role mod­els. Epstein lives in Wash­ing­ton, DC.