Law

The best books on Ruth Bader Ginsburg

recommended by Amanda Tyler

Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1933—2020) spent her life working tirelessly for a more just society, says Amanda Tyler, Shannon C. Turner Professor of Law at Berkeley and former law clerk to the Supreme Court Justice. She recommends the best books to read about RBG: her life, her work, and even her personal training regime.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Former Berkeley Law dean Herma Hill Kay testified at her confirmation hearings that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would become “a justice worthy of the title.” I presume you believe this prediction was borne out. Please make that case for us.

By the time President Clinton nominated then-Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, she had already spent decades working tirelessly for a more just society, a society in which the Constitution works for all the people, a society in which the Constitution leaves no one behind. After her appointment to the Court, she continued to work toward this ideal, this idea that we should have an ever more inclusive Constitution and we should make sure that our laws are not structured in a way that they hold people back from achievement of their full human potential.

On the Court, Justice Ginsburg worked towards this ideal in many cases. Maybe most memorably in the VMI (Vermont Military Institute) opinion. VMI involved the question of whether a state-run military institution could exclude women. Up until that point, the Virginia Military Institute, an elite school with a storied history, incredible facilities and powerful alumni, had only accepted male applicants. The Clinton Administration sued to force the Commonwealth of Virginia to open up their doors to female cadets. Once sued, Virginia tried to create a parallel institution for women. In an opinion for seven justices, over only one dissent, Justice Ginsburg wrote that the substitute institution was nowhere near equal. It did not have the same facilities and opportunities. It couldn’t possibly accumulate, in any amount of time, the same prestige. So, to satisfy the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution, VMI must admit female cadets. Justice Ginsburg visited VMI in 2017 and found, she said, that the Institute had been enhanced by the addition of female cadets.

My Own Words is your first choice, an autobiography written with the assistance of two Georgetown law professors, Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams.

My Own Words is a book that Justice Ginsburg assembled with two authorized biographers. She compiled, with their help, documents spanning the full scope of her life, including things she wrote as a child for her school newspaper and a lot of material from her time as an advocate. They include her remarks in the White House Rose Garden when she was nominated, some of her confirmation hearing testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during her confirmation hearings. There are a host of other speeches, including some by her husband in which he talks about her career and their life together. It’s a very broad spectrum window into the things that were at the center of her life, her work, her family and her marriage.

Next, you recommended Conversations with RBG by the President of the National Constitution Center, Jeffrey Rosen.

In this recently published book, Jeff Rosen catalogs a range of revelatory conversations that he had with Justice Ginsburg over the years. He took material from multiple conversations to weave a story about what Justice Ginsburg thought about various things, including, for example, women’s rights issues and the opinions decided during her tenure which she most hoped to see overturned. It’s a wonderful window into her life, through her words.

I Dissent is next, tell us about it.

This is a wonderful book written for children that teaches children about Justice Ginsburg and teaches them that it’s okay to question what other people say, it’s important to speak your mind and it’s great to have the courage of your convictions. It’s a fantastic book because it exposes children to a great role model.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

Her dissents lay out a road map, according to another former RBG clerk. What does that mean?

She was ever hopeful, even when she was on the losing end of a case, that eventually her opinion would command a majority. So, oftentimes, if she was in dissent with respect to the proper interpretation of a statute, her dissents would relay, for instance, how Congress could amend the statute so as to adopt a position that she thought was the right interpretation in the first instance. That’s exactly what happened with respect to her dissent in the a pay discrimination case; the Court ruled against a plaintiff named Lilly Ledbetter on statutory grounds. Then, as soon as he was elected, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, overturning the majority decision and amending Title Seven to make it easier to bring pay discrimination claims. With respect to some of her other dissents, like her dissent in the case of Shelby County vs. Holder, which weakened the Voting Rights Act and which she believed was decided egregiously, she felt that she was writing for the ages. Her hope was that if the issue came back to the Court, people would revisit her dissent and her opinion would win the majority in a future Court.

As you noted, she was the only Supreme Court Justice whose trainer published a workout book. That book is your next recommendation. Tell us about The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong . . . and You Can Too! by Bryant Johnson.

This book details the workout regimen that he did with Justice Ginsburg for 20 years. It shows how strong she was and gives a set of workouts that can help others maintain their own strength. I love that she inspired so many others to stay fit. I think it’s just fantastic.

In a public conversation at Berkeley, just one year ago, the Justice told you that “if you have survived cancer you have a zest for life that you didn’t have before.” You clerked for her during the term when she received her first cancer diagnosis. She just succumbed to cancer after her fifth bout. Aside from working out, what was the source of RBG’s strength, on the bench and in life, in your opinion?

The Justice, as we called her as her law clerks, was deeply dedicated to public service and to working for a more just society. That dedication and sense of purpose strengthened her and kept her going through one experience with adversity after another. It wasn’t just cancer. It was hundreds of other hurdles; for instance, graduating from law school and being unable to find a job. She knew that she had the talent to make a contribution, to make our society better, and so she was bound and determined to make the most of every day she spent on this earth. And, boy, did she. We are so much the better for her having lived.

The last title on your list is a forthcoming book that Justice Ginsburg wrote with you. It will be called Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue.

The title comes from a passage in Deuteronomy that Justice Ginsberg had inscribed in a piece of artwork which she hung in her chambers. It encapsulates the animating principle that defined her contribution to our society. She was very fond of talking about how the Constitution, in its preamble, laid out the work that she undertook, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” She believed that making our country more perfect was work that was always ongoing, and she believed that it was very important for each of us to do our part, to try and build that more perfect union.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

The book is a collection of materials that she and I assembled, inspired by a conversation that she and I had last year at the University of California, where we talked about her life, her family, her work as an advocate and her time on the Court. The book includes a number of never-before-published materials from various stages of her life, including some important speeches and some of her very last speeches. It includes her favorite among the hundreds of opinions that she wrote on the Supreme Court. These were the opinions that she thought best represented the work that she did.

The Justice was deeply interested in seeing the publication of, and wrote the introduction to, a book by her dear friend Herma Hill Kay, which chronicles the lives of the first 14 women professors in the United States at accredited law schools. A professor named Pat Cain has taken over editing of the manuscript since Herma passed, and is shepherding it to publication. That book will publish alongside Justice, Justice Thou Shalt Pursue. It’s a wonderful chronicling of these female pioneers in legal academia.

Justice Ginsburg insisted, if my memory serves, that having women in law schools and on the Court made a difference. Can you explain her rationale? What difference did she think representation made?

Herma was the 15th female law professor and Justice Ginsburg was the 19th. When I spoke with her about her time on the two law faculties in which she served, Rutgers and Columbia, there really weren’t any other women around, maybe, at most, one. So, many of the things that she experienced she confronted without a cohort of people who had some of the same experiences. For example, she became pregnant with her second child while working as a law professor on a year-to-year contract at Rutgers Law School. I asked her in our conversation last fall: How does it make you feel to know that at many law schools, including the one where I teach, most of the student body is female? She said, “I’m absolutely overjoyed that now women are so well accepted at the bar.” We’ve made a lot of progress and a lot of that progress is on account of Justice Ginsburg.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Amanda Tyler

Amanda L. Tyler is the Shannon Cecil Turner Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. Her research and teaching focuses on the Supreme Court, federal courts, constitutional law, civil procedure and statutory interpretation.

Save for later

Amanda Tyler

Amanda L. Tyler is the Shannon Cecil Turner Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. Her research and teaching focuses on the Supreme Court, federal courts, constitutional law, civil procedure and statutory interpretation.