Confessions of a Bookaholic: Women of the Supreme Court

Book ReviewsWomen of theSupreme Court (1)

Over the last month or three I have managed to read at least one book (usually more) by or about every one of the women who have sat on the bench for the United States Supreme Court. It has been so fascinating to see how their stories intersect, how they are each unique to themselves, and how they worked together and with their fellow Justices to maintain the Supreme law of the land. In case you’re not up on your Lady Justices: Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, a former Arizona Senator and the first woman on the Supreme Court, she sat on the bench from 1981 – 2006; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a law professor at both Rutgers and Columbia, and ACLU advocate who has sat on the court since 1993; and Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a Latina from The Bronx who was nominated to the bench in 2009 and is the first Hispanic Justice; Justice Elena Kagan was nominated in 2010 and sworn in later that year, however 5+ years later, there is still only one biography on her, and it’s not very good. Without further ado, the reviews, grouped by Justice, who are listed by seniority on the Court.

Sandra Day O’Connor:

Sandra Day O’Connor: How the First Woman on the Supreme Court Became Its Most Influential Justice, by Joan Biskupic (4 stars). Of the ones I’ve read, this is definitely the best biography on O’Connor. She served as a Supreme Court Justice for 25 years (nominated by Reagan in 1981), often as the swing vote between the four conservative and four liberal Justices (at least, until Clinton was able to nominate a few more liberals, ahem, Ruth Bader Ginsburg). For the youngest and first woman on the Court, her vote counted as the decider in many major cases, starting her very first term. However, what was most interesting to me was to see her opinions and voting change throughout her tenure on the Court. She began as super conservative, but her final two or three years on the court she was a lot more liberal and her reasoning more expansive to protect minorities, women, and other disenfranchised people (including criminals and those being held in military prisons without charge or trial for terrorist activities). I know my own journey towards “woke-ness” has taken some time, starting small and moving outward from there. It’s somehow helpful for me to realize that without being taught from the beginning to, you know, view all people as equal no matter their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or economic class, that it truly is a process for us to understand the ramifications to groups of people who are dissimilar to ourselves. O’Connor retired in 2006 to care for her ailing husband, John, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. I often wonder what would have happened to her voting patterns and her voice had she continued on the Court as a liberal jurist.

The Majesty of the Law: Reflections of a Supreme Court Justice, by Sandra Day O’Connor (4 stars). I had initially thought this was some kind of autobiography, it is not, well, not entirely. There are a few personal stories and anecdotes, but primarily this book is Justice O’Connor detailing the history of the court, the major decisions and docket trends under different Chief Justices, and how the court has maintained and shifted over the last 170 years. Some of the history bits were super fascinating, some were a little dry, however there is a section on women, women’s suffrage, early feminists, and the twisting and frustrating road towards gender equality. I would award that section 8 gold stars if I could! As it was, that section bumped this from 3 stars to 4 stars. I wish Sandra Day O’Connor would write a whole book about feminism and her unique role within gender equality law (from a conservative SCOTUS nominee, to a centrist Justice), I’d be all over that.

Lazy B: Growing Up on a Cattle Ranch in the American Southwest, by Sandra Day O’Connor (2 stars). This memoir about growing up on a large ranch in the dry, dry country of Arizona and New Mexico. This is primarily about ranch life, the cowboys and ranch hands, their backgrounds, talking care of the animals and the land, the struggle of O’Connor’s parents thru their lives to survive and become financially independent. The Day patriarch was tough, stubborn,  and unmoving, and there are no apologies for him in this book, just a nodding of heads that “that’s just his way.” Honestly, it’s pretty dry and O’Connor doesn’t give much insight into her future life as a Supreme Court Justice. But, you will learn about life on a massive ranch. So, there’s that.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmen and Shanna Knizhnik (5 stars). The last few years I have become increasingly interested in RBG, this biography was an excellent introduction and overview of her career, her personal life, and some of the monumental decisions over the last 25 years she has been a Supreme Court justice, both ones she agreed with and–most interestingly–the ones where she dissented. I loved reading more about how she fought for gender equality, and how she continues to address sexism and gender discrimination in the United States. Fascinating book!

Raising the Bar: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, by Amy Leigh Campbell and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (4 stars). Not exactly a biography, but also much more than a list of cases and briefs, this short book details the theory and careful strategy of RBG and she layered case upon case to define sexual discrimination and also to outlaw it through policy and statute at the highest court in the United States. Campbell goes through her time at the ACLU and the details of each case, including commentary from RBG’s private papers (housed in the Library of Congress) to show how long-seeing and calculated RBG’s legal arguments were in order to sway an overly conservative court. I knew the basics of most of the cases mentioned in this book, however this is the first place I’ve read so many of the details from correspondence to/from RBG regarding the statue and law, as well as her opinions re: the political climate for women during the 1970’s. Excellent read (and also, a lot of court law and procedure, I had to look up a couple of terms to make sure I was understanding what was going on).

My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (3 stars). I waffled between 3 and 4 stars, this is not the memoir I was hoping for. It is, instead, a collection of writings, briefs, official SCOTUS opinions, and transcripts of speeches from RBG throughout her professional life, with a little biographical information in the chapter headings and a few pages of photos. Some of the writing is fairly dense, official opinions and briefs from the Supreme Court are not exactly light reading. The span of RBG’s career is covered, her work at the ACLU and her methodical and carefully planned assault on gender discrimination laws in the United States. It’s all there, but it is there in very official and professional terms and writing. A few of the speeches and addresses are a little less formal, especially the few excerpts from people who worked with and for RBG, notably her husband who contributes a few fabulous remarks, and President Clinton, who nominated RBG to SCOTUS in 1993.

O’Connor & Ginsburg:

Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World, by Linda Hirshman (3 stars). The first half of this dual biography keeps O’Connor and Ginsburg’s lives fairly separate, which makes sense. RBG was a professor, then judge, in Washington DC and SOC was a legislator and judge in Arizona. There wasn’t much cross-over of their personal lives, and frankly, their political backgrounds are far from similar. Hirshman clearly likes RBG more than SOC, and that bias shows throughout the book, which is annoying. Hirshman also takes the time to comment on RBGs size (diminutive, petite, tiny, pocket-sized, etc) in almost every chapter, and that got REAL old real fast. Stop it. My favorite chapters in this book were towards the end when RBG and SOC are actually both on the bench, debating over cases and, oftentimes, taking opposing sides. Near the end of SOC’s career as a Justice she started to take her swing vote to the liberal side in several key cases for women’s rights and gender equality, but Hirshman doesn’t spend much time discussing the background of WHY SOC’s swing vote started to swing left.

Sonia Sotomayor:

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor (4 stars). I really loved this book, learning more about Sotomayor and the pathways and steps she took towards her dream of becoming a federal judge. I love the stylistic differences between a biography and an autobiography, and while a biography may give a wider and more complete picture, the autobiography is the memories of a lived experience, and that is so fascinating to me!

Breaking In: The Rise of Sonia Sotomayor and the Politics of Justice, by Joan Biskupic (3.5 stars). Minus one full star for quoting so much of Sotomayor’s memoir, My Beloved World, during the first half of the book. However, the last third of the book, detailing Sotomayor’s cases and time in the Supreme Court, was fascinating. I doubt a first-person account would go into the kind of back-and-forth and arguments that happened during various cases, and being able to read about those details as well as reactions from other politicians and society at large brought to life some of the race-related cases of the Supreme Court for me. Sotomayor is a proponent of affirmative action and increasing access and opportunity for students of color, and she is not afraid to stand by those opinions even if she is the only dissenting Justice. I loved reading that fire and grit in her personality. I also loved reading about other Latino/as who made advances in politics and through the Judicial system, and the support or not for them and why. Justice Clarence Thomas (SCOTUS) says that the only way to stop discriminating by race is to stop discriminating by race. Sotomayor argues that the only way to stop racial discrimination is to talk widely and openly about the issues, to bring them up constantly and, with enough reminding, the policy makers and the citizens can recognize their own biases and make conscious steps to remove them. After watching so much racial tension over the last few years, I tend to think Sotomayor is correct. Excellent read.

Elena Kagan:

Elena Kagan: A Biography, by Meg Greene (2 stars). In my quest to read a biography or autobiography on each of the women on the Supreme Court this is the *only* book I could find on Elena Kagan. The author repeatedly states that there is very little public information on Kagan, she doesn’t do interviews, and her private papers are still private. With that, this biography does have quite a bit of background information on Kagan, with lots of interviews or statements from people who worked with her in her various positions prior to being a Supreme Court Justice. However, there are also a NUMBER of typos, a couple of instances where Greene gets her facts mixed up a little (stating Kagan graduated from Harvard for her undergrad, despite an entire chapter about her time at Princeton as an undergrad), and in order to fill some pages Greene spends a lot of time discussing New York City real estate, or the career of Justice Thurgood Marshall, or the history of Harvard Law School. Kagan has been a Justice for several years, I am surprised that, to date, this is still the only biography of her.

History of SCOTUS:

Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court, by Sandra Day O’Connor (2 stars).  I really wanted to love this, but what I hoped would be a dishy book of anecdotes and stories was actually a textbook-like history of the Supreme Court, including personal but not entirely interesting details of almost every Justice who has served on the bench. It was drrryyyyy. Sandra Day O’Connor’s rational, logical, linear brain is on fine display, and I can see how she was an excellent addition to the Court with her super analytical and precise thinking and explaining. However, even in the chapter that began with her talking about how so many people asked her how it was to be the first woman in SCOTUS, she spent less than 5 sentences on herself and instead detailed the “firsts” of all the other Justices, all of them men. Yawn. Unless you are a legal fiend, and/or a SCOTUS history freak, you could probably skip this book entirely.

Other Recommendations:

Madam Secretary: A Memoir, by Madeleine Albright (I love Madeleine Albright SO MUCH! Her story to rise from local political fundraising to Secretary of State is so inspiring!)

Iran Awakening: One Woman’s Journey to Reclaim Her Life and Country, by Shirin Ebadi (The first woman to serve as a judge in Iran prior to the Revolution, this tells her story of becoming a judge, and how her life changed–politically and personally–after the takeover by the anti-judge, anti-woman Islamic Republic.)

For more SCOTUS goodness, here’s my Goodreads shelf on the topic. But, honestly, you’ve just read every review on there, I have not read anything about the male Justices, nor do I intend to do so anytime soon Hashtag: Feminism.

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Christmas Bucket List

I do quite well with lists and checking things off (and yes, sometimes checking it twice. Me and Santa, you know.). I decided to make a list for Christmas, things I want to make sure to do and see and experience, and to help me remember that many of the seemingly so important, frantic parts of the season are not for me. And that’s okay. This probably isn’t one of those lists that people will print out and share, or Pinterestize, or whatever, and that’s okay too. This is for me. And maybe you’ll get a good idea or two from it as well, and that would be a huge bonus.

Last year at this time I had *just* unpacked our moving truck in Arizona, but was back in Salt Lake for a few more weeks, then to Arizona for a few days, and then BACK to Utah for the holidays. I didn’t decorate. No tree, no lights, no holiday baking, just hanging up the lovely assortment of received Christmas cards. This year feels brand new and fresh in almost every way, I hope I can start a few new traditions, and also somehow remove the mental block of needing snow and fragrant piney trees and bitter cold weather for it to really be Christmas.

Harriet’s Christmas Bucket List:

  1. Find Christmas decorations…what closet/corner are they in!?
  2. Figure out tree situation & decorate (Should I get two trees?)(I’d LOVE two trees!)
  3. Lights up outside! (The first time for me!! A HOUSE with LIGHTS ON IT!)
  4. Luminarias on Christmas Eve (White bags and candles are ordered!)
  5. Christmas Card (family photo, order cards & stamps, address, send)
  6. Angel tree or other donation project for a needy family
  7. Make Christmas play list, play constantly: I just loaded my huge stack of CDs into iTunes!
  8. Pull out all Christmas movies: watch on repeat!
  9. Read Jesus’ birth story in all four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
  10. Make gingerbread houses, one of my favorite family traditions
  11. Christmas cookies: gingersnaps & frosted sugar cookies
  12. Desert Botanical Gardens: Los Noches de Las Luminarias
  13. Go see some really great Christmas lights
  14. Church Christmas party, this is a Saturday morning breakfast. Brilliant!
  15. Christmas manicures (with these!!!!)
  16. Christmas orchestra concert at the kids’ elementary school
  17. Blue Eyes work holiday party
  18. Hang up all the Christmas cards!
  19. Wrap all the presents!!! (This is one of my favorite parts!)

What about you? What’s on your Christmas bucket list!? What are you trying to avoid over the next month?

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A different kind of shopping: Giving Tuesday

I finished my Christmas shopping last weekend, I get super anxious having it wait any longer than mid-November, honestly. I set aside dollars for my Christmas budget January – October, so there is no reason for me to really wait. Also, I loathe Black Friday, so waiting for some discounts doesn’t factor into my thinking at all.

So, I skipped out of Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, and am getting a jump on Giving Tuesday. And if you’re hunting down the deals today, that’s cool, but consider throwing some dollars to some local and national organizations as well.

Planned Parenthood, in honor of Mike Pence, of course
National Organization for Women
American Civil Liberties Union
Southern Poverty Law Center
Standing Rock Reservation
Black Lives Matter
Water for Flint, Michigan (yep, they still don’t have safe water)
Dressember, fighting for freedom for current slaves worldwide
Aleppo, Syria Child Refugee Crisis (through UNICEF)
The Red Cross (all donations today will be matched)
Your local LGBQT activism group
Your local political party precinct
Your school board/district foundation
Your local K-12 school (their Arts department? Library?)
Your local humane society
Your local library
A local or national church organization that promotes equality and protecting the vulnerable, downtrodden, and oppressed (I should not have to specify, but not all church or religious organizations do this).

Thanksgiving just happened, let’s try not to forget all the privilege we have and our responsibility to help those who have less. Donations don’t have to be huge, $10 dollars to a few organizations that champion a cause you are passionate about can truly make a difference. If this last election disaster season has taught me anything, it is that EVERY single person counts, the little seemingly insignificant daily acts we do matter.

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Five

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Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes…how do you measure a year?

…Measure in love.

Five years ago today Mr. Blue Eyes and I eloped, telling essentially no one. We married in a cramped room of the very unromantic City and County building, under yellowy-green fluorescent lighting; the ceremony was performed by a stranger woman named Antigone who wore Chacos with her official robes. Honestly, it was perfect. My Dad and Stepmom were our witnesses and took us out to brunch afterwards, the next day we had Thanksgiving Dinner with my whole family and didn’t tell a soul that we were officially hitched.

The story leading up to our secretive elopement is a good one, but that’s a story for another day.

Five years. Two million, six hundred twenty-eight thousand minutes (yes, I did the math). The vast majority of those minutes we spent apart, in different states and different time zones. I haven’t done the math recently, but of the almost six years we’ve been together, we’ve only lived in the same state for two of them. We struggled with the distance, and sometimes we thrived with the distance. We have made sacrifices for each other, supported each other, and stood by each other through some glowing good times, and through a lot of impossibly difficult ones.

I went back to my old, defunct blog (RIP, Old Blog!), and looked up what I wrote about marrying Mr. Blue Eyes in the first place. This, in particular, struck me as 100% true then and 100% true now:

There are two things, in particular, that I love about Blue Eyes.

Thing 1: He is kind, he is one of those people who is just nice. He is polite and friendly and goes out of his way to help others. He is the kind of man who cares about people, and it shows. Babies and little kids flock to him and my niece, age almost-3, asks about him every single time I see her and runs up to him for a hug any time he’s around. He is sweet to me, he has yet to raise his voice or even speak to me with any kind of anger or disrespect. (Okay, in five years this may not be 100% true anymore, but it’s probably 95% true, and that’s still an A.) Sure, we’ve had disagreements and differing opinions but we can disagree without it turning nasty. Even on big things, even on emotional things, he is kind.

Thing 2: He sees me as I really am, flaws and all, and he loves me anyway. He has not put me up on a pedestal where I feel I am unable to be myself, he does not roll his eyes or get bothered or miffed when I have my less than stellar moments (and believe me, I have them). He has this amazing ability to encourage the best of me and simultaneously, he is not disappointed or embarrassed or put out when I am just my regular, normal, not-best self. I am geeky and goofy and silly and quirky without worrying that he will think less of me. I have baggage and issues and unbloggable things that affect me in really horrible ways. I am snarky and sassy and feisty and stubborn–and sometimes downright pig-headed–but even on my bad days, or bad weeks I know that his feelings won’t change. (And yes, after those bad days and bad weeks I admit my pig-headedness, apologize and try again.) Blue Eyes encourages the best parts of me to grow and develop, but he does not demand I change or insist that if I just tweak this or that, or get over this hurdle or that, or, you know, completely re-prioritize my life so he can really love me and then we can be happy. He loves me just the way I am; he is happy with me, and I with him, just as we are.

 

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Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes. Multiplied five times over.

Happy Anniversary, my blue eyed love. Here’s to the next five years, which will undoubtably be full of laughter and tears, good times and heartache, adventure and tedium, anger and hurt and overwhelming joy. But, most importantly, full of love.

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Coming out of the fog

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Tonight I went to my first legislative district meeting, ever. I mean, I didn’t say anything, I clapped and supported and listened, but I showed up. I even donated the $8 I had in my wallet to their “we need to bump up our social media!” cause (and then I checked out their Twitter page, and uh, yeah you do. For the WHOLE of 2016 you have exactly two tweets. Monkeys and toddlers regularly do better than that!). Is one meeting for my super-local political precinct going to change the world? No. It’s not. But it is something. And, to be completely honest, it seems a lot more manageable to get my boots on the ground in my neighborhood than to somehow influence national politics (or, truthfully, more manageable than trying to have a conversation that will change the minds of my Trumpist relatives).

I’m not sure what my next steps are, I’m definitely planning on going back to my leg district meeting in December, and I offered to help their cause in any way I can (public speaking/presenting, writing, social media (PLEASE, let me help you!), event planning, whatever). I’m serious about this. If we want love to win, we have to treat love as a noun, as an action-word. (Coincidentally, I wrote a pretty rockin’ post about that back in July that I just re-read, and I like it more now than I did then. You should go read it too.) (Actually, in reading through the few posts under my own Social Activism label….this change for me has been brewing for months, it has taken me a while to get to the point that I can no longer sit still.) (I’m done with the parenthetical now, I swear.)

I don’t have some big announcement to nicely wrap up this post with a tremendous Ta-daaah! But I do want to call you to action, whatever that action means in your world, to do something to improve your local or national government. Is that donating the $8 in your wallet to a cause you care about? Does that mean getting involved in your local politics and elections for city council, or school board, or water conservation board? Does that mean volunteering at your local elementary/jr high/high school to help students achieve X, Y, or Z? What does that mean for you? When you figure that out, even if it’s one simple thing, do that thing.

It’s up to us, ya’ll.

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