Summary: The first two women on the Supreme Court changed it dramatically, but also had different perspectives.
I have been long fascinated with the Supreme Court. I have read several books on the court, including O’Connor’s reflection on the court, The Majesty of the Law, and a light biography of Ginsberg, The Notorious RBG and a more technical book on the role of court by Stephen Breyer, The Court and the World.
Sisters In Law is a dual biography of the two first women as Supreme Court Justices. They were fairly close in age, but widely different in background, political perspective, and legal background.
Sandra O’Connor grew up in rural Arizona and went to college and law school in California. After following her husband in the military for three years, she was unable to find a law firm that would hire her as a lawyer. So she started her own. She then took five years off full time work to raise her children (but spent significant time working with the Republican party and volunteer organizations during that time.) And when she went back to work she initially volunteered to work for a local prosecutor to prove herself capable. She eventually worked her way up to became Assistant Attorney General of Arizona. Eventually, in part because of her work with the local Republican party in Arizona, she was appointed to a vacant state legislature seat and eventually rose to become first woman to be a State Senate Majority leader. After eight years as a legislator she ran for judge. She served as a county judge for four years and then nearly two years as a judge of the Arizona State Court of Appeals before being appointed to the Supreme Court.
O’Connor has a fascinating history, two different tracks of elections, and time as Assistant Attorney General, not to mention the work in political and other volunteer associations. Ginsberg has a much different history. She had a more traditional path to the Supreme Court. Ginsberg went to the traditional Ivy League law schools and became a professor and the the head of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, where she guided policy and argued six cases before the Supreme Court before being appointed to the US Court of Appeals by Jimmy Carter.
Both women are fascinating, but because Ginsberg’s history prior to the court includes so much work on women’s issues, it feels like O’Connor was short changed in Sisters in Law. Being the first woman to be a party leader of a state Senate, in her early 40s and then restarting her career again as an elected judge and being appointed to the Supreme Court at 51 should have had more time than it got.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg was the second woman to be appointed, and it was 12 years after O’Connor. It was another 13 years until the third woman, Sonia Sotomayor, was appointed. Ginsberg served for four years as the only woman after O’Connor retired. (Kagan was appointed less than a year after Sotomayor.)
On the whole I am glad I read the Sisters in Law because there was much about the recent history of the court, especially all of the case law around gender and women’s rights. The author, Linda Hirshman, is making an argument that it mattered greatly that O’Connor and Ginsberg were women. Their judicial philosophies and politics and personalities were different, but being women and having been discriminated against as women mattered to their decisions. Based on the evidence presented it would be hard to come to a different conclusion.
Much of Sisters in Law is about the philosophy and style of the two women. There is a lot of inside politics and frankly almost all of the men end up looking bad at some point. The behind the scenes was informed by the papers of the many retired justices. This is a book that worked hard at using primary sources, while being a popular level biography.
Bias does show through. One small example is the discussion about Bush v Gore. Hirshman should have dealt with the problems of the decision without placing primary responsibility for the decision on O’Connor. While O’Connor voted with the majority and was historically one of the swing votes, it does seem problematic to place more blame on her vote than on the other four members of the Supreme Court that also voted with her. After all, she was not the author of the opinion.
There are a couple of minor issues that even a lay reader like myself knows were wrong (describing the Reagan/Bush years as 16 years of uninterrupted Republican ability to nominate to the bench is one example.) I do not have the ability to analyze her descriptions of the law and Supreme Court cases, so I cannot evaluate the accuracy of those portions.
But even with a fairly feminist and liberal bias, it still very much matters that it has been less than 40 years since the first female Supreme Court justice was appointed and only 25 years since the second. The fact that three women have served together out of nine for less than 10 years continues to matter.
It is good to be reminded how recently that sex discrimination was legal and commonly accepted. Sexual harassment and rape on the job were issues that had to be fought in courts a generation ago. The book is clear that like racial discrimination, which women’s right court cases were consciously modeled after, the overt discrimination was easier to make illegal than the less clear cut bias that is difficult to separate from other factors.