Linda Hirshman on the Ruth Bader Ginsburg-Sandra Day O’Connor Double Helix

Our Q&A with the author.

The line that threads Linda Hirshman’s last book, on the gay rights movement, to her latest, Sisters in Law, a dual biography on the lives and careers of Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, is social change. “I’m interested in how people make social change,” she tells FishbowlDC, “and one of the ways they make social change is by working together, so I’m always looking for relationships.”

For Hirshman, O’Connor and Ginsburg, the first two women to serve on the Supreme Court, were the perfect pair through which to show how the women’s rights movement had been shaped by the legal system. “One of the great things that emerged,” during the course of Hirshman’s research, “is that even though they weren’t BFFs, it turns out that their pathways to making the world a more equal place for women wrapped around one another in a really interesting way.”

Sisters in Law highlights how these two women made their way through and eventually shaped their worlds, from their early life and the conservative ’50s in which they were educated to the subsequent decades, which were still not progressive enough.

“The classic example,” says Hirshman, referring to a liberalism that stopped when it came to women, “is [Justice] William Brennan, who wrote these very progressive opinions, even on women’s issues, substantively helping women, but who wouldn’t have a women clerk.” Ginsburg herself, even as the top student in her third-year class at Columbia Law School, and with the strong recommendation of two influential professors, still found herself turned down for clerkship after clerkship until a district court judge, Edmund Palmieri, finally agreed to take her on and became one of her enthusiastic supporters.

FishbowlDC spoke with Hirshman—who will be in Washington this evening as part of the National Press Club’s Book Fair and Authors’ Night—about what she learned in the course of researching and writing about these women’s lives.

FBDC: Your book toggles back and forth between Ginsburg’s and O’Connor’s lives. Why did you decide to structure the book the way you did?

Hirshman: I don’t outline the book in the beginning. You have to sit down and write and see what it tells you. As I started working on the book that structure emerged from the facts. First Ruth really was doing the heavy lifting in the 70s, and then, sure enough, O’Connor went on the Supreme Court and she had a decade of really playing a lead role, and then Ginsburg came to the court in ’93 and they sat together. It starts to make a sonata, the way it went from one to the other, so it made a beautiful structure to the book.

FBDC: What about the women surprised you in the course of researching and writing this book?

Hirshman: I was surprised by how I came to esteem [Sandra Day O’Connor] as the process of writing the book went by. Her clerks—her women clerks—loved her, and many of her women clerks are liberal, so that was informative. I realized that she was on the Supreme Court when critical women’s rights issue came before her and Ginsburg was nowhere around, so she played a more important role than I realized.

[With] Ginsburg, it was like writing about Mr. Spock from Star Trek, because she sees deeply into the future almost like no one else I’ve ever written about. She basically managed the achievement of constitutional equality for women in the very brilliant way she writes her cases up, and so I felt like I was dealing with someone who was almost superhuman in her intelligence and ability to see the consequences of what she says and does.

The other thing that is very interesting is how very similar they were underneath.

FBDC: More than one reviewer praised your ability to break down complex constitutional issues without dumbing them down. What was your approach to this?

Hirshman: I was a law professor for a long time, so I had many years of experience in explaining complicated things to people who are new to them. The first year law student isn’t that different from a lay person.

I have a fantastic private editor, Sarah Blustain, and she’s not a lawyer. I would send chapters to Sarah and she would write me back if she did not understand what I was explaining, and I would rewrite it until it was clear. I believe it’s my obligation as a writer to make it possible for someone who doesn’t have my experience to understand what I’m saying without having to really sweat over it.

FBDC: There are echoes of your own career in the lives of these women, especially Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What was that experience like, researching and writing about the path forward for women who preceded you by about a decade?

Hirshman: It was weird, I have to say. I think the weirdest thing was when I found out that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a mentor who played exactly the same role in her life [that] Andrew Hacker did for me. When I realized how similar our lives had been, it was like seeing another self that wasn’t me or anyone related to me. It goes to very deep things like, we both love the opera.

The really interesting journalistic question from that is, since we are so similar in these weird ways I feel like I understood her deeply, but I’m not actually sure that I feel like I understood her any better than I did O’Connor.

O’Connor is less like Mr. Spock. She’s more imperfect and conflicting and conflicted. Anybody who’s been conflicted in their life and has followed a kind of a crooked path to success would relate to her differently, so I didn’t really feel that I fully understood Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I know she must have made mistakes in her life, but they’re very hard to find. I have made lots of mistakes. So in that sense I felt like more like O’Connor, who sometimes did things in an oblique way.

FBDC: You describe how much better it was for the two justices when the other was there, despite their very different philosophies. Is this because they were firsts, or would it have been a different relationship, if for example, Sandra Day O’Connor was still on this current court, with Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor?

Hirshman: Lawyers never mix up Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor with Ruth Bader Ginsburg or with each other. Whereas when Ginsburg and O’Connor were sitting on the court together for several years, somehow lawyers always mixed them up, even though they don’t look anything alike. Maybe three is now in some sense normalizing, and the pressure on any of them to have any particular relationship with one another must get a lot less.

O’Connor always said that she was happy to be the first but she didn’t want to be the last. We know from her letters to [Senator] Barry Goldwater that she was really happy when Ginsburg came: that’s private correspondence, so you know she’s not censoring herself for the media.

O’Connor, by being successful, made a place for all of them. It was incredibly important that the first be really good at dealing in a world of powerful men. [But] there’s a historical gulf between O’Connor on the one side and all the rest of them on the other. And also, coming from Arizona, from a Republican-dominated, Western, libertarian, militaristic society, she was different in space and time.

FBDC: You didn’t interview either Ginsburg or O’Connor for the book. Why not?

Hirshman: I met each of them, but Ginsburg said she would cooperate if O’Connor said it was ok, and I met O’Connor to hear her say no. She said she thought there wasn’t enough material, which turns out to be wrong. I wrote her back and said, Justice O’Connor, it is the story of how each of you did this, the way in which [your] stories formed a kind of double helix around the protection of legal equality among women. There’s so much rich material, I would love to try again. But I never heard back.

When I speculate about it, Justice O’Connor is very controlling about her story. She did not overtly cooperate with [biographer] Joan Biskupic, either, and I’ve been told by several people that she was not happy with the Biskupic biography, which I felt was fine. So she didn’t cooperate with me, and I told her story. I don’t know how different or better it would have been if she had cooperated, but she made a decision not to cooperate, and therefore she handed over her story entirely to me, a stranger. I thought it was a mistake at the time and I still think it’s a mistake.

FBDC: You end with a passage on Sonia Sotomayor, quoting a speech in which she said that having life experience that differs from that of a white man has an impact on how a judge rules.  Why did you decide to end on that note?

Hirshman: I was sitting in the kitchen of my 40-year-old daughter, and my daughter’s a lawyer and she said to me, “mom, you really have to say something about the young new justices that are going to be sitting on the court in my lifetime, and who are the ones that I and the other women in my generation are looking at.”

Once I focused on Sotomayor, it was so obvious that she was the logical next step in that evolving thought process about whether the presence of women in the court or any institution makes a difference.

See, Ruth and Sandra did it. They behaved differently, they brought their different insights to the decision-making, but they never acknowledged it openly. But Sotomayor acknowledged it openly. And so I thought that would be a perfect way to finish: look into the future, and give an answer to the debate O’Connor and Ginsburg have been having about whether they made a difference .

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.