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On Justice and Debbie Levy / Whitney Gardner's Becoming RBG

In his 1873 opinion in the case of Bradwell v. Illinois, Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley wrote:

"The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life."

In their brilliant graphic novel / biography, Becoming RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Journey to Justice, writer Debbie Levy and illustrator Whitney Gardner provide a powerful response drawn from an article written by 8th grader Ruth Bader:

"Then, too, we must try hard to understand that for righteous people hate and prejudice are neither good occupations nor fit companions. Rabbi Alfred Bettleheim once said: 'Prejudice saves us a painful trouble, the trouble of thinking.'"

Without question, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become an icon in popular culture. Though I agree with this majority opinion (legal pun!), the danger lies in forgetting that icons are also real, human people with nuance. This book does the good work of reminding young readers of her humanity, without minimizing her truly remarkable life's work. From her respectful curiosity as a child to the life-giving partnership with husband Marty and friendship with fellow Justice Antonin Scalia (both now deceased), Ginsburg can be set before young readers (male and female) as a model of grace, perseverance, dignity, and openness.

Many times, both with this book and with the excellent film dramatization of RBG's work in gender discrimination: On the Basis of Sex, I've been struck by how Ginsburg's life and work have adhered to a consistent and insistent argument: both women and men are harmed by discriminatory practices and regulations. Though her work against these practices has been transformative, there is still much to be done to change the culture. I can imagine a powerful interdisciplinary teaching unit using this book as the foundation. It couples the accessibility of the graphic novel format with strong vocabulary, deep historical context, and excellent use of primary and secondary sources. Besides that, it is a thoroughly entertaining read and could start many young men and women down the road of being change-makers in their own communities.

Though the videos of RBG working out at the gym are fascinating and inspiring, it is the working out of her capacious mind and spirit that propels me forward. Thanks to Debbie Levy and Whitney Gardner for bringing these attributes fully to life in an excellent example of graphic non-fiction.

Justice - both the title and the concept - is the epitome of a certain kind of power. We may never sit on the Supreme Court, but we have a common duty. Levy and Gardner remind us that each of us are fit for the highest of occupations: working for justice and against hate and prejudice wherever it may be found.


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