Soon after the Tea Fire in November 2008, we had dinner at a friends’ house where we met author Jane De Hart and husband Jerry Cohen. They had just lost all of their belongings and their house on the back part of the Riviera. Even the sweater she wore was not hers but belonged to a mutual friend, who had given her a small emergency wardrobe right after the fire.
One of the toughest losses for De Hart, history professor emerita at UCSB and former professor at Duke University, were the first 13 chapters of a book she had worked on for five years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life (Alfred Knopf, 2018).
De Hart’s academic career has focused on feminist legal history, cultural/political conflicts, women’s rights and gender equality. Her previous book, Sex, Gender and the Politics of ERA: A State and the Nation (Oxford University Press, 1990) with Donald Mathews was in part about the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972. Its “dual constitutional strategy” was devised by feminist lawyers in the late 1960s to secure gender equality in the law. Congress had passed the ERA, but not enough states passed the necessary three-quarters for ratification. Gender inequality and women’s rights have continued as major struggles.
While working on her last book, De Hart learned more about Ginsburg and developed personal contacts. When the Tea Fire hit, the highly detailed manuscript became ashes. Our dinner conversation back in 2008 has stayed with me.
Even early in Ginsburg’s education, she sought gender equality and created a career in a legal world run by mostly men. All through her education at Cornell as well as Harvard and Columbia law schools, she remained among the top members of her class and was No. 1 at Columbia. These extraordinary accomplishments, however, did not make her road to success any smoother or straightforward. Negative treatment as a woman inspired her to become a strong advocate of women’s rights.
Her specific efforts date back to 1972. She then co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, became an ACLU general counsel the following year, supported the ERA, argued six gender-discrimination cases before the Supreme Court (winning five), and finally was nominated as the 107th justice and second woman to the Supreme Court in 1993.
Ginsburg’s difficulties, most of which she overcame, ended up rewriting national women’s rights in the law. When De Hart was hit by the major manuscript loss, Ginsburg’s role motivated and encouraged her to put the manuscript back together and finish it, which she did nine years later.
When the biography came out on Oct. 16, she and I talked about the rejuvenation and completion of her manuscript with such incredible determination.
“Right after the fire when staying at Lee Luria’s house, I wondered if I could pick up writing the book again. I was sure I would, but it seemed daunting,” De Hart said. “’Lee said, ‘Don’t worry. You don’t have to reconstruct it. We’ll love you anyway.’”
De Hart’s reaction was immediate. “That was what I psychologically needed to hear. I knew I would continue writing especially about a woman whose life was full of overcoming setbacks throughout life from her early days on. Ginsburg made me realize that I could continue, even though it took awhile to finish. Each year my editor kept saying I’d have to write about her next term in court. It went on and on.
“Fortunately, I was able to get copies of earlier drafts from various people I worked with and researchers who had been helping me. It wasn’t total reconstruction of the 13 chapters, so I had to revise them and just kept moving on.”
One example was before the Tea Fire when she had sent some chapters to a colleague to be reviewed. Right after the fire, the woman sent them back, giving De Hart a chance to start rewriting.
It took almost nine more years to finalize the 23 chapters plus nearly 150 pages of index and reference material. The book serves as an excellent resource about Ginsburg.
The book’s structure also was changed.
“At the time of the fire, the publisher was doing the index of the early chapters and the June 2008 term was over,” De Hart said. “In the long run, I ended up writing about more incidences like Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s resignation and the impact of a new appointment. It was crazy to get everything done.”
When we talked, she had just returned from her first book tour on the East Coast, including New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.
“I am tired from traveling,” she said, “and giving talks, too. Fortunately, Victoria Wilson, one of my editors at Knopf who wrote the bio on Barbara Stanwyck (A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940) a few years ago, gave me pieces of advice about touring. One example was, ‘Don’t eat beforehand.’ She was right. It gave me more energy. Her other suggestions made it easier, too.”
While in Atlanta, De Hart experienced a touch of our small world: “When the person driving me around found out I was from Santa Barbara, she said, ‘I loved driving Sue Grafton around Atlanta and talking to her.’ The woman then talked a lot to me.”
When doing book signings or interviews, De Hart hints about reading Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I tell people they don’t have to read indexes, just the pages about Ruth,” she said.
What was her final thought about writing the book? “I was most pleased when the hardback came out and am also delighted with its good cover.”
The cover expresses Ginsburg’s character with its black background displaying a simple white lace jabot or feminine collar in the center under the title. That jabot came from Cape Town, Africa, and is one of Ginsburg’s favorites among the “many, many I have,” she says.
Ginsburg explained why she wears them in a 2009 interview with The Washington Post: “The standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie. So Sandra Day O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe, something typical of a woman.”
The one on the cover is frequently worn like a signature from dissenting Supreme Court decisions to giving talks. It is a good example of Ginsburg’s belief in feminism with a sense of class and integrity.
De Hart’s new book tells about Ginsburg’s life stories in a storytelling way. That makes it a page-turner and fascinating bio.
— Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.