Nina Totenberg spent fifty years compiling this book. That is how long she and the late Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were in conversation. Luckily, Totenberg, a veteran NPR journalist covering the Supreme Court, had dozens of conversations, dinner parties, and recorded interviews with her friend Justice Ginsburg.
Dinners with Ruth presents a fabulous collection of personal anecdotes about how the iconic justice became a fierce protector of human rights and women’s liberties and how she rose in the field of law despite facing endless sexism. It speaks to her acute intelligence and prescience, her undying commitment to justice in both public and private, and her piquant personality. For example, when she once heard that one of her clerks was having trouble getting his child into daycare, she walked into the facility and simply introduced herself. Problem solved, she said, in her soft-spoken yet forthright style.
The author’s own story features as well. Totenberg’s tales of reporting on famous court cases, presidents, crime, and women’s rights offer a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of American law and political culture, no less interesting than her revelations about Justice Ginsburg’s life. Driven by an impressive gutsiness to follow stories to the end — even when she was the only woman in the room, even when J. Edgar Hoover called her “a persistent bitch” — Totenberg has led an electrifying and entertaining life.
Both the children of Jewish immigrant parents, Justice Ginsberg and Totenberg are women who broke glass ceilings for the rest of us, who had exhilarating front-row seats to some of the most important events and trends of the twentieth century, and who used their powerful platforms and positions to shape American society, political discourse, and civil rights.
It is quite remarkable how long the women were such good friends. They met in 1971 at the Supreme Court when Totenberg was covering the famous Deer trial that established the unconstitutionality of discrimination based on sex. Justice Ginsberg, meanwhile, was arguing the cause on behalf of the ACLU. This was four years before Totenberg started working for NPR and twenty years before Justice Ginsburg was sworn into the Supreme Court. Their friendship transcended job changes, meteoric rises in fame, political tensions, and radical shifts in American discourse, as well as personal tragedies and losses. It is a memorable tale of two female friends, each with unique career ambitions, who saw in each other sources of support, care, and love. It’s a beautiful, if in some ways privileged, story.
The book is as much a testament to the importance of friendship — especially female friendship — as it is about Justice Ginsburg’s or Totenberg’s lives. While not everyone has the opportunity to create the kinds of startling careers that they did, everyone has the chance to build lasting, meaningful friendships. This book is a reminder that while our culture often views one’s career as their life legacy, it is perhaps these kinds of relationships that tell the truth about a person’s worth and contributions to the world.
Dr. Elana Sztokman is a Jewish feminist anthropologist, educator, activist, and author, and two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Council Award. Her most recent book is When Rabbis Abuse: Power, Gender, and Status in the Dynamics of Sexual Abuse in Jewish Culture (Lioness Books, 2022).