Something intriguing about reading Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald is that I already knew their endings.
Two women, two lives, two feminist icons. Both fascinating, smart, and talented. One became the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, an octogenarian champion of human rights known for her bench naps, witty retorts, and daily push-ups. The other died in an . How could the outcomes of their lives be so different?
I read these books back-to-back, loved them both, and deeply admired the each woman’s drive to perfect her craft. Ruth Bader Ginsburg pursued a law career in the same unapologetic way Zelda pursued dance, painting, and writing. Of course ambition beyond household, marital, and motherly duties was an unacceptable character trait for both women at the time they came of age.
Notorious RBG recounts a time Ruth Bader Ginsburg felt compelled to lie to her law school professors. When asked why she wanted to earn her law degree, she craftily responded that she wanted to be a dutiful wife and chat with her husband about his law career.
Z describes Zelda’s “re-education” by her therapist, who wouldn’t release her from his care until she consented in writing that a woman’s happiness came from fulfilling her duties as homemaker, wife, and mother, and that it was in fact her artistic ambition that was driving her mad. (Her condition is now assumed to be bi-polar disorder, not ambition.)
The brilliant women were notably different. RBG was precise, focused, and relentlessly dedicated to her career while Zelda was unpredictable, colorful, and spontaneous. And perhaps these traits, fortune, and many other external factors drove them to their entirely different outcomes.
Or perhaps their husbands did.
RBG married Marty Ginsburg, her classmate at Cornell, who throughout their lives and his own successful law career shared domestic duties with Ruth. He cooked (Ruth could cook only seven things and her daughter Jane said that she didn’t see a non-frozen vegetable until late in life) and cared for their two children (Marty cared for Jane while Ruth worked on a book in Switzerland) in a way that was not typical of men at the time. He supported Ruth’s career, recognized her brilliance and potentia. Before he died was quoted saying, “The most important thing I have done is enable Ruth to do what she has done.”
Zelda married American author F. Scott Fitzgerald who published many of her short stories under his name “for better sales,” prevented her from taking a principal dancer role with a ballet company, endorsed her institutionalization and “re-education,” blamed her ambition for their marital troubles and his alcohol induced tragic decline, then plagiarized her letters to him from the sanitarium to write Tender is the Night.
The stark contrasts of the women’s fates reminded me of Sheryl Sandberg’s depressing but shrewd advice to women: “The most important career choice you’ll make is who you marry.” While I can’t apply this blanket quote to all women (and while I wish it didn’t hold as much truth as it does for those who choose to marry), I am quite thankful that I married a Marty instead of a Scott. Who on earth do you think is caring for our baby right now?
XOXOXOX, Alex Navarro.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg was born just 33 years later than Zelda Fitzgerald, and perhaps it was those three decades and not their spouses that made the difference. I wonder how much Zelda’s life would have changed had she lived in the present and benefitted from years of RBG championing of women’s rights. Certainly her life would have been different had Ruth spoken her infamous quote to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is they take their feet off our necks.”