Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America

The below is a review of Dahlia Lithwick’s new book, Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America.

Immediately after Trump’s victory over Clinton in 2016, women lawyers all around the country, independently of each other, sprang into action, and they had a common goal: they weren’t going to stand by in the face of injustice, while, in their perception, the Republican party did everything in their power to remake the judiciary in their own conservative image. Over the next four years, the women worked tirelessly to hold the line against the most chaotic and malign presidency in living memory.

There was Sally Yates, the acting attorney general of the United States, who refused to sign off on the Muslim travel ban. And Becca Heller, the founder of a refugee assistance program who brought the fight over the travel ban to the airports. And Roberta Kaplan, the famed commercial litigator, who sued the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville. And, of course, Stacey Abrams, whose efforts to protect the voting rights of millions of Georgians may well have been what won the Senate for the Democrats in 2020.

These are just a handful of the stories Lithwick dramatizes in detail to tell a brand-new and deeply inspiring account of the Trump years. With high access to her subjects, she has written not about the villains of these years, but about the heroes.

And as the country confronts the news that the Supreme Court, which includes three new justices, will soon overturn Roe v. Wade, Lithwick shines a light on not only the major consequences of such a decision, but issues a clarion call to all who might, like the women in this book, feel the urgency to join the fight. 

Dahlia Lithwick beautifully plays out women’s history in the American legal system over the past century. And it’s complicated. She does a fine job of serving as historian, and commentator, with interviews of many leading lawyers, including Sally Yates and Becca Heller, who fought against the travel ban on Muslims entering the U.S. She also speaks of Brigitte Amiri and Vanita Gupta who worked with immigrants on the US – Mexico border.

If you have not heard of these women, not to worry, that’s part of her point; there are many working tirelessly to protect rights of a few so that rights of many are not destroyed.

As a non-lawyer reading this book, I was simultaneously inspired and depressed by the amazing work yet little progress women, as a class, are making in holding the US legal system accountable. Lithwick does a splendid job of combining her work as a journalist and a lawyer to shine light on issues, explain the complexities and decision points, while leaving the reader feeling like a jurist with the information to make one’s own decision.

Lithwick also delves into the frustrating and persistent chauvinism and acceptance of sexual harassment that still exists. She documents the ways that legal channels and politics doubted, humiliated, and ultimately silenced Anita Hill and Chistine Blasey Ford. She also reports on the harassment by Judge Alex Kozinski on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit which went unchecked for decades because of his ability to advance careers of those who clerked under him.

She delves into her own complicity in these regards in choosing to stay silent about the harassment that she experienced, with the thought that it’s all a part of the game or trade off to building a career. This is a reality girls and women know all too well, whether they’re willing to recognize it or not. I applaud her bravery in this regard, because we all know there are many more lawyers and journalists alike who choose to stay silent because of potential career repercussions. It took me until I was in my 40s and 50s before I could stand up to it.

Reading this book rekindled my ever-smoldering sense of rage and left me wondering what we can do – not just as feminists, but as persons who love the art and science of the US legal system when it’s still being trampled and re-written centuries after its start. Beyond her excellent writing, research, interviews and commentary, I appreciate that Lithwick doesn’t adopt a saccharine optimism with “the best is yet to come.” Instead she welcomes the reader into the quandary of how to right this ship of justice, which is being used to sink the principles upon which this country was anchored.

Finally, I want to praise the first chapter about Pauli Murray whose legal and academic record, as well as their human rights standings, has long gone overlooked. Pauli embodies both the potential that the United States has to offer and the discrimination that it has dealt out. Nevertheless, Pauli is a far underrecognized hero, scholar, feminist, transgender activist and civil rights voice.

While I was reading this book, I kept asking myself – how do we get the people who need to read this book to do so? I want to give a copy to the 52% of white women who voted for Trump in 2016. I want to give a copy to every young person whose critical thinking skills are forming so they can see how the layering of wrongs and small switches of interpretation can undermine justice for so many while leaving culpability difficult to place. Lithwick has assembled another compelling case for women’s history, women’s rights, and the true potential of the US Legal system that has been exemplified many women.

Molly Singer

Molly Singer

Molly Singer is CEO of Dexterity Management, a professional writer and a trained applied anthropologist. She has worked broadly around policy and practices in local, state and federal government scenarios—particularly around community injustices.

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