Book review of Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America by Dahlia Lithwick

When I first cracked open Dahlia Lithwick’s “Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America,” I wasn’t sure if it was coming out at the worst possible time, or the best. Lithwick, the senior legal correspondent for Slate, is arguably the most influential and thought-provoking legal journalist in progressive circles, and “Lady Justice” is a retrospective look at the power of female lawyers during the Trump administration. In the midst of one of the darkest times in modern American history, the book essentially says, women stepped up, used the law to fight back and saved our collective bacon. Which at just about any point in the last two years would have been a welcome reminder of all the good that can happen in the face of extreme adversity, and a crucial contribution to our understanding of the Trump administration and how Americans behaved in response to its since.

Except, of course, that this book is being published in September 2022 and went to press just after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, which set into motion a cascade of laws criminalizing abortion, stripping from many American women sovereignty over our bodies and our most intimate choices, and by extension the ability to fully determine our own futures. A half-century of progress was undone the moment the opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was published, along with decades of feminist legal advocacy. As I turned Lithwick’s pink-covered book over in my hands and read the text on the back (which at least on my advance copy promised a “gripping and heroic story of the women lawyers who fought the racism, sexism, and xenophobia of Donald Trump’s presidency — and won”), I felt my chest deflate. But we just lostI thought.

Fortunately, I had the good sense (and the professional obligation) to actually read “Lady Justice.” And while I suspect that having this book come out just as American women have had a fundamental civil right stripped from them by a cabal of anti-feminist reactionary judges is not the timing Lithwick would have chosen, by the time I got to the end of the book, I was sufficiently convinced that it isn’t just an important historical document but a necessary guide right now to at least some of the paths forward post-Dobbs. Lithwick’s book insists that there’s simply no time for the sense of helplessness currently felt by so many pro-choicers, feminists and those who don’t believe that a fetus should have more rights than a woman.

In other words, “Lady Justice” is right on time.

Abortion rights cases bookend Lithwick’s argument, and although she wrote the bulk of the book before the Dobbs decision, the despair and urgency of this moment infuses the text. The 2016 oral argument in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedtafter which the Supreme Court issued an opinion upholding and reaffirming Roe v. Wade, was, Lithwick writes in the opening line of the book, “the last truly great day for women and the legal system in America.” And this is the core of her argument: that if a legal system is not one that treats women fairly and equally, and that women participate equally in, then it is not a legal system that is fair or equal; that female lawyers, by nature of our history as outsiders and frankly often victims of a male-run legal system, are uniquely suited to harness the power of the law for good; and that there is no justice without gender equality, and there is no one who understands just how important legal protections are — and the limits of those protections — as much as American women and the other groups that have found themselves outside the law’s promise of liberty and justice for all.

If this book had come out six months ago, it would have been easy to read it as a look back, a kind of essential history of four chaotic years that felt like a thousand, and how so many women came to our collective rescue — while others participated in the nation’s imperilment. But coming as it does in this particular moment, when any semblance of normalcy brought on by the refreshingly boring Biden administration has been shattered by an unprecedented rollback of rights and progress, “Lady Justice” is less rosy historical overview and more stirring strategy doc.

While Lithwick keeps a tight focus on female lawyers and their accomplishments, how those lawyers do their work varies widely, opening up a vast landscape of potential actions — and making clear that the most important battles are won by attacks on multiple fronts. There are the quiet institutionalists whose fealty to the rule of law calls them to improbable heroism; there are the rule-breakers who do not venerate the justice system but make it their mission to bend unequal laws towards justice; there are the visionaries who, instead of responding to what is, get to work building what could be.

There is, in other words, no single prescription for the Lady Lawyer in “Lady Justice.” But there is an invitation: While each of the women Lithwick profiles has done extraordinary things, not one of them is venerated as a superhero She-Hulk; each is written as a human being, her work put into context and made something as attainable. The throughline of all their labor is less the law itself and more a talent for organizing others to stand as a collective force, with the power, Lithwick writes, of “first principles and lofty ideas” behind them. Each of these women, Lithwick writes, needed other women behind her to accomplish what she did. And each of them, Lithwick hints, could be you, too — if you follow your gut, have a sharp moral conscience and put in the work.

Some of the women profiled in “Lady Justice” are names you’ve heard: Sally Yates, Stacey Abrams, Christine Blasey Ford. Others, though, fomented mass movements and set major changes into motion without ever becoming the public face of their victories. Remember when lawyers swarmed US airports to provide emergency legal advice to travelers arriving from the majority-Muslim countries listed in what came to be known as the Trump Muslim ban? For that, you can thank Becca Heller, a young Yale law grad who has made a career out of seeing holes in the system, filling them and bending the rules where needed. (“I think a lot of the law is completely ridiculous,” Heller tells Lithwick. “I mean, to me, getting a law degree is just about using the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house.”) Heller, who founded an organization that helps law students use their budding skills to assist refugees, was tipped off that the Muslim ban was coming. And then she rallied the troops, making Google docs of every major airport and asking lawyers to show up. “The lawyers on the list could have been tax attorneys or real estate lawyers, Heller didn’t care,” Lithwick writes.

And then, a bunch of older, more experienced, mostly male lawyers and advocates told her to stand down, that a compromise was coming and that amassing lawyers at the airport would anger the government. Heller told her people to hit pause. But it turned out she had been right all along: The government was not allowing valid visa-holders from the targeted countries to enter, and folks who were stuck at airports and being ordered back on airplanes out of the United States needed lawyers, stat.

Heller and her comrades kept a whole lot of folks from being improperly deported. They also fought the government in court, and while the Trump Muslim ban never fully went away during his administration, some of the worst aspects of the law were eventually stripped out. And the legal battles opened up valuable windows for travelers to enter the United States legally.

Lithwick, like Heller, is not starry-eyed about the law nor ignorant of its limitations. But she is a keen observer of those who wield it — the ones who use it for good, but also the ones they are fighting against, who have also worked (mostly) within the bounds of the legal system to muscle outcomes in their own ideological favour. Some of those people, she notes, are women too — this is a sharply feminist story, but it is not one of feel-good Girl Power sloganeering.

By the end of “Lady Justice,” and in the context of a Supreme Court dead set on rolling back women’s rights and freedoms, Lithwick writes that “we have a long way to go, the road will be bumpy, and the destination still feels less than clear.” She’s right. But lucky for us, she’s drawn an excellent map.

Jill Filipovic is a journalist, a lawyer and the author of “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.”

Women, the Law, and the Battle to Save America

Penguin Press. 350 pages $29

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