Grinnell alumna writing authorized biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Feb. 15, 2019Mary Hartnett ‘80 came to Grinnell from St. Louis thinking she would become a Montessori teacher. However, many experiences during her time at the College convinced her that what she really wanted to do was become a lawyer.

Now she can add author to that list as well. Hartnett co-wrote My Own Words, a selection of writings and speeches from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She also was selected to co-write RGB’s authorized biography, which will be published when Ginsburg steps down from the bench.

An internship in Hartnett’s sophomore year found her traveling by van with other students to the capitol in Des Moines to work for a female legislator who opened her eyes to possibilities other than teaching. Hartnett took many courses in political science and graduated with an independent major in women’s studies and political science. Her interest in politics and the women’s rights movement, and a surprise last minute opening in the race, convinced her to run for state representative from Grinnell in her senior year.

Mary Hartnett ’80
   Mary Hartnett ’80

“My campaign was underway when I received a dream public interest law scholarship to NYU,” she says. The decision was perhaps one of the hardest she would ever make. Politicians told her she just had to run for office, while academics said she couldn’t turn down the scholarship. In her quandary, she talked with a philosophy professor she didn’t know well. He recommended that she consider which choice would open up the most doors of the type she would like to open. She decided on law school.

Hartnett worked for a large U.S. international law firm for nine years but when an opportunity arose to pursue her interest in women’s rights, she returned to Georgetown Law in 1998 to direct the Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship Program. Each year, six lawyers from the United States and six from different countries in Africa come together in Washington D.C., working on gender equality and attending biweekly seminars. One of the highlights of the program is having tea in chambers with Ginsburg.

“Marty Ginsburg, known as the cook of that family, always made the treats,” Hartnett says.

It was around this time that Mary and Wendy Williams, a colleague on the fellowship board and long-time professor of gender and law, decided it was time someone started writing a biography of Ginsburg. They sent her a note and Ginsburg readily responded. Some weeks later they were invited to her chambers.

“Both of us were very nervous, although we had been there many times; we were not at all sure how she would respond to our proposal,” Hartnett says. To their delight, Justice Ginsburg acted as if it was a done deal and had already pulled piles of papers for them to peruse.

Many hours had gone into what will be the authorized biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg but after 15 years of working and the decision not to publish while Ginsburg is on the bench, Justice Ginsburg had the idea to move forward with a book that would feature some of her key writings. That idea became My Own Words.

Today, Ginsburg’s biography takes up much of Mary’s time. In addition to her work on the book, Mary is an adjunct professor at Georgetown and remains on the board of the Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship Program. She teaches a class on the role of dissenting opinions with a focus on Justice Ginsburg’s decisions.

Mary Hartnett ’80 poses for a photo on campus in summer 1976 before her first year at Grinnell.
Mary Hartnett ’80 poses for a photo on campus in summer 1976 before her first year at Grinnell.

Hartnett met her husband, Richard Norland, during her Grinnell years. After one semester at NYU Law and the birth of their first child, Norland, was assigned to Bahrain as a foreign service officer. Following that two-year adventure, Hartnett finished her first year of law school at NYU, and then transferred to Georgetown because her husband was stationed in Washington D.C.

Norland’s current assignment is foreign policy advisor to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Since he’s often out of the country, Hartnett makes it a priority to spend time with her two children and four grandchildren who live in San Diego and Beirut.

She also participates in book events for My Own Words and other events with Justice Ginsburg. Grinnellians in Washington D.C. were invited to a reading Hartnett gave in October at Solid State Books.

“I think my favorite was two years ago when Wendy and I went with Justice Ginsburg to interview her on stage at the Virginia Military Institute,” she says. “It was over 20 years since she penned the majority opinion in the Supreme Court decision that opened VMI’s doors to women. It was very moving to see the entire cadet corps – including the women currently enrolled – applaud and appreciate her.”

 – by Judy Lutter ‘61

For your information:

The New York Times bestseller My Own Words is available at many bookstores and online retailers. A written and audio excerpt can be found on the book’s web page.

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