Author, biographer and Quincy native Wendy Webster Williams received hearty applause, a great many hugs and plenty of laughter when she returned to town March 28 for a benefit book signing and special screening of a documentary about U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in “RBG.”
Williams also appears in the film, which was nominated in the 2019 Oscars contest.
Smiling attendees bearing red-bound yearbooks from the Quincy High School Class of 1962 filled the lobby of the Town Hall Theatre, eager to see their former classmate and exchange funny stories for a new autograph.
Williams tossed her head in deep chuckles, stopping here and there for photos and an opportunity to flip through the worn pages from yesteryear.
“It’s good to be back home,” she said.
The Common Good Foundation and Plumas Arts sponsored the distinguished speaker’s appearance to observe Women’s History Month and promote her work as one of Justice Ginsberg’s official biographers. Pangaea catered the event.
Sales were brisk for the book Williams was signing, her work called “Ruth Bader Ginsberg, My Own Words,” co-authored with Mary Hartnett and published in 2016 by Simon and Schuster. All sales benefitted the Common Good Foundation.
Williams is a Professor Emerita at Georgetown Law and a celebrated equal rights advocate. She is currently at work on a new biography of the petite and powerful High Court judge and first met Justice Ginsberg in the early 1970s at a Yale, New Haven law conference where they became fast friends.
“We bonded over our work,” Williams told the audience, explaining that RBG knew of Williams’ work on a significant legal opinion in a California Supreme Court decision. Ginsberg had borrowed some of Williams’ language referring to gender distinctions that did not put women on pedestals, but rather “in a cage” when she presented her own first gender-equality case before the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.
Williams has shared many years of deep and rewarding friendship with RBG and was in the rose garden at the White House the day President Bill Clinton announced his decision to nominate Ginsberg to the high court.
She referred to her friend by the popular acronym that so many others affectionately use, RBG, and shared a range of memories and impressions of the famed justice with the Quincy crowd.
“RBG was born and raised in Brooklyn and you can still hear it in her accent,” said the honored law professor. “At 86, she is the second female justice, after Sandra Day O’Connor, and has served on the Supreme Court over 25 years. I love this documentary because it captures the way she really is.”
Justice Ginsberg recently suffered some health challenges, broke three ribs, and yet works out every day with her personal trainer in the basement of the Supreme Court building. She’s doing quite well, Williams said.
“Improbably, this little bitty, serious woman has become arguably the most famous woman justice of the court,” Williams noted, listing an impressive array of books that have been written about RBG.
Laughter rang out in the theatre when the speaker began listing all of the celebrity marketing products one can buy with RBG slogans and artwork on them — from coffee mugs and T-shirts to greeting cards, tote bags and socks.
“There’s a fabulous bobble-head doll of her, a hilarious opera about her, and my infant grandson wears an RBG onesie!” Williams said, grinning. “The Samuel Adams Beer Company is also dedicating a new brew to her called ‘When There Are 9’ in reference to the time she said there will be enough women justices on the court when there are nine.”
Serious talk of RBG’s landmark accomplishments in gender-equality law also filled the evening, taking note of the changes that have arisen in employment discrimination and other key impacts upon the lives of American women and men.
“RBG made a name for herself arguing that men and women should not be pigeon-holed by their gender,” Williams said. “She argued cases for 10 years before the Supreme Court and managed to persuade those nine gentlemen (before her) to move in the direction of gender equality.”
Williams reminded the audience, as the documentary had, that justices serving years ago had not “seen” the inequality because they had not experienced it themselves. RBG, through her eloquent writing and impeccable legal work, brought those experiences out into the open.
“PBS journalist Jeffrey Brown called her the most unlikely rock star of Washington, D.C.,” Williams remarked. “She dedicated her life to remedying gender inequality issues and discrimination based upon sex.”