summer 2005
table of contents
Articles Online

Social InSecurity
Bad and Good News for Title IX
Female Pundits Missing
Radical Muslim Prayer
Hip Hop and Feminism


Rwandan Women Lead Rebirth
Saudi Feminist Princess
French Women Do Get Fat
Networking Corner

Cover Story
Urgent Report: What’s at Stake if We Lose the Supreme Court

Public Triumphs, Private Rights
| Ellen Chesler
The Polls Speak: Americans Support Abortion | Celinda Lake
Talking Points: Judges and Filibusters | Kathy Bonk
Five Rights Women Could Lose | National Partnership for Women and Families
An Unlikely Feminist Icon | Review by Ann Blackman of Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun's Supreme Court Journey

More Features

The Green Motel | Rebecca Clarren
The Dialectic of Fat | Catherine Orenstein
Hanan Ashrawi: Creating a Common Language | Rebecca Ponton
Still Carrying the Torch | Emily Dietrich


Summersgate | Lisa Wogan

Power Plays | Martha Burk

A Shot Against Cervical Cancer
| Mary Jane Horton

Portfolio: Zana Briski | John Anderson

She Who Once Was | Rebecca McClanahan

Hollywood Producer Orders Up a Sunset | Aleida Rodríguez
| Eloise Klein Healy

Deja New | Lee Martin

Andrea Dworkin | In her own words

Book Reviews
Celeste Fremon on Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas’ Promises I Can Keep
Michele Kort on Johnette Howard’s The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova
Susan Straight on Alia Mamdouh’s Naphtalene: A Novel of Baghdad
Sarah Gonzales on Isabel Allende’s Zorro
Samantha Dunn on Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation

Plus: Great Reads for Summer

Run, Sisters, Run! | Donna Brazile

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  FEATURES | summer 2005

Ms. Urgent Report
An Unlikely Feminist Icon

Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey
By Linda Greenhouse (Times Books)

Harry A. Blackmun had only been in the Supreme Court for a few months when Chief Justice Warren E. Burger handed him a political land mine: writing the opinion for the controversial abortion case that had caused deep divisions in the country and was now before the court.

Blackmun did not know why he had been tapped for the unwelcome assignment. He had a strong medical background from his years as counsel to the Mayo Clinic, but no real interest in the abortion issue or women’s rights.

As Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse writes in her absorbing new book, Becoming Justice Blackmun, the judge later suspected that Burger, a friend since kindergarten, assumed Blackmun would show his gratitude to his old pal by writing a narrowly focused opinion that would discharge the Court’s duty without causing further controversy or embarrassing their patron, President Richard Nixon.

If that was Burger’s expectation, the chief justice could not have been more wrong.

Blackmun’s opinion in Roe v. Wade, for which he has been lionized and vilified by someone every day since, stands as one of the most controversial in the Court’s history.

“Fate — and Warren Burger — had dealt him an extraordinary hand,” Greenhouse writes. “He was to be linked forever to a cause that had scarcely been his own. His concern had been medical autonomy, the ability of doctors to serve their patients according to their best judgment, without fear of criminal prosecution.”

Over the next 19 years, however, Blackmun gradually recognized that his decision had protected the rights of women, not just doctors. By the time the Court ruled on a 1992 case that reaffirmed Roe Planned Parenthood v. Casey — Blackmun had come to fully accept that reproductive freedom was an essential part of women’s equality.

“By restricting the right to terminate pregnancies, the State conscripts women’s bodies into its service,” he wrote in his opinion.

Greenhouse, whose 25 years of incisive Supreme Court reporting won her early access to Blackmun’s archive of public and private papers, leads readers down the Court’s marble corridors and into the private chambers of nine smart, opinionated, yet very human justices.

She reveals intense personal rivalries, private insecurities, suspicions of one another’s motives, unexpected friendships between justices on opposite sides of the political divide, extensive backchannel lobbying to garner support for an opinion — even gambling (in 1992, the justices placed state-by-state Election Day bets on who would win the presidential election).

Blackmun was wary of Ruth Bader Ginsburg when President Clinton appointed her to the Court in 1993. During an earlier appearance before the Court, Blackmun had graded her argument as a B and wrote in his notes that it was “too smart.”

She had been a critic of Roe, “not for its outcome, which she fully supported, but for its reasoning,” Greenhouse writes.

But Blackmun also worried that Ginsburg would not be able to stand up to conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, with whom she had a close friendship from their days on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Blackmun’s fears were allayed in Ginsburg’s first term when she joined his opinion in a sex-discrimination case — and Scalia offered an angry dissent.

Greenhouse paints a rare and wonderfully human portrait of one of the Court’s most extraordinary justices, a man of dogged determination who opened himself to new ideas and evolved into one of the nation’s strongest champions of women’s rights.


Ann Blackman is a former Time magazine correspondent. Her latest book is Wild Rose: Rose O'Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy (Random House, 2005).

More from Ms.' Urgent Report:
Read Ellen Chesler's story on what Estelle Griswold and Margaret Sanger risked to help women gain access to birth control and abortion — and how just one Supreme Court justice could take it away.
- Kathy Bonk proposes "talking points" for how to frame the debate on federal judicial appointments.
- Pollster Celinda Lake looks at the numbers : The majority of Americans support a woman’s right to a legal abortion, as they have for the past 15 years.
- Five Rights Women Could Lose under an ultraconservative Supreme Court.

More book reviews >>

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