Award-winning journalist Irin Carmon, 36, says her earliest feminist memory is going to her school library wanting to read biographies of women. She found only two for young readers: one on Mary Todd Lincoln and the other on Julia Ward Howe.
“Where are the rest of them?” Irin wondered.
“We ended up writing one,” says Irin of the young readers’ version of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which she co-authored with Shana Knizhnik, the creator of the Notorious RBG Tumblr page.
When Irin speaks to Jewish groups (as she will in Portland in November), the Israeli-born writer generally focuses on Justice Ginsburg’s ongoing work on the Supreme Court and how her Jewish heritage contributed to her legendary status as “the Notorious RBG.”
Irin discussed how she came to co-author the book during a telephone interview this summer.
She initially requested an interview with Justice Ginsburg in the summer of 2014. At the time, Irin was a staff reporter at MSNBC focusing on women’s rights.
“As a journalist, I had been focused on issues RBG worked on her entire career – women’s rights and its intersection with the law – and she was becoming more vocal,” says Irin.
Irin was told the justice was busy, but that she might try again later because Justice Ginsburg would occasionally grant interviews during the Supreme Court’s winter recess.
In November, a former colleague suggested to Irin that she might be a good fit to write Notorious RBG with Shana, the New York University law student who in 2013 created the Notorious RBG Tumblr to highlight Ginsburg’s dissent in the landmark Supreme Court case that gutted the Voting Rights Act.
“I signed on to do the project and re-sent my interview request for MSNBC and the book,” says Irin. Though Justice Ginsburg had promised exclusivity to her official biographers, “she did speak to me in my journalistic capacity, which I could then use for the book.”
After Notorious RBG was published in October 2015, it spent three months on the New York Times bestseller list, with the NYT describing Irin as someone “known for her smarts and feminist bona fides.”
Though the co-authors tried to make the original book accessible to all audiences, they released a young readers’ edition for ages 8-12 two years later. Perhaps it was because Irin knew there was a dearth of such books available.
“It’s exciting to be able to add to that bookshelf,” she says. “But it’s really important to Justice Ginsburg herself for young people to see the Supreme Court is not just for one kind of person – that they be able to imagine themselves, especially young women, on the Supreme Court. She wants to be a role model for girls growing up.”
Irin herself could be considered a role model for those same girls. She graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in literature. In 2011, she was one of Forbes 30 under 30 in media. Before joining MSNBC and NBC News, she wrote for Salon and Jezebel, a blog with the tagline “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing.”
As a Jezebel staff writer, Irin wrote a 2010 post calling “The Daily Show” a “boys’ club where women’s contributions are often ignored and dismissed.” Initially, the post drew heat from both “Daily Show” fans and staff. But more women joined the show over the next couple years; at the time Irin said she did not know if her article contributed to the change. But in 2017 she learned she had.
“I was happy to see Jon Stewart recently credit the piece for opening his eyes to structural issues,” says Irin of Stewart’s comments to Mashable in November 2017.
In that article, Stewart said his first instinct on seeing the Jezebel article was to be defensive.
“My first response was like … ‘No no no no, I’m an O.G. feminist, man! I was raised by a single mother in the ’70s,'” he told Mashable. “She had a shirt that said ‘A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.’ ”
He said he went back to the writers’ room to rail about the article and realized, looking around the room, that it was right. Stewart thought his show was ahead of the game because it took blind submissions, but the submissions came from agents – who tended to be biased toward white men from Ivy League schools.
“To change that system takes actual effort,” Stewart said in the article. Once he got past his defensiveness to examine the criticism, he said he tried to do better.
In 2017-18, Irin teamed up with Washington Post coworker Amy Brittain to break the news of sexual harassment and assault allegations against Charlie Rose and CBS’ knowledge of those allegations. Their story won a 2018 Mirror Award for excellence in media industry reporting.
Now a senior correspondent for New York Magazine and a CNN contributor, she reports on gender, the #MeToo movement, politics and the law, including the Supreme Court.
Her interest in law comes naturally. When she was 2, her parents moved from Tel Aviv to the states to earn their master’s degrees at St. Johns University after earning law degrees from Tel Aviv University. Originally planned as a temporary move, her parents went on to focus their legal work on U.S.-Israel issues. Her mom, Rakeffet Carmon, works with Israelis in the United States. Her dad, Haggai Carmon, works with the U.S. government and other clients in Israel. Her father is also the author of five intelligence thrillers featuring fictional former Mossad agent Dan Gordon, who now works for the U.S. government.
Irin grew up on Long Island but spent the summers in Israel. Her parents now live half the year in the United States and half the year in Israel. Irin visits Israel about every year and a half to see her grandfather, brother, aunts and uncles.
In a 2010 article for Jezebel, Irin wrote, “I should disclose my bias as an Israeli-born Jew, whose European grandparents and great-grandparents were among the few in their families to survive Nazi genocide because they were Zionists in what was then known as Palestine.”
She frequently speaks across the country to a variety of groups including Jewish federations, campus Hillels and women’s groups. Earlier this year she addressed state policy officials at a conference in Phoenix, AZ.
Irin says most of the groups she speaks to, which tend toward progressive, are interested in reproductive rights and the direction the nation is taking.
“People are alarmed about the direction of the country in general,” she says. “In the last year or so, the anxiety about reproductive rights has gone into overdrive. It’s no surprise given the composition of the Supreme Court right now and given the hostility coming out of the federal government, particularly the presidency.”
The stance of recently appointed justices seems in stark contrast to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s statement on the subject at her confirmation hearing: “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”
Last year a museum exhibit adapted from the book Notorious RBG opened at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. For the exhibition, Irin was able to collaborate with her husband, Ari Richter. Ari is an associate professor of art at LaGuardia Community College in The City University of New York. He earned a BFA in drawing and painting from Florida State University and an MFA in studio art from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His contributions to the RBG exhibition are just one of several exhibits he has contributed to throughout the nation in recent years.
Ari’s “RBG Tattoo II” and other works are part of the exhibit also named “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.” This fall the exhibit will be in Philadelphia Oct. 3-Jan. 12, 2020, before moving to Chicago Feb. 9-Aug. 16, 2020.
Irin and Shana spoke at the opening in Los Angeles and are expected to participate in events at other venues of the traveling exhibit’s national tour through 2022.
“I am honored to be somebody who is part of telling her (RBG’s) story,” says Irin.
Irin readily acknowledges her accomplishments have been made easier by the work of early feminists such as RBG.
“There is a reason we dedicated this book to the women on whose shoulders we stand – women like her who paved the way for younger women like Shana and me,” says Irin. “This book is a recognition of how much is possible because of the work they did.”
Women’s Philanthropy’s IMPACT
WHO: Featuring Irin Carmon, author, Notorious RBG; senior correspondent, New York Magazine; and CNN contributor
WHAT: Evening includes cocktail hour and dinner
WHEN: Monday, Nov. 18, 2019
WHERE: Mittleman Jewish Community Center
PRICE: $54 per person; $36 per young adult (30 and under, first 25 to register)
INFORMATION/TICKETS: jewishportland.org/IMPACT or call 503-892-3015