“Remarkable . . . a chronicle of the times, as seen by a brave woman of the era.”—Ruth Bader Ginsburg, from the foreword
When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg began researching the history of the women associated with the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress sent her Malvina Harlan’s unpublished manuscript. Recalling Abigail Adams’s order to “remember the ladies,” Justice Ginsburg guided its long journey from forgotten document to published book.
Malvina Shanklin Harlan witnessed—and gently influenced—national history from the perspective of a political leader’s wife. Her husband, Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan (1833–1911), wrote the lone dissenting opinion in Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous case that endorsed separate but equal segregation. And for fifty-seven years he was married to a woman who was busy making a mental record of their eventful lives. After Justice Harlan’s death in 1911, Malvina wrote Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854–1911, as a testament to her husband’s accomplishments and to her own.
The memoir begins with Malvina, the daughter of passionate abolitionists, becoming the teenage bride of John Marshall Harlan, whose family owned more than a dozen slaves. Malvina depicts her life in antebellum Kentucky, and her courageous defense of the Harlan homestead during the Civil War. She writes of her husband’s ascent in legal circles and his eventual appointment to the Supreme Court in 1877, where he was the author of opinions that continued to influence American race relations deep into the twentieth century. Yet Some Memories is more than a wife’s account of a famous and powerful man. It chronicles the remarkable evolution of a young woman from Indiana who became a keen observer of both her family’s life and that of her nation.
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About the Author
Ruth Bader Ginsburg was an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court for twenty-seven years. She died in 2020.
Linda Przybyszewski is an associate professor of history at the University of Cincinnati. She is the author of The Republic According to John Marshall Harlan.
Amelia Newcomb is an editor at The Christian Science Monitor. She is the granddaughter of the second Justice John Marshall Harlan, and the great-great-granddaughter of John Marshall and Malvina Harlan.
Read an Excerpt
Courtship and Marriage
One day during the late summer of 1853 in Evansville, Indiana, a small but growing town in the Southwestern part of the State-a young girl of fifteen, suffering from some slight affection of the eyes, had been confined by the physician's orders to a darkened room.
Happening at the moment to peep through a narrow crack of the almost closed window-shutters she saw a young man passing by. As she had lived all her life in that small town and was familiar with almost every face in it, she knew at once that he was a stranger.
That was sixty-one years ago; but, as clearly as if it were yesterday, she can still see him as he looked that day-his magnificent figure, his head erect, his broad shoulders well thrown back-walking as if the whole world belonged to him.
On the sixth of the following February, 1854, she was invited to take supper with the family of Dr. J. G. Hatchitt,1 a young physician living in the block beyond her father's residence. To her surprise, as she sat talking to her hostess, a young man-with a rope to each arm, as he "played horsey" for the little nephew that was the delightful and uproarious Jehu-suddenly pranced into the room. The young girl at once recognized him as the interesting stranger who had caught her eye six months before, as she peeped through the narrow crack of her window-shutters, and whom, after the romantic style of that period, she had (to herself) called "A Prince of the Blood."
Very much amused and yet covered with manly confusion, at thus being caught by a strange young girl in the act of "playing the boy," the young man who proved to be John Marshall Harlan, of Frankfort, Kentucky, and a brother of the hostess (Elizabeth Harlan)-was duly presented to "Miss Malvina Shanklin."
His conversation during that evening greatly interested the young girl, showing unusual thought and intelligence for a youth of only twenty-one, and that night he escorted her home.
As was her custom, being an only daughter, she went straight to her mother's room to tell her "all about" the very pleasant acquaintance she had just made. She showed so much enthusiasm in her description of him that her mother,2 after listening awhile to her girlish outburst, said, in a very dry, decided and matter-of-fact tone: "You have talked quite enough about a young man whom you have only seen for an hour or two; now, you can go up to your room. Good night."
During the next week, a daily call from this new friend gave me a new interest in life; and at the end of the week, before he left for his Kentucky home, to my great surprise he asked me to be his wife. "Does the course of true love ever run smoothly?" Considering the strain put upon it in this case, where disenchantment might so easily have followed, I can say that for me it did.
A Mischievous Brother's Prank
In my memory of those first days of courtship, one absurdly embarrassing incident stands out very vividly.
At that time I had three brothers3 living-one of them my senior by three years, the other two being a few years younger. My oldest brother was a great tease and, as the only sister, I was often the victim of his harmless practical jokes.