Ruth Bader Ginsburg, AKA The Notorious RBG, Was a Pop Icon Who Truly Made a Big Difference
Ruth Bader Ginsburg had a legion of fans and the bobbleheads and other merch to prove it, but the late Supreme Court justice also redrew the roadmap to gender equality.
Was there anything that wasn’t cool about Ruth Bader Ginsburg?
Even the late Supreme Court justice’s nickname—Notorious RBG—has a cool backstory.
It began, she said, with a “young woman at NYU Law School” who was supremely pissed off at the Court’s decision in Shelby County, Alabama v. Eric H. Holder, Jr., which, Ginsburg said bluntly, “took the heart out of the Voting Rights Act of 1965… And then she realized that anger is not a productive emotion. It doesn’t get you anywhere. So she was going to do something positive. She started this Tumblr with my dissent in the Shelby County case, and it took off from there,” she said and paused. “The ‘Notorious RBG’ is after the Notorious BIG—well-known rapper. And when they told me that’s what they were calling the Tumblr, I said, ‘Well, of course. We have one big thing in common.’ What do you have in common with the Notorious BIG? ‘We were both born and bred in Brooklyn.’”
So, standing tall at 5’1” and weighing in at all of a hundred pounds soaking wet, “Notorious RBG” she became, advocating for equality, and particularly gender equality, with fierce aplomb, especially and most memorably when a high court vote put her in the minority. Sometimes a strong, biting dissent is almost as good as a favorable ruling—and more world defining than the choicest rhymes. Justice Ginsburg’s opinions were strong, and they were heard, largely because she was such an erudite, canny writer who chose her words with care: taking her secretary’s advice, she always substituted the word “gender” for the word “sex” in her decisions, lest her fellow male justices might be distracted.
Ginsburg, who died Friday at the age of 87 due to complications from cancer, will surely go down as one of the most memorable justices to ever sit on the court. She will also be remembered—maybe most remembered—as the first justice to ever become a pop culture icon. The nickname is just the beginning.
Her face adorns T-shirts and hoodies. There is Ruth Bader Ginsburg jewelry, an action figure, assorted dolls, throw pillows, coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, and an assortment of bobblehead dolls. And there are books, or at least things sold in bookstores: blank-page journals, quote books, a coloring book, and biographies out the wazoo—one co-authored by MSNBC’s Irin Carmon and ACLU lawyer Shana Knizhnik, the woman who as a student coined the RBG moniker. People write songs about her: most notably Kesha, but there’s also a whole album of songs written and composed by her daughter in law and produced by her son for the classical label he runs. And, there’s the illustrated guide to getting the Ginsburg body published by Bryant Johnston, her personal trainer since 1999: The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong . . . and You Can Too!.
Heck, why not RBG Mad Libs with nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs omitted from her opinions? In 2018, there was not only a highly praised documentary made about her but also a fictionalized Hollywood biopic starring Felicity Jones.
And like any other celebrity, she had worshipful fans: When it was announced that she was having surgery for lung cancer in December 2018, a woman tweeted, “Welp, looks like I am flying to NY. Ruth Bader Ginsburg may need a lung.” Now surely, you may say, it was her vote that liberals sought to protect, but can you imagine any other justice getting a donor transplant offer? Her appeal went well beyond politics, extending even into the sciences: In 2016, a newly discovered species of praying mantis was named for her: Ilomantis ginsburgae.
Then there are the statement collars, which are often necklaces or lacy jabots inspired by the apparel of the Supreme Court’s first female justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. Beads and lace add femininity to the dour black court robe, which is cut for a man to show his collared shirt and necktie. Then there is a dissent collar, almost a mourning piece, predominantly black with silver crystals in long strands or fringes. She wore it the day following President Donald Trump’s election. The majority collar is much livelier: a scalloped yellow, crocheted number edged in lavender and embellished with gold—a jolt of color injected into the court’s habitual solemnity. When O’Connor retired in 2006, Ginsburg’s collars served to remind people that she was the only female alongside eight men.
Pop culture cashes in on signature embellishment (a marketing tool supporting the sale of, say, RGB Halloween costumes). A serious woman becomes fun, almost inviting parody. The Ginsburg brand made it easy to style Kate McKinnon in her frequent appearances as Justice Ginsburg on Saturday Night Live: severe, low ponytail and a doily over the robe and voila!—you’re Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
For her part, Ginsburg seemed to live well outside her celebrity status, bemused by it at most, and sometimes clueless. Tellingly, she never even had a strong handle on who the Notorious B.I.G. was. In February 2018, CNN’s Poppy Harlow interviewed R.B.G. at Columbia University Women’s Conference “She Opened the Door.” The intro music was Duran Duran’s "Notorious." “Isn’t that Notorious B.I.G?” Ginsburg asked.
“It is.” Poppy answered. Wrong.
Neither woman was hip to the music, but one of them had never sought to be.
After O’Connor retired from the court in 2006, Ginsburg became the sole female justice until 2009. It was, she said later, a lonely time. But then Sonia Sotomayor was appointed, and Elena Kagan in 2010, and suddenly a third of the county’s highest bench was female, a fraction that “makes a great difference,” Justice Ginsburg told NPR’s Nina Totenberg in 2017. “We look like we are there to stay—and anyone who has observed an argument knows that my newest colleagues are not shrinking violets.”
But the years she spent as the lone female on the court nagged at her because she thought it sent a terrible message to younger generations. The "worst part," Ginsburg said about being the only woman on the court, is that "young women are going to think, 'Can I really aspire to that kind of post?'"
Joan Ruth Bader was born on March 15, 1933. the second daughter of Nathan Bader, a furrier who emigrated from Odessa, Ukraine, and Celia (Amster) Bader, a second-generation U.S. citizen, the daughter of Austrian Jewish parents. Her sister, Marilyn, died of meningitis at age six, when Ruth was 14 months old. While the family was not devout, they did belong to a conservative synagogue, where she learned the tenets of the Jewish faith and Hebrew (at sleepaway camp, she was dubbed the “camp rabbi”).
But in that conservatism, she encountered a formative instance of gender discrimination following her mother’s death from cancer just days before Ruth’s graduation from James Madison High School, where she had been a baton twirler. (She chipped a tooth twirling, so she may have been only moderately good at it.) Although there was a “house full of women,” Ginsburg said in an interview for the PBS series The Jewish Americans, she was not allowed to participate in the minyan—a communal prayer for mourners that in more strict Jewish tradition requires a quorum of ten men. The exclusion resulted in her becoming non-observant.
Although her life was cut short, Ruth’s mother made a lasting impact. “My mother was a powerful influence. She made me toe the line. If I didn’t have a perfect report card, she showed her disappointment,” Ginsburg said. Her mother’s own perfect report cards hadn’t mattered—different times: “She [Ginsburg’s mother] told a story about bringing home a report card with all A’s to her father. But it didn’t mean anything. She was a girl. My mother graduated from high school at 15 and went to work to support the family because the eldest son went to college.”
While sassy caricatures have replaced her serious and staid personality in recent years, Ginsburg remained stoic and logical, rarely cracking a smile. She had the tenacity to achieve a seat on the bench of the nation’s highest court, a feat not taken lightly, certainly not by the seat’s occupant, who hung onto it as hard as she could for as long as she could. She seemed made of titanium in an almost mythological sense because while she was old and seemingly frail, she was always able to bounce back in time to fulfill her judicial duty—in her career as a justice, she never missed an oral argument.
During her tenure on the high court, she suffered and recovered from a series of health crises that would have leveled a person half her age. In 1999, six years after she replaced Byron White on the court (she had been a federal appeals court judge since 1980), she was treated for colorectal cancer. In 2009, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and survived! Surviving pancreatic cancer would make anybody notorious. She attributed her good fortune to early detection after her first cancer diagnosis: “Ever since my colorectal cancer in 1999, I have been followed by the NIH [National Institute of Health]. That was very lucky for me, because they detected my pancreatic cancer at a very early stage.”
In 2014, she had a stent inserted in her right coronary artery, and in 2018, she underwent surgery for cancer a third time to remove two malignant nodules in her left lung. Three days after her lung surgery in 2018, she was up and working. She even cast a vote in a court case from her hospital bed. And from another hospital bed, she heard oral arguments before the Court in 2020 after a gallstone attack.
Advocacy for equal rights and representation for women were her lifelong passions, beginning well before she became a judge, before she worked as a lawyer for the ACLU, even before she taught law at Rutgers (1963-1972), where she was paid less than her male colleagues holding equal positions. According to the logic of the time, she had a husband with a well-paying job, which, as part of a two-income household, created its own income disparity among professors. The political and social climate did not allow her much room for argument since she was one of only about twenty female tenure-track law professors in all of U.S. academia at the time. The very year the Equal Pay Act was passed, the dean explained why she was making less than a male colleague: "Ruth, he has a wife and two children to support. You have a husband with a good-paying job in New York."
After graduating from Cornell in 1954, she married tax attorney Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, and together they forged a union that in its balance of power and shared responsibilities was decades ahead of its time. The marriage lasted until Marty’s death in 2010.
“My father was very worried because he couldn’t support me,” she said. “Then I married Marty the month I graduated from college, and it was all fine. I could go off to law school. If nobody hired me, I had a man to support me.”
Her mother, however, had instilled in her daughter the importance of independence. “In the ’50s, parents would like their daughters to meet Prince Charming, marry, and live happily ever after. And my mother… thought it would be fine if I met Prince Charming, but ‘fend for yourself’ was her message. Be independent.”
As a mother enrolled in law school, Ginsburg still managed to type class notes for her husband, so he would not fall behind while he was being treated (and eventually cured) of testicular cancer. When he joined a New York City law firm after graduation, Ruth and their daughter, Jane, followed him. Ruth, who had completed most of her own law school coursework at Harvard, transferred to Columbia to finish her degree.
Marty Ginsburg turned out to be an immensely supportive husband and father with a fortunate knack for cooking. He took to the kitchen out of “self-preservation,” he said: “I learned very early on in our marriage that Ruth was a fairly terrible cook, and for lack of interest unlikely to improve.” After Marty’s death in 2010, the wives of the male Supreme Court judges published Chef Supreme, a cookbook of Marty’s recipes and photographs that pay tribute to his life with Ruth, his support for her career and their family, and his audacity in tackling the French culinary bible, The Escoffier Cookbook, applying his chemistry degree to the art of cooking.
In a 2013 interview, the Ginsburgs’ son, James, spoke of his parents. “My father was the extrovert, always the life of the party,” he told The New Yorker. “Mom is obviously personally more reserved, more quiet. They worked so well together,” he said. “Growing up, I didn’t know that it was unusual for both parents to have careers. People would always ask me what my dad did, and I always wondered why people didn’t ask me about my mom. Early on, my mom followed my dad to New York, and, later on, he followed her to Washington.”
The discrimination she faced as a female, a Jew, and a working mother over the course of her life always bore directly on Ginsburg’s thinking on constitutional matters of equal rights. In 1969, several Rutgers students requested that the school offer a seminar on women in law. “I headed to the library,” Ginsburg said. “There was precious little about women’s place in a world where all doers and actors were male. Rutgers students sparked my interest and aided in charting the course I then pursued.” Three years later, “I was arguing gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court.”
Assessing the #metoo movement and the outcomes such a grassroots awareness campaign produces, Ginsburg said, “I think it will have staying power.” Then she told her own #metoo story from her time at Cornell, when she needed help preparing for a chemistry test. Her instructor gave her a practice test to take home. When she arrived to take the actual test, she discovered that the practice exam and the test were one and the same. Ginsburg immediately understood that she was expected to reciprocate sexually for the favor. She angrily confronted the teacher, who backed down.
“In those days, the attitude was, what can we do about it?” Ginsburg said years later. “Boys will be boys.”
She didn’t comply, and she didn’t forget, and when she finally encountered Catherine MacKinnon’s Sexual Harassment in the Workplace (1979) while teaching at Columbia, it resonated with her. “The argument was that this is gender-based discrimination that should be subject to control under Title VII [of the 1964 Civil Rights Act]. There had been no such effort before Catherine MacKinnon. I think she deserves tremendous credit for identifying the problem. And then, in the ’70s, the Supreme Court said, ‘Yes, she’s right. This does belong under Title VII.’”
Ginsburg believed the Equal Rights Amendment belonged in the Constitution and lamented that it fell short of ratification by only three states. “It’s important,” she said, “even if the 14th Amendment has been interpreted the way an equal rights provision would.” After all, she pointed out, “Every constitution in the world written since the year 1950 has the equivalent of the statement that men and women are people of equal citizenship.”
The backlash against #metoo has produced a return to separatism, the fear of the other existing between men and women that has forced the sexes into separate corners. Ginsburg herself was always harshly critical of such rigid ideological obtuseness, and there was never anything punitive about her quest for equality before the law, even as she pursued that quest both in court and elsewhere (as an active member of the American Law Institute, for instance, she drafted a memorandum that convinced her male counterparts to meet somewhere other than New York City’s Century Club, which until 1989 admitted only men).
Ginsburg’s diametric opposite on the court was arch-conservative Antonin Scalia, staunch proponent of the Originalist doctrine holding that the Constitution is nearly perfect as it stands and certainly not subject to what he called “whimsical change”—and in his eyes any Equal Rights Amendment was certainly whimsical change. Ginsburg took precisely the opposite view, arguing that the Constitution was a “living” document and adaptable to current circumstances, and that “We the people” had to include more than just the 1 percent of empowered white landowners who drafted the original document.
What makes their disagreement noteworthy is that Ginsburg and Scalia were best friends, both on the court and off. The two were so close that for years the Scalias and the Ginsburgs celebrated New Year’s Eve together and even occasionally vacationed together, including trips to the South of France, where Ginsburg decided to parasail, and India, where the pair rode an elephant, with Ginsburg sitting behind Scalia. "The driver explained it was a matter of distribution of weight," she said after feminists razzed her.
Their strongest bond, however, was surely their shared love of opera. They even appeared together on stage once, in non-singing roles in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, and their friendship itself became fodder for Derrick Wang’s opera Scalia/Ginsburg.
Ginsburg herself appeared in more than one opera, most notably in 2014, when she took to the stage in the Washington National Opera’s production of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, taking the non-singing role of the Duchess of Krakenthorp.
“When I was in grade school, the class was separated into robins who sang out, and sparrows who mouthed the words. So, I was a sparrow. But The Duchess of Krakenthorp was much fun for me, because I wrote most of my own lines, and I explained—no surprise—the most valorous members of the House of Krakenthorp are women!”
Neither Scalia nor Ginsburg may seem all that cool to their respective critics, but their odd-couple friendship was cool indeed, a much needed reminder that even people who violently disagree with each other could, at the end of the day, remain friends and share respect (after she wrote the majority decision in United States v. Virginia Military Institute in 1996, Scalia’s "spicy dissent,” she said, “ruined her weekend.”).
Pointing to the Senate’s unanimous vote to confirm Scalia (Ginsburg herself was confirmed by a 96-3 vote), she decried the ultra-partisanship corroding government and public discourse and longed for a return for the spirit of political amity uncorroded by ideological division. “My hope is that I will live to see the day when the Senate operates that way again, instead of these fierce partisan divides,” she said.
Her work as general counsel at the ACLU led to a lifelong friendship with Gloria Steinem. In 2015, the two women met for lunch in the judge’s chambers at the Supreme Court, where they reminisced about their friendship in the presence of a reporter for The New York Times.
When asked how the two met, Gloria Steinem said, “When Ruth was at the ACLU. What comes to mind are these cases in which young African-American women were being sterilized without their permission.”
Ginsburg added, “There was an irony. We couldn’t get abortions. But there was this notorious obstetrician, and if it was a woman’s third child, he would automatically sterilize her.”
Ginsburg and Steinem began their careers at about the same time, Steinem as editor of Ms. magazine and as the public face for the Women’s Movement, and Ginsberg at the ACLU, where she co-founded and ran the ACLU's Women's Rights Project.
Over lunch, the two friends agreed that when they were young, college was where women were sent to get husbands. But of course, being who they were, neither woman sheathed her intellect—although Ginsburg did indeed meet her husband, Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, while attending Cornell.
The Ivy League proved no more welcoming. Admitted to Harvard Law School in 1956 as one of nine women in a class of 500, she found herself at a dinner with the law school dean, Erwin Griswold, who asked, “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?”
“My husband is a second-year law student, and it’s important for a woman to understand her husband’s work,” she said.
“Did you really think that?” the Times reporter asked at that lunch with Steinem.
“Of course not!” she said.
Although she completed most of her course work at Harvard and was the first woman to serve on the editorial staff at the Harvard Law Review, she received her law degree—tied for first in 1959—from Columbia, where she was also the first female member of its Law Review. In retrospect, Harvard had regrets about its treatment of Ginsburg, at least judging by the number of times it tried to count her among its alumni. Numerous attempts were made by subsequent deans—Kagan among them. In an interview with The New Yorker, Ginsburg said, “Marty always told me to say no and hold out for an honorary degree from the university.”
And so, in 2011, she did finally receive her honorary degree from Harvard, alongside Plácido Domingo, who serenaded Ginsburg the hardcore opera fan there on the podium. “It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” she said. The wait had paid off.
But it was a long wait. Fresh out of Columbia, she had trouble finding work, even with a law degree. In the ’50s, she said, there were still “many firms who put up sign-up sheets that said, ‘Men Only.’ And I had three strikes against me. First, I was Jewish, and the Wall Street firms were just beginning to accept Jews. Then I was a woman. But the killer was my daughter Jane, who was four.”
While working as General Counsel at the ACLU (1973-1980), the mother of two faced challenges that men didn’t—and often still don’t. Every time her son, James, was disruptive in school—a fairly common occurrence—the school called her.
"The child was what his teachers called 'hyperactive' and I called 'lively,’” she remembered. On one occasion, when she was tired after a late night preparing a brief, she took the principal’s call and said, “This child has two parents. I suggest you alternate calls.”
After that, the “calls came barely once a semester, and the reason was, they had to think long and hard before asking a man to take time out of his workday to come to the school," she said.
Justice Ginsburg’s fiery arguments are so skillfully written that sometimes they effect almost as much change as the decisions that inspired them. For original inspiration as a stylist, she had none other than the novelist Vladimir Nabokov, a lecturer at Cornell when she was a student, who she would later claim as a formative influence on her eloquence and artful punch.
Nowhere was this more obvious than in the high court’s 2007 decision in the wage discrimination case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Rubber & Tire Co. In an angry dissent against the 5-4 decision in favor of Goodyear, Ginsburg acidly characterized Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion as “cramped” and argued that neither the law nor the people it is designed to protect are best served by the niggling observance of legalities at the expense of common sense.
Alito declared that Lilly Ledbetter’s claims of a lifetime of wage discrimination at a Goodyear plant was of no consequence, as she was bound by law to file such a claim during a 180-day window. Anything outside that window was voided by the statute of limitations.
Responding to that decision, which among other points denied that wage discrimination is harder to detect than other job bias, Ginsburg began with a stinging rebuke: “In our view, the court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discriminations.” Then she did what she could to drag the issue back into the world where the rest of us live. “If you sue only when the pay disparity becomes steady and large enough to enable you to mount a winnable case,” she wrote, “you will be cut off at the court’s threshold for suing too late and that situation cannot be what Congress intended when [it] outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin in our nation’s workplaces.” The hard reality, she went on to note, is that “pay disparities often occur as they did in Ledbetter’s case in small increments [and] only over time is there strong cause to suspect that discrimination is at work.” Moreover, an “employee like Ledbetter trying to succeed in a male-dominated workplace in a job filled only by men before she was hired, understandably may be anxious to avoid making waves.”
Her decision to inject empathy into her interpretation of the Constitution provoked debate, and if she didn’t persuade her fellow justices in that instance, she nevertheless got results: In 2009, Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which declared that wage discrimination claims were not bound by a statute of limitations. As one of his first acts as president, Barack Obama signed the bill into law.
The Ledbetter case, Ginsburg later noted, highlighted the disparate ways in which men and women see the world. Even male Supreme Court justices, she said, often struggled to comprehend how hard it might be for a female employee to quarry evidence of pay-disparity from an employer, much less challenge unfair workplace conditions.
"As often as Justice O'Connor and I have disagreed, because she is truly a Republican from Arizona,” Ginsburg said, “we were together in all the gender discrimination cases. I have no doubt that she would have understood Lilly Ledbetter's situation."
In the more than a quarter of a century that she spent on the Supreme Court, there were many occasions when her knowledge of the law, coupled with her feminism and her good sense, persuaded her fellow justices to change their minds.
In 2009, the court ruled 8-1 in Safford Unified School District v. Redding that stripping a 13-year-old female student to her underwear and bra violated the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. But that decision was in no way a foregone conclusion. The Arizona 8th grader, Savana Redding, had been accused of carrying drugs—prescription ibuprofen—to school. School officials ordered the young girl to pull her bra away from her body, which exposed her breasts. She was required to do the same with her underwear, which exposed more of her body. No drugs were found.
During oral arguments, Ginsburg noted, "After Redding was searched and nothing was found, she was put in a chair outside the vice principal's office for over two hours, and her mother wasn't called. What was the reason for... putting her in that humiliating situation?"
Ginsburg’s argument centered around her concern for Savana, the child, and her wellbeing. "They have never been a 13-year-old girl," she told USA Today when asked about her colleagues' comments during the arguments. "It's a very sensitive age for a girl. I didn't think that my colleagues, some of them, quite understood."
Even Justice Stephen Breyer, one of Ginsburg’s allies on the liberal wing of the court, failed to see the problem: "I'm trying to work out why is this a major thing to, say, strip down to your underclothes, which children do when they change for gym," Breyer said. "How bad is this?"
Ginsburg retorted that school officials had directed Redding "to shake [her] bra out, to shake, shake, stretch the top of [her] pants."
She later told USA Today, "Maybe a 13-year-old boy in a locker room doesn't have that same feeling about his body. But a girl who's just at the age where she is developing, whether she has developed a lot... or... has not developed at all (might be) embarrassed about that."
Ginsburg will remain one of the most politically charged players in U.S. political history, but she will also forever be one of that history’s most human figures. All of her best writing, particularly her dissents, reads like the work of someone who never lost sight of the fact that the law, to be meaningful, must deal with the messiness of human life, its imperfection, and its unfairness. She was, in the very best sense, an autobiographical jurist, whether she was citing her demotion at the Social Security office where she worked when her husband was in the Army, or receiving less pay for equal work, or just knowing what it is to be a 13-year-old girl.
"You know the line that Sandra [O’Connor] and I keep repeating,” she once told USA Today, “that ‘at the end of the day, a wise old man and a wise old woman reach the same judgment'? But there are perceptions that we have because we are women. It's a subtle influence. We can be sensitive to things that are said in draft opinions that [male justices] are not aware can be offensive."
To say she had an influence on her male colleagues on the Supreme Court is an understatement. To say that as a justice she improved the lives of American women—all Americans, really—is just a fact. The difference seen in my lifetime is immeasurable. As a woman, I have a better shot at wage equality, my employment can’t be terminated for pregnancy, and my husband could be prosecuted for raping me. The Notorious RBG made her country a fairer place.