How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became a Supreme Court Legend and Pop Icon
Cool nicknames are often reserved for rock stars and celebrities. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, better known to some as "The Notorious RBG," was an exception to the rule. The Supreme Court Justice died on Sept. 18, 2020 at the age 87, but she will never be forgotten.
A petite, soft-spoken woman born in the 1930s with a penchant for procedural law, she was more famous than any sitting judge. Even in death, her popularity continues to grow, transcending age and sometimes even political stripes.
The powerhouse lawyer has been immortalized in pop culture with hip-hop themed bobbleheads, feminist T-shirts, and satirical skits that portray her as a feminist superhero, slaying with piercing arguments from the highest court in the land. Her life has been made into books, films and songs. Even an opera. She remained a relevant and powerful voice in the national debate until the end.
It’s not a course that could’ve easily been predicted, though it’s easy to trace her brilliance. Here are some trailblazing moments that define her legendary career.
A Humble Start
Had the world not changed in her favor, the pinnacle of Justice Ginsburg’s career may have been as a high school history teacher. That’s the ambition her mother had for her when, for financial reasons, she chose to send her son to higher education instead of her daughter.
Ginsburg was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York in a lower-middle-class Jewish family. Her mother was supportive but keenly aware of the realities of her time. In 1933, women may have been granted the right to vote, but their battle to secure equal standing in the workforce had yet to begin.
Celia, Ginsburg’s mother, wouldn’t live to see her daughter’s full potential. She died of cancer when Ginsburg was just a teenager. In her speech at the White House when she was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton in 1993, she called her mother the bravest and strongest person she had ever known.
"I pray that I may be all that she would’ve been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve, and daughters are cherished as much as sons," she said.
A Formidable Record of Firsts
By the time Ginsburg was appointed as the 107th Justice of the Supreme Court at the age of 60, she had already left a blazing trail of broken barriers behind her.
She was one of only nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law. When she transferred to Columbia University, where she graduated at the top of her class, she became the first woman to ever serve on both the Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review. She went on to become a tenured law professor at her New York alma mater, the first woman to hold the position.
As a lawyer, she argued six landmark cases before the Supreme Court, winning five of them. Only the second woman named to the Supreme Court after Sandra Day O’Connor, she was the only female on the bench until the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor in 2009.
In 2010, she received the American Bar Association’s highest honor, the ABA medal. She became the first Supreme Court Justice to officiate a same-sex marriage in 2015.
A Champion for Women
Ginsburg’s work for the advancement of women in the workforce cannot be understated. She has often referenced her own personal experiences as a reason for her acute sensitivity to what women had to go through.
At Harvard Law, she often was asked to justify why she was taking a spot that could otherwise belong to a man. Despite a stellar performance in law school, no one would hire her. One of her professors had to intervene and plead with a judge to take her on as a clerk, when he refused to hire a woman. This experience deepened her empathy and informed her work on gender equality.
At Rutgers Law School, she joined an equal pay campaign when she found out she was earning less than her male colleagues. In 1972, she launched the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project to fight for the removal of institutionalized bias, coded into the law. In 1996, she authored the majority decision in United States v. VMI, when a group of women sued the elite military college for its male-only admission policy.
The ruling set a precedent to strike down any law that, in her written opinion, "denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature — equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society."
A Fighter On and Off the Bench
Fans of Ginsburg mythologize her strength and power for good reason. There’s almost no stretch in her long life that’s not defined by some kind of epic battle.
She was born at a time when women were not expected to get any kind of degree, nevermind a JD, she has said, but an MRS, instead. In law school, she was a young mother and also cared for her husband after his first cancer diagnosis. At times, she even attended his classes to take notes for him.
She battled both colon and pancreatic cancer, undergoing chemotherapy successfully while barely missing any work.
Her Workout Routine Is Notorious, Too
Her fitness routine would scare anyone in their prime. She lifted, she planked, she did push-ups. She said that she stayed in shape in order to stay sharp and do her job to an exacting standard, or, in her words, at "full steam."
She named her personal trainer as one of the most important people in her life.
An Epic Love Story
If there is one aspect of Ginsburg’s life that can be sheltered from political debate, it’s her epic love story. She has described meeting her husband, Martin Ginsburg, arguably the most respected tax attorney in his lifetime, as one of the most fortunate events in her life. That they enjoyed a marriage of more than 50 years after tying the knot in the 1950s, each supporting the other’s meteoric career rise while raising a family, speaks to the enviable rarity of their relationship.
Ginsburg credited her husband frequently for his progressive views on marriage and women. They took pride in a family where both parents contributed equally in child-rearing and putting food on the table. He was an ardent supporter of her ambitions, even campaigning for her nomination into the Supreme Court.
She waxed poetic about his sense of humor and professional skills in the kitchen. She said that her husband was the only man she dated who "cared that I had a brain."
An Epic Friendship
In her eulogy for fellow Justice Antonin Scalia, Ginsburg told the story of how she was not the first choice for Supreme Court nominee. President Bill Clinton asked Scalia, if he were stranded on a deserted island with a new court colleague, who would he like it to be: Larry Tribe or Mario Cuomo? Scalia apparently blurted out, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Despite their diametrically opposed views on the Constitution, both were archetypal figures of the left and right, and their friendship was legendary. One of their more circulated photos includes a shared elephant ride during a vacation in India. They celebrated New Year’s Eve together with their respective spouses and enjoyed many interests outside of the law, including fine food and the opera.
Ginsburg explained her dear friend’s philosophy at his funeral, saying that Scalia attacked ideas, not people, "some very good people, have some very bad ideas," she said. She intimated that their opinions may have clashed, but their reverence for the law always was united.
A Role-Model Matriarch
In her tight-knit family circle, Ginsburg is Queen Bee. She has inspired both her daughter and granddaughter to be lawyers. Her daughter Jane is a professor of law at Columbia University, making them the only mother-daughter duo to ever serve on the same law faculty in the United States.
At her nomination to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg told the story of Jane’s aspiration as written on her high school yearbook: to see her mother appointed to the highest court in the land. Jane added that if it didn’t happen, she would do it herself.
Jane’s daughter Clara was also mentioned in the same nomination ceremony, when Ginsburg showed a photo of the young girl with then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton reading books to her class. Clara graduated from Harvard Law and was a frequent collaborator and cheerleader for her famous grandmother, featuring prominently in the 2018 documentary, "RBG."
A Box-Office Draw
Award-winning journalists and documentary filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s film "RBG," which premiered at Sundance in 2018, was a sleeper hit. Despite opening in fewer than 500 theaters across the country during a busy season, the doc still managed to pull in more than $10 million at the box office.
Perhaps surprising to some, Ginsburg is hugely popular with millennials, who weren’t even born when she took the bench.
Getting to Know "RBG"
In the film’s trailer, she opens with what feels like a very Ginsburg version of rapping: "I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks."
The film’s next images — Ginsburg wears a Super Diva sweater while pumping iron — sets the tone for a film about a spunky fighter that you underestimate at your peril. The directors, who chased Ginsburg for more than two years before finally getting permission to tell her story, said at Sundance, "People know they love her, but they don’t know the whole story."
Their bet that an audience would be curious enough to hit the theaters to learn the life and times of a judge has truly paid off. Also released in 2018 was a feature film on Ginsburg’s life, "On the Basis of Sex."
She Moves Merch, Too
Perhaps one of Ginsburg’s most distinctive abilities, one that is not easily copied by her fellow justices, is her ability to move product. Mugs, bobbleheads, T-shirts, collars, earrings. A quick search on Amazon will yield hundreds of items. In addition to authoring her own biography, others have published countless titles in her honor.
There’s a book dedicated to her workouts (as seen earlier in this story), her dissents and her fight for women’s rights. If you don’t feel like reading about her life, there’s a coloring book, perhaps a wall calendar or a children’s bedtime story.
It’s a phenomenon that cements her place in pop culture and elevates her to hero status amongst her fans.
The Great Dissenter
When President Clinton nominated Ginsburg in 1993, he said that she cannot be labeled liberal or conservative, that she "proved to be too thoughtful for such labels."
While a judge at the DC Court of Appeals, she often voted with conservative judges, including her dear friend Antonin Scalia. But experts and historians of the court can agree that she became more liberal in her advanced years. She remains, undeniably, a liberal darling and a poster child for progressive ideas. Her dissents were so trademarked, they came with their own fashion accessory — the dissent collar. The glittering accessory was worn over her robe where a man’s shirt would normally peak out. Commentators came to learn that her collar would signal a dissenting opinion.
Her dissent papers likely were the first in history to ever go viral, her fans turning quotes into memes and songs. From Bush v. Gore to landmark cases on affirmative action and voting rights, Ginsburg dissents with great style.
The Ultimate Meme
It’s a connection easily missed: Ginsburg and the rapper Notorious B.I.G. practically grew up in the same neighborhood. However, that fact did not get past 25-year-old NYU law student Shana Knizhnik. She created the Tumblr account, Notorious R.B.G., chronicling the justice’s life and work.
The blog and the meme of the justice dressed in hip-hop glory went viral. Many T-shirts sold later, the blog has also been turned into a book, introducing Ginsburg to a brand-new generation of admirers.
When asked what she thought of the comparison, Ginsburg replied that she wasn’t offended or surprised given her shared history with the rap icon.
More Senior, More Swagger
It’s widely known that Ginsburg’s style of speech is quiet and measured, her words carefully chosen. But in recent years, she has been more outspoken and candid. She did not hold back when she called out President Donald Trump for being a "faker," putting her in the line of his Twitter fire.
She later said that she regretted making the remarks, that a sitting judge should not weigh in on such a political discussion.
More Swagger, More "SNL"
On a lighter note, when she was caught sleeping during President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, she said that it was because she wasn’t sober. She enjoyed dinner with her fellow justices, and apparently the food was so good it needed wine.
This swagger is exaggerated with great flair by "Saturday Night Liver" cast member Kate McKinnon, who put her own spin on Ginsburg’s personality. In the satirical skits, McKinnon often danced around, handing out zingers and calling them a "Ginsburn."
Her Legend Grows Bigger
When President Trump predicted that he may nominate four Supreme Court justices during his tenure, Twitter gave rise to a wave of collective concern from Ginsburg’s fans and followers. Did she need any help staying healthy? Did she need any organs? Whatever could be done for her to remain on the bench. Forever.
It wasn't forever, but Ginsburg hired clerks through 2020. At a talk in 2018, Ginsburg lamented the higher than normal percentage of sharp divisions on the bench, hoping to work toward more consensus.
She also predicted that she had at least five more years, following in the footsteps of retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in 2010 at the age of 90. Ginsburg made it to 87, passing away at her home in Washington, D.C., from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer.
Just days before her death, Ginsburg dictated a statement to her granddaughter Clara Spera: "My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed."
Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be hard to replace. But whatever happens in the future, rest assured, her place in history is secure.