Remembering Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87
[An edited version of this post was originally written for my library's blog.]
|Hero. Icon. Dissenter.|
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the US Supreme Court Justice whose pioneering advocacy for women’s rights and championing of liberal causes (from abortion rights to same-sex marriage) elevated her to late-life “rock-star” status as a cultural icon known to her admirers as “Notorious R.B.G.,” died at her Washington, DC home on September 18, age 87. Though the cause of death was complications from metastatic pancreatic cancer, Ginsburg had long suffered from health problems, having previously beaten colon cancer in 1999, early-stage pancreatic cancer in 2009, and early-stage lung cancer in December 2019.
When a cultural icon’s life spans nine decades, it’s hard to do it “Justice” (sorry!) in a mere blog posting. So to learn more about Ginsburg’s extraordinary life, be sure to check out the many print and media resources about her available from Pratt at the end of this article.
When President Bill Clinton chose her to replace Justice Byron R. White in 1993 (Joe Biden was Chairman of the Senate Committee that confirmed her by a vote of 96-3), Ginsburg became only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court (after Sandra Day O’Connor) and the first Democratic appointee since Thurgood Marshall in 1967. New York Times writer Linda Greenhouse found that succession telling:
“There was something fitting about that sequence, because Ginsburg was occasionally described as the Thurgood Marshall of the women’s rights movement...The analogy was based on her sense of strategy and careful selection of cases as she persuaded the all-male Supreme Court, one case at a time, to start recognizing the constitutional barrier against discrimination on the basis of sex. The young Thurgood Marshall had done much the same as the civil rights movement’s chief legal strategist in building the case against racial segregation.”
Her “Notorious RBG” handle was a play on the name of rapper The Notorious B.I.G (Christopher Wallace, aka “Biggie Smalls”) who, like her, was a native of Brooklyn, New York. It was NYU law student Shana Knizhhik who first coined the “Notorious RBG” moniker with the launch of her Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr page in 2013. And, just as unlikely as it was for a frail 5-foot-tall, 100-pound white woman to be compared to an imposing 6-foot-2, 395-pound Black rapper, if only by name, also improbable was Ginsburg’s surprisingly close friendship with the late arch-conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. They frequently argued on opposite sides of the law, but both shared an abiding love of opera and Scalia admired his colleague’s tenacity in the courtroom, calling her a “tigress on civil procedure...She will take a lawyer who is making a ridiculous argument and just shake him like a dog with a bone."
She may have been small, but her diminutive frame contained a firm backbone. Ginsburg won five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court as a young lawyer, and though she had a number of landmark wins during her subsequent 27-years sitting on the Bench - her majority opinion challenging the all-male admissions policy of the state-funded Virginia Military Academy helped open the doors to women everywhere in 1996 - she was equally renowned for her powerful dissenting opinions, from 2000’s Bush v. Gore recount to the Court’s July 2020 decision (based on the 2014 Hobby Lobby case) to strike down the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate on religious and moral grounds. Of the latter she wrote, “Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree. This court leaves women workers to fend for themselves, to seek contraceptive coverage from sources other than their employer's insurer, and, absent another available source of funding, to pay for contraceptive services out of their own pockets.” Other noteworthy dissents energized liberal activists by calling out gender and race-based voting discrimination. Her dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. (2007) eventually led Congress to pass the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which was the first bill signed by President Barack Obama upon taking office in January 2009. And in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), she decried the Court’s invalidation of a key provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Act, writing, “Race-based voting discrimination still exists. This court’s decision is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
But while her reputation as a legal scholar was hardly surprising, her late-career transformation into a pop cultural phenomenon was totally unexpected. What other Supreme Court Justice could inspire parents to dress their daughters up as her for Halloween? Or have their fitness workout videos go viral? And, other than Thurgood Marshall, how many other justices have not only had a critically acclaimed documentary (Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s Oscar-nominated RBG, 2018) but a Hollywood biopic (Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex, also from 2018 and starring Felicity Jones as the young Ginsburg) dedicated to them, not to mention shout-outs in popular entertainments ranging from Saturday Night Live to The LEGO Movie 2?
While the 2013 launch of the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr page made her an internet sensation, many trace the “cult of RBG” to the memes and merchandise that proliferated following Justice Ginsburg’s passionate dissenting opinion in the 2014 Hobby Lobby case. Her iconic status was only further strengthened by Donald J. Trump’s election in 2016 when, as Entertainment Weekly’s Tyler Aquilina observed, “As the oldest justice on the bench and the de facto leader of the Court's left-leaning faction, Ginsburg became a champion for liberals who dreaded Trump's potential to shape the future of the Court. She was no longer merely a judicial hero; she was a symbolic barrier against a decades-long conservative Supreme Court majority.”
Speaking at the Sundance premiere of RBG in 2018, Ginsburg said, “The more women who are out there doing things, the better off all of us will be for it.” She also cited Martin Luther King, Jr., adding, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” But her favorite inspirational quote was by 19th century abolitionist Sarah Gremke, who said, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” RBG lived her life as a testament to all those beliefs and we are the better for it. Her passing creates a void not only in the Supreme Court, but in the hearts and minds of all of her devoted admirers.
Want To Learn More About RBG? Pratt Can Help!
- Download or stream (mobile devices only) 14 ebooks about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg available from Hoopla.
- Read any of the 33 print books about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
- Watch Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s surprise box-office hit documentary RBG (2018). You can stream RBG on Kanopy or Hoopla or check out it out on DVD using Pratt’s Sidewalk Service or Books-by-Mail services.
- Watch the DVD of Mimi Leder’s biopic On the Basis of Sex (2018), which covers Ginsburg’s first sex discrimation court case. Like Ginsburg, director Leder was also a pioneer in her field, being the first woman to graduate from the AFI Conservatory in 1973.
- Read Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Ms. Knizhnik, which reached the best-seller list the day after its publication in 2015. Notorious RBG is also available as a Hoopla ebook and as an audiobook you can listen to on CD. Younger audiences can listen to the Notorious RBG Young Readers Edition available through Overdrive.
- Read Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s In My Own Words (2016), a collection of her writings and speeches that focuses on her efforts as a women's rights crusader.
- Read Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life (2018) by Jane Sherron De Hart. Based on 15 years' worth of interviews and research, this comprehensive biography by feminist historian De Hart explores the experiences that shaped Ginsburg's enduring passion for justice and gender equality.
- Read I Dissent: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Makes Her Mark (2016), a children’s biography of Ginsburg by Debbie Levy with illustrations by Elizabeth Baddeley.
- Read Bryant Johnson’s The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong...and You Can Too! (2017), an illustrated exercise book that shares the routines that kept RBG fit into her 80s. The RBG Workout is also available as an ebook.
- Listen to the Notorious RBG in Song (2018), a CD album of recordings saluting the life and work of Ginsburg that features soprano Patrice Michaels and pianist Kuang-Hao Huang, as well as compositions by composers Lori Laitman, Stacy Garrup, Vivian Fung and an aria from Derrick Wang’s new comic opera, Scalia/Ginsburg.