Unstoppable

How Ruth Bader Ginsburg became “Notorious R.B.G.”

A new book celebrates the life and times of the 82-year-old U.S. Supreme Court Justice who has become a cult figure for young feminists

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg at a Women’s History Month reception honoring the women justices of the Supreme Court, March 18, 2015. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

You may have seen one of the Internet’s many memes featuring Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. There’s the altered image that shows her stern-faced with two middle fingers in the air with “I dissent” stamped beneath her visage, and another that shows the 82-year-old throwing up duces with a crown on her head and chain around her neck. In recent years RBG’s likeness has been featured on T-shirts, stickers plastered across Washington, D.C, graphics overlaid with Beyoncé lyrics, in comics and, now, on the cover of a book that chronicles her rise to a decades-long career spent fighting for justice in the nation’s highest court.

Researched and written by law student Shana Knizhnik and MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is a fun, image-laden explainer on Ginsburg’s legacy. The biography came together after Notorious RBG, a fan Tumblr created by Knizhnik in 2013, caught the attention of young feminists and law enthusiasts online. It was fresh on the heels of RBG’s firm dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, which stripped the Voting Rights Act of 1965 of its power to fight discrimination against poor and minority voters at the polls. It was her fifth public dissent during that term and after six decades of smashing glass ceilings for women and men with quiet intensity, RBG raised her voice — and quickly became a social media darling. Perhaps the hippest grandmother in the country, RBG even became a recurring character on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update”.

“[That] she’s got through so much as an individual and then went on to use her amazing talent to help others is something that people find inspiring,” Knizhnik told Women in the World. “[The RBG] phenomenon is an example of something larger happening in our culture where it’s becoming okay for people, and young people in particular, to engage in [more serious] topics, but have fun doing so.”

Irin Carmon and Shana Kniznhik

“Notorious RGB” authors Shana Kniznhik and Irin Carmon. (Facebook/Irin Carmon)

Their book is a reflection of this attitude. With a name that plays off of the rapper Notorious B.I.G, a fellow Brooklynite, each chapter of Notorious RBG is titled with his lyrics and illustrated by graffiti artist Maria “TooFly” Castillo. It’s as accessibly hip as the Tumblr culture from which it sprang, but the authors’ notably deep research as well as troves of never-before-seen photos, letters and RBG-annotated-and-doodled legal briefs paint a portrait of the hard-working woman’s path and personality. “She’s more than just a cool old lady. She’s a legal scholar!” Knizhnik laughed.

Born in 1933, Ruth Bader Ginsburg — a two-time cancer survivor — was aware of mortality from a young age. When she was two, her older sister died from meningitis. Her mother had ovarian cancer and died the day before Ginsburg’s high school graduation. Ginsburg went on to graduate from Cornell, an opportunity afforded by her high marks and her mother’s clandestine, Depression-era style saving. She had already met the charismatic Marty Ginsburg, her life-long partner to whom she would remain married for nearly 60 years.

Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Newlyweds Marty and Ruth at Fort Still, Oklahoma, in 1954. (Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

A year after her daughter was born, Ginsburg became one of nine women admitted to Harvard Law School and in her second year, sickness struck again when Marty, who was a year above her at Harvard, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He recovered, graduated, and was hired to a tax law firm in New York. RBG moved with him and attended Columbia School of Law for her final year. Though she finished at the top of her class, Ginsburg found it nearly impossible to find work upon graduation. A Jewish woman and a mother, the professional world rejected her. Though considered by classmates as “the smartest person on the East Coast,” it took blackmail from a former law professor to advance her forward to become a Supreme Court law clerk. (Gerald Gunter, her constitutional law professor at Columbia, told Federal Judge Edmund L. Falmieri of the Southern District of New York that he would never send him another clerk again if he didn’t give Ginsburg a chance. Falmieri took the bait.)

When she became the second-ever female law professor at Rutgers University, she was told she would be paid less than her peers because “you have a husband who earns a good salary.” (While later teaching the school’s first-ever class on women’s law, she’d sue for equal pay and win. When she became Columbia’s first female tenured law professor, she sued on behalf of women professors seeking equal pay and won, again.) Because women’s pregnancy wasn’t considered a temporary disability under the law, she was forced to hide her second pregnancy to keep her job, giving birth to a son in 1965. She pushed to change that law with the successful Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978. “Something that we really admired about her is how ahead of her time she was,” Carmon said. “So many of the ideals that she…fought for as a litigator [were] happening in her real life. The personal and political were absolutely intertwined for her.”

Throughout her long career, RBG employed methodical, incremental plans for radical reform. As co-founder of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, she argued discrimination cases before the courts in which men were the victims, to show that the confines of strict gender roles served to harm both sexes. “Anything that looked like a favor to women could be used against them,” she said.

Ginsburg argued (and still believes) that men’s liberation was as vital as neutrality for women under the law. Her work pushing women forward through the 1970s and ’80s earned respect and admiration from feminist leaders like Gloria Steinem, who, in a note written on Ms. Magazine stationary, told her friend that she made her “very, very proud.”

Library of Congress Manuscript Division, Courtesy of Justice Ginsburg

A note, expressing admiration and gratitude, from Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem. (Library of Congress Manuscript Division)

Though her criticism of landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade drew backlash from some women (she correctly predicted that its broad, sweeping passage left room for blowback and believes there’s an unfair burden on poor women), Justice Ginsburg has proven to be one of America’s greatest legal advocates for gender equality. “And when asked about her women’s rights cases and how they changed society, she’s very quick to give credit to the larger women’s rights movement that was happening around her,” Knizhnik said.

As a lawyer, Ginsburg fought the forced sterilization of black women, allowed women to serve on juries, opposed pregnancy discrimination and property tax discrimination, and compelled the court to apply “intermediate scrutiny” to laws that discriminated on the basis of sex. (Notorious RBG maps out the Justice’s legal victories and losses, as well as her dissents from the bench, in easy-to-digest charts and also includes commentary on her briefs, deciphered with help from top legal minds.)

Ginsburg was sworn in as the second-ever female Supreme Court Justice in 1993, and after two conservative appointments from President George W. Bush veered the court to the right, her dissents came pouring in. She pushed back, vocally disagreeing with cases that demolished the Voting Rights Act, equal pay for women, the challenge to a “partial-birth abortion” ban, and the Hobby Lobby decision that would allow corporations to deny birth control coverage, among many others. “In my life, what I find most satisfying is that I was a part of a movement that made life better, not just for women. I think gender discrimination is bad for everyone, it’s bad for men, it’s bad for children,” Ginsburg told the book’s authors.

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 10: Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court William Rehnquist (R) administers the oath of office to newly-appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (L) as U.S. President Bill Clinton looks on 10 August 1993. Ginsburg is the 107th Supreme Court justice and the second woman to serve on the high court. (Photo credit should read KORT DUCE/AFP/Getty Images)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is sworn in as the second-ever female U.S. Supreme Court Justice, as President Bill Clinton looks on, in 1993. (KORT DUCE/AFP/Getty Images)

“Feminism is all about creating the ideal society, where everyone is equal,” Knizhnik said. “But the law is all about precedent. You have to convince people, and in order to get their support you have to show them that the law is actually on your side. That’s something she’s always been keenly aware of.”

In her home, Ginsburg’s husband Marty took partnership and co-parenting their two children, Jane and James, seriously, enabling Ginsburg’s work ethic to thrive. The tax lawyer became a talented chef (Notorious RBG includes his pork loin recipe) after Ginsburg presented a lackluster tuna casserole in the first years of their marriage — she cooked her last meal in 1980. Marty often bragged that his wife was smarter than him and that he had to remind her to sleep and eat when she was deep in her work (she usually sleeps for less than two hours a night). When Ginsburg was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 1999, he helped to ensure she didn’t miss a day on the bench (she also had a cancerous tumor removed in 2009). Their rejection of stereotypical marriage roles allowed their respective talents to flourish and the two shared a tender, supportive relationship until his death in 2010. “She’s been asked about this idea of ‘having it all’, and she’s said yes – she’s probably ‘had it all’, but at different points in her career and not at the same time,” Knizhnik explained. “A huge part of that is having a husband, a partner, who was willing to take turns in terms of the responsibilities.”

“It’s not just that he took a supportive role, it’s that they had a model of equality,” Carmon added.

Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

Marty, Jane and Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1958. (Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Her life’s work was built on the backs of women who came before her, and RBG has always paid tribute. In her first Supreme Court brief, Reed v. Reed, she listed Pauli Murray, a black lawyer and civil rights activist, and ACLU attorney Dorothy Kenyon, as fellow authors to make clear that she was “standing on their shoulders.” The move was unheard of and contested by her colleagues, but she prevailed. When Ginsburg was sworn in as a Justice, she thanked her mother in a speech that made President Bill Clinton cry, saying, “I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are as cherished as sons.” Though their jurisprudence differed greatly, she considered Justice Sandra Day O’Connor her “big sister” and the two held dinners for the women of the Senate. She has paid the feminist support forward, too: when Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Ginsburg on the bench and relieved her of her lonely spot as the group’s sole woman, she passed along encouraging notes and defended their appointments when inevitable sexist backlash hit.

RBG and Antonin Scalia risin an elephant in India in 1994. (Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

RBG and fellow Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia, ride an elephant in India in 1994. (Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

After decades spent redefining how American law sees the roles of women and men, Ginsburg was followed by her daughter Jane, who became a Columbia law professor — the first mother-daughter pair in the school’s history. Ginsburg recently became the first ever Justice to officiate a same-sex union and, at the time of this article, has no plans of retiring from the bench.

To honor the Justice’s feminist legacy and the release of Notorious RBG, here are five fast facts about the bad ass Justice:

1) She stays fit and loves adventures. She’s performed the Canadian Air Force workout regimen since she was 29! Ginsburg can also do twenty push-ups and maintains a workout routine with her trainer (an illustrated version of which is available in Notorious RBG). She’s also been known to whitewater raft, horseback ride and waterski.

2) In some ways, RBG fits the stereotypical grandma profile. Her favorite snack is prunes and she detests her granddaughter’s nose piercing, calling it “that thing on your face.”

3) Plenty of diverse influencers shaped her life. At Cornell, she studied under Russian-American novelist Vladimir Nabokov.

4) She’s moved by the arts. RBG is an opera junkie and has been known to weep during beautiful performances. She said she would’ve been a singer, but doesn’t have the pipes. “My grade school teachers were very cruel. They rated me a sparrow, not a robin,” she said. (She still sings in the shower!)

5) RBG is into fashion, too. Her elegant jabots have gained attention, but she also has a weakness for Ferragamo shoes and has been known to rock a turban. Ever the classy lady, RBG also often wears black or white lace gloves in public.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Harper Collins, 2015) is out now.

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