By Emily Davies – Washington, DC
“People ask me, ‘If you could be whatever you wanted to be, what would you be?’ My first answer is not ‘a great lawyer.’ It is, ‘I would be a great diva.’ But I totally lacked that talent, so the next best thing is the law.”
Though perhaps not a celebrated opera singer sporting glamorous gowns and big hair, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a celebrity in her own right. She has inspired tattoos, laptop stickers, Halloween consumes and, most famously, a Tumblr which coined the phrase “Notorious RBG.”
Why has this 82-year-old Supreme Court Justice become an icon to young feminists? That is the question MSNBC anchor Irin Carmon and Notorious RBG Tumblr editor Shana Knizhnick set out to answer in their book “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
One thing is clear: Ginsburg is unafraid and unrestricted by societal status quos, and has become a relatable and often downright amusing character in political and popular culture. She has proved society wrong throughout her life, defying stereotypes of the past century through her rise to the Supreme Court as a Jewish mother. She is undaunted by deep-rooted inequality between men and women, and fights meticulously for change.
Ginsburg was the first tenured woman professor at Columbia Law School, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project and successfully argued five cases before the Supreme Court to strike down laws infiltrated with gender stereotypes.
But her fight for equality does not end with female rights, and has not grown any weaker with age. In August 2013, Ginsburg became the first Supreme Court justice to officiate a same-sex wedding.
And though reading dissents out-loud in the Supreme Court is rare, Justice Ginsburg once read three dissents within 24 hours. Each dissent was as poignant as the next, but the rhetoric in her dissent to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was particularly moving: “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Her refusal to concede to the status quo is a beacon of hope, inspiring young activists to commit to a similarly unwavering commitment to morals.
Despite her intimidating success and intellect, Ginsburg remains a relatable person. This powerful justice failed her driving test five times before finally passing on the sixth try. And in February 2015, she admitted to not being “100 percent sober” at the State of the Union.
Ginsburg has also proved capable of having a personal life independent of her professional one. Her infamous friendships with Justice Ginsburg, a progressive and liberal leader, and her ideological opposite Justice Scalia, a steadfast conservative, shows Ginsburg’s ability to transcend deep professional disagreements. Ginsburg goes so far as to call Scalia “intelligent and amusing.” The two have spent New Year’s Eve together for years, and have even inspired a comedic opera titled “Scalia/Ginsburg.”
But perhaps the most empathetic story within Ginsburg’s character is the passionate relationship she had with her late husband Martin Ginsburg. Former Clerk Kate Andrias described the Ginsburg marriage: “I was always in awe of her…but there was something disarming about seeing her with a partner who adores her but also treats her like a human being.”
Their intimacy lasted through Marty’s struggle with cancer in law school and Ginsburg’s two cancer diagnoses. Marty became the “first lady” of the Supreme Court, and was his wife’s biggest cheerleader and support system.
According to Nina Totenberg, of NPR, Marty once said, “I think that the most important thing I have done is enable Ruth to do what she has done.”
Ginsburg lost her “life partner” in 2010 to cancer, but keeps his memory alive with the folded American flag from his burial sitting on the windowsill of her chambers.
Ginsburg’s undeniable success, in life and work, serves as a counterexample to the personal or professional paths women may feel forced to choose between – she is proof that women can have it all. The “Notorious RBG” has shattered personal and professional barriers and risen, as an 82-year-old Jewish grandmother, to stardom.
**all quotes from book “Notorious RBG”