July 10, 2015


Ann Farmer

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg may seem like an unlikely pop culture icon for the millennial set. But don’t let her starched collars fool you.

The 82-year-old has become known as “Notorious RBG,” lionized on the Internet and elsewhere for her sharp wit, her pungent dissents, her unwavering defense of women, and, yes, her intriguing array of jabots: The humdrum uniform of the high bench can’t suppress this woman’s style.

She’s the subject of blogs, tweets, raps, Tumblr and Instagram postings, and Halloween costumes. Apple recently made her likeness into a femoji. And there is no shortage of Internet swag. Online paraphernalia for sale with her visage (often beneath a tilted crown) include buttons, posters, T-shirts, shopping bags, ties, kitchen towels, tank tops, sweatshirts, mugs, hoodies, and baby bodysuits.

Art Imitates Life

Her opinions and those of her polar opposite, Justice Antonin Scalia, have inspired the comic opera Scalia/Ginsburg, by Derrick Wang, which premiered on July 11 at the Castleton Festival in Virginia. A recurring sketch on Saturday Night Live features player Kate McKinnon parodying Ginsburg: Wearing Ginsburg-like oversized glasses and black judicial robe, McKinnon lobs lacerating comments punctuated with the catchphrase, “You’ve been Ginsburned!” And Academy Award-winning actress Natalie Portman is slated to play the justice in an upcoming biopic.

Long respected, particularly by the left, Ginsburg’s popularity has surged in recent years to where she has seemingly become one of the most celebrated Supreme Court justices of all time.

“I watched, with great admiration, this happening,” says Irin Carmon, a national reporter for MSNBC who is coauthoring, along with New York University Law School student Shana Knizhnik, a biography of Ginsburg. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg will be published by HarperCollins this fall.

“Obviously, a lot of young people admire her,” says Carmon, whose book traces Ginsburg’s life, her appointment as the second woman on the Supreme Court, and her social media rise. It also playfully features her doodles, some rare photos, and an interview with her workout trainer. “How at 82,” Carmon says, “she still does 20 pushups a day” is a remarkable feat considering her feathery stature.

Rising Against the Odds

Central to Ginsburg’s appeal is her scramble to the top against the odds. Similar to her predecessor, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Ginsburg was among a handful of women to attend law school in the 1950s. Ginsburg tied for first in her Columbia Law School graduating class, but Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter still turned her down for a clerkship due to her gender. She detoured into an alternative clerkship and subsequently cofounded the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, where she briefed and argued several landmark gender discrimination cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“She shaped my world. She’s always been a little in front of me, making the world a better place for women like me,” says Linda Hirshman, a lawyer, pundit, and author of Sisters in Law, a joint biography of Ginsburg and O’Connor to be published by Harper in September. It traces their legal careers and celebrates their profound effect on the women’s movement.

Both judges have been aspirational. But Ginsburg’s continued tenure on the Court during today’s social media craze has helped catapult her into an Internet sensation. She has reportedly embraced her meme status with a chuckling indulgence and game attitude. She confessed to National Public Radio’s Nina Totenberg that she owns “a large supply” of Notorious RBG T-shirts, which she allegedly likes to hand out.

Ginsburg acquired the sobriquet “Notorious RBG” two years ago when Knizhnik created a Tumblr blog with that name. Knizhnik was inspired by Ginsburg’s trenchant dissent in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), when a Supreme Court majority struck down the federal preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted to thwart racial discrimination in voting laws. Ginsburg responded that “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.”

Knizhnik followed this quote with other postings of Ginsburg’s potent (some say “sassy”) dissents: “I have said before and reiterate here that only an ostrich could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious” was culled from her 2013 dissent in the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action admissions policy case. “She is honestly speaking truth to power,” Carmon notes.

Collegial Tough Cookie

People like that Ginsburg is a tough cookie who is also known for her collegiality (she’s close friends with Justice Scalia) and displays her femininity in such things as fishnet gloves. Photos of her as a young woman have been widely circulated. “She was a complete and total babe,” wrote BuzzFeed as part of its “19 Reasons Ruth Bader Ginsburg Is Your Favorite Supreme Court Justice” article. The number one reason? She’s beaten cancer twice. And she did not miss one day on the bench when she was diagnosed and treated for colon cancer in 1999.

She is additionally admired for choosing a loving and supportive husband, raising a family, and delighting in her grandchildren. “She represents everyone’s dream of their bubbe,” Hirshman says. “She represents hope that you can have a great private life and change the world.”

RBG’s Greatest Hits

Case: Reed v. Reed (1971)
About: Equal protection violation
Role: On behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the plaintiff’s brief challenging Idaho code mandating a preference for male estate administrators over female.
Decision: The unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision held that the code was arbitrary and unconstitutional.

Case: Frontiero v. Richardson (1973)
About: Gender discrimination
Role: As the ACLU’s amicus curiae, Ginsburg challenged a law that automatically awarded benefits to female spouses of military personnel while making male dependents qualify.
Decision: In an 8–1 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the statute was unconstitutional because it impermissibly discriminated against women.

Case: Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975)
About: Gender discrimination
Role: Ginsburg argued against a provision in the Social Security Act that denied widowed fathers caring for children the same survivors’ benefits awarded to widowed mothers.
Decision: Unanimous Supreme Court decision that the gender distinction violated the right to equal protection.

Case: Craig v. Boren (1976)
About: Equal protection violation
Role: On behalf of the ACLU, Ginsburg wrote an amicus brief challenging Oklahoma law that allowed women to buy beer at 18 but required males to be 21.
Decision: A majority of Supreme Court justices determined that the gender classifications were unconstitutional.

Case: United States v. Virginia (1996)
About: Equal protection
Role: As a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion.
Decision: The Virginia Military Institute violated the Fourteenth Amendment when it failed to show “exceedingly persuasive justification,” wrote Ginsburg, for its male-only admissions policy.

Case: Ledbetter v. Goodyear (2007)
About: Employment discrimination
Decision: The Supreme Court majority rejected Lilly Ledbetter’s suit that she was paid less than her male peers on grounds that it exceeded the 180-day statutory charging period.
Post-result: Ginsburg’s impassioned dissent against applying the 180-day limit helped create the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, thereby reversing the ruling’s effect.

Note: This list was influenced by Justice Elena Kagan’s speech at the New York Bar Association’s 2014 Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law.

Notorious RBG Quotes

“People who love each other and want to live together should be able to enjoy the blessings and the strife in the marriage relationship.” —RBG, before becoming the first Supreme Court justice to officiate a same-sex wedding, The Washington Post (2013)

“The emphasis must be not on the right to abortion but on the right to privacy and reproductive control.” —RBG, Ms. (1974)

Regarding how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough: “There have been nine men there for a long, long time, right? So why not nine women?” —RBG interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer (2010)

Her mother-in-law’s advice for a happy marriage was that it helps to be a little deaf at times. “That is advice that I followed not only in my marriage, but in dealing with my colleagues.” —RBG interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer (2010)

“The court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.” —RBG, Hobby Lobby dissent (2014)

“If I had any talent in the world, any talent that God could give me, I would be a great diva.” —RBG, discussion at Georgetown University (2015)

“It is not women’s liberation, it is women’s and men’s liberation.” —RBG

“If there was one decision I would overrule, it would be Citizens United. I think the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.” —RBG, The New Republic (2014)

“My dissenting opinions, like my briefs, are intended to persuade. And sometimes one must be forceful about saying how wrong the Court’s decision is.” —RBG, The New Republic (2014)

“So my objective was to take the Court step by step to the realization, in Justice [William] Brennan’s words, that the pedestal on which some thought women were standing all too often turned out to be a cage.” —RBG, The New Republic (2014)

I do a variety of weight-lifting, elliptical glider, stretching exercises, push-ups. And I do the Canadian Air Force exercises almost every day.” —RBG, The New Republic (2014)

“You’re saying, no, state marriage [is] the full marriage, and then this [is] sort of skim milk marriage.” —RBG, during the 2013 Supreme Court oral arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act

“You can’t have it all at once. Who—man or woman—has it all, all at once? In my lifespan, I think I have had it all. But in different periods of time, things were rough.” —RBG interview with Yahoo Global News’ Katie Couric (2014)

“I vowed this year, just sparkling water—stay away from the wine—but the dinner was so delicious, it needed wine.” —RBG, acknowledging nodding out during the 2015 State of the Union address, www.cnn.com/2015/02/13/politics/ginsburg-scalia-parasailing-sotu-wine/, last visited June 22, 2015

Rebuking the majority for upholding the federal Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, she said language in the opinion reflected “ancient notions about women’s place in the family and under the Constitution—ideas that have long since been discredited.” —RBG, The Washington Post (2007)

“The study of law was unusual for women of my generation. For most girls growing up in the ’40s, the most important degree was not your B.A., but your M.R.S.” —RBG, www.aclu.org/tribute-legacy-ruth-bader-ginsburg-and-wrp-staff, last visited June 22, 2015

Ann Farmer

Ann Farmer is a Brooklyn, New York–based freelance journalist who covers breaking news for the New York Times and contributes stories on culture, law, crime, and other topics to publications including Emmy, DGA Quarterly, Budget Travel, and others.