A little over a week ago, the nation suffered the loss of an incredible icon of the legal, feminist, and pop culture worlds. On September 18th, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, popularly referred to by many as RBG, passed away following a long battle with pancreatic cancer. Despite many setbacks that RBG faced throughout her life (she believed she “struck out on three grounds” as she “was Jewish, a woman, and a mother”), many believe that RBG embodied “one of the many versions of the American Dream,” especially her close colleague, Chief Justice Roberts. While mourning the loss of such a driving force in the country’s political and social sphere, it’s important to keep in mind the hard work she accomplished over the past few decades.
Her Life and Work:
Justice Ginsburg led an early life that was very different from more recent years. In 1993, Joan Ruth Bader was born in Brooklyn, NY into a working-class community. Her father was an immigrant, her mother was the daughter of immigrants, and the family suffered great loss in the early years of her life. Yet despite this, her parents encouraged her to pursue an education, and that she did, as she went on to attend Cornell University and Harvard Law (from which she eventually transferred to Columbia Law).
Although she excelled in her academics and social settings, Justice Ginsburg encountered gender discrimination while in school and in the early years of her law career (serving as driving force for the work she would accomplish in years to come). Even after being rejected from numerous legal jobs on the basis of sex, however, Ginsburg did not quit – she eventually landed a clerkship for two years before she went on to pursue civil procedure by teaching as a professor.
Notorious RBG in pop culture:
Justice Ginsburg became a pop culture icon in 2000 after her fiery dissenting opinions for the court. In particular, her dissent in Bush v. Gore (2000), a case that halted the recount for the 2000 presidential election in Florida and essentially handed President George W. Bush the presidency, gained national attention. Traditionally, justices sign their dissent with “I respectfully dissent” while Justice Ginsburg merely wrote “I dissent.” As a result, she gained the nickname “The Notorious RBG” after famous rapper The Notorious BIG, and cemented her place in pop culture for the rest of her life.
She further became famous for her lace collars, which she wore over her robes. Justice Ginsburg and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to ever serve on the court, wanted to add “something typical of a woman” to robes that were made for a man with an opening for a tie at the collar. Justice Ginsburg even had special collars for each occasion: hearing cases, voting in the majority, dissenting from the court.
Justice Ginsburg was a staunch proponent of gender equality while on the bench. Her most famous ruling was in the case of United States v. Virginia (1996). This struck down Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI) traditional policy of only admitting men. Writing for the court, Justice Ginsburg ruled that the banning of female applicants violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. She writes that it is “presumptively invalid … a law or official policy that denies to women, simply because they are women, equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in, and contribute to society, based upon what they can do.”
Ultimately, as both a lawyer before the Supreme Court and as a justice on the bench, Ruth Bader Gisburg leaves behind an indelible legacy of progress for both women and for many marginalized groups.