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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court Justice and feminist icon, is dead at 87
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Ruth Bader Ginsburg, feminist icon, dies at 87
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on November 30, 2018. | Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images The Supreme Court justice was a trailblazer for American women. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died on Friday at the age of 87, spent 27 years on the Supreme Court, casting key votes on issues from same-sex marriage to gender discrimination. She also became an icon for many women, celebrated especially in recent years, as some of the causes she championed came under attack. She made her mark on American history decades before she joined the bench. While at the American Civil Liberties Union, she wrote the plaintiff’s brief in Reed v. Reed, a groundbreaking 1971 Supreme Court case which established that the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment could be used to challenge gender discrimination. The case opened the door for discriminatory laws around the country to be struck down, and began one of the most influential periods of Ginsburg’s career, as she worked to achieve equality for American women. Ginsburg believed “that women should be able to lead flourishing lives according to their gifts” and “that anything society does to make it harder for them to lead flourishing lives is immoral and unconstitutional,” Linda Hirshman, the author of Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World, told Vox. Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images President Bill Clinton with Supreme Court Justice nominee Ruth Bader Ginsburg on June 1, 1993. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images Justices of the US Supreme Court sit for their official group photo on November 30, 2018. Those beliefs were evident in Ginsburg’s work on the Supreme Court — from her majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, which struck down a military college’s men-only admissions policy,to her famous dissents in cases like Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld a ban on so-called “partial-birth” abortion — and in her personal life, including her 56-year marriage to fellow lawyer Martin Ginsburg, seen by many as a model of mutual support and shared family responsibility. They also helped make her, in her later years, a cultural icon, subject of the bestselling book Notorious RBG and the film On the Basis of Sex. Today, Ginsburg’s image adorns T-shirts, mugs, and even baby onesies. And while, as Dahlia Lithwick notes at the Atlantic, “the fandom can border on condescension,” it speaks to something crucial about Ginsburg’s place within American culture. She became beloved not just because of what she did but because of who she was: an exacting legal mind, famed for her dissents, but also a woman who, in Hirshman’s words, “had a life of joy and pleasure.” Her death during the presidency of Donald Trump, just weeks before the 2020 election, casts her legacy into doubt — whoever the president chooses to replace her is not likely to share her ideals. But Ginsburg’s commitment to helping other women enjoy the kind of “flourishing life” she lived made her a role model for a generation of Americans who have seen both the advances of the feminist movement and how much remains to be done. Ginsburg changed the face of anti-discrimination law in America Born in Brooklyn in 1933, Ginsburg was a strong — and strong-willed — student at PS 238 in the borough’s Midwood neighborhood. A teacher forced the young Ginsburg, who was left-handed, to write with her right hand, and she received a D in penmanship, according to My Own Words, a collection of the justice’s writings. After that, she vowed never to write with her right hand again. Ginsburg kept her vow and became an accomplished writer at a young age. When she was just thirteen, in 1946, she wrote an article on the impact of World War II in the bulletin of her family’s temple, the East Midwood Jewish Center. “We are part of a world whose unity has been almost completely shattered,” Ginsburg wrote. “No one can feel free from danger and destruction until the many torn threads of civilization are bound together again.” Ginsburg went on to attend Cornell University on scholarship, according to My Own Words, where she majored in government but also studied with the novelist Vladimir Nabokov. In her freshman year she met Marty Ginsburg, then a sophomore, who would become her husband. They married in 1954, just after her college graduation, and in 1956 Ginsburg became one of just nine women in her first-year class at Harvard Law School. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1977. Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her chambers in 1984. She later transferred to, and graduated from, Columbia Law School, and joined the Columbia Law School Project on International Procedure, where she spent extensive time in Sweden. It was there that she began thinking seriously about women’s rights for the first time, she said in a 2015 interview with the New York Times. In the early 1960s, “between 20 and 25 percent of the law students in Sweden were women. And there were women on the bench,” she said. “I went to one proceeding in Stockholm where the presiding judge was eight months pregnant.” In 1963, after her time at Columbia, Ginsburg became a professor at Rutgers University Law School. Seven years later, when she was 37 and had recently been tenured, she proposed a class on gender-discrimination law. As Dahlia Lithwick notes at the Atlantic, a male professor at NYU had once opined that such a course would be about as useful as one on bicycle law. But the class went forward, and Ginsburg began the professional focus on gender equity that would come to define her career. In 1971, working as a volunteer attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, Ginsburg wrote a brief on behalf of Sally Reed, the divorced mother of a teenage boy. Reed had fought to keep her ex-husband from having any custody of their son, but she had been unsuccessful, as Ginsburg noted in a speech in 2008. The boy, while staying at his father’s house, shot and killed himself with one of his father’s guns. Sally Reed wanted to recover her son’s belongings, but her ex-husband petitioned to keep them as well. A probate court in Idaho, where they lived, sided with the ex-husband under a state law requiring that when two parties were equally qualified to receive a deceased person’s estate, “males must be preferred to females.” Reed appealed, and the case ultimately wound up before the Supreme Court. In her brief, Ginsburg argued that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court agreed, in an unanimous decision with huge implications. “Thanks to Sally Reed, the door was opened for other women and men to successfully challenge discriminatory laws” and practices governing everything from men’s control over marital property to admission to public military colleges, Emily Martin of the National Women’s Law Center wrote on the 40th anniversary of Reed v. Reed in 2011. Ginsburg’s work against gender discrimination wasn’t over. Before writing the brief in Reed v. Reed, she had written one in a case called Moritz v. Commissioner, which came before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Charles Moritz was a caregiver for his mother, and he was suing the IRS to challenge a tax provision that allowed single women, but not single men, to receive a tax deduction for dependent-care expenses. The Tenth Circuit sided with Moritz, but US Solicitor General Erwin Griswold appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Tenth Circuit decision called into question the constitutionality of a whole host of federal laws. He helpfully provided a list of said laws, which Ginsburg used as a “a road map for reform efforts,” she said in her 2018 speech at Wake Forest Law School. As coordinator of the ACLU’s newly-created Women’s Rights Project, she began going down the list, challenging laws that treated Americans differently on the basis of gender. In that same speech, Ginsburg told a story that illustrates the breadth of legal and cultural change she helped spark. In 1970, Air Force Captain Susan Struck became pregnant. At that time, pregnant women in the Air Force were forced to choose between getting an abortion or being discharged. Struck didn’t want an abortion, she sued, and the ACLU took her case. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, but Griswold, the same solicitor general who gave Ginsburg her road map, persuaded the Air Force to change its policy and recommended that the case be dismissed as moot. Ginsburg, wanting to keep the case alive, asked Struck in 1972 whether she had been discriminated against in any other way in the Air Force. Struck replied that because she was a woman, she had not been allowed to train as a pilot. “We laughed, agreeing it was hopeless to attack that occupational exclusion then,” Ginsburg told Wake Forest Law School. “Today, it would be hopeless, I believe, to endeavor to reserve flight training exclusively for men. That is one measure of what the 1970s litigation/legislation/public education efforts in the United States helped to achieve.” On the Supreme Court, Ginsburg became known for her dissents Ginsburg’s work at the ACLU continued until 1980, when then-President Jimmy Carter appointed her as a judge on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. There she was known as a centrist and a “judge’s judge,” admired for her “careful decision-making,” Jane S. De Hart, an emerita professor of history and author of the biography Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life, told Vox. That reputation didn’t change immediately after she was appointed to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton in 1993. She did dissent, perhaps most notably in the 2003 affirmative-action case Gratz v. Bollinger, but in general, “the language of the dissent was very neutral,” De Hart said. “She didn’t personalize in any way.” Things started to shift in 2005, when President George W. Bush appointed Chief Justice John Roberts, and, soon after, Justice Samuel Alito. As the Court became more conservative around her, Ginsburg’s dissents became “more pointed,” De Hart said, and “her prose also became more colorful.” Jennifer Law/AFP via Getty Images Senator Joseph Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, speaks with judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg shortly before Ginsburg’s confirmation hearing on July 20, 1993. Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty Images President Bill Clinton with US Supreme Court Judges in 1993. Her dissent in the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, in which the Court essentially gutted the Voting Rights Act, became especially famous. The case centered on the requirement, under the Act, that certain areas with a history of discriminatory laws get “preclearance” from the federal government before enacting new voting rules. The majority on the Court argued that the process for determining which areas needed preclearance was outdated and unnecessary. But, Ginsburg wrote in her dissent, “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.” The dissent inspired Shana Knizhnik, a law student at the time, to create the Notorious RBG Tumblr, which would lead to a bestselling book and a raft of RBG-themed merchandise. Of course, Ginsburg’s career on the Court was about more than her dissents. She wrote the majority opinion in the influential 1996 case United States v. Virginia, in which the Court ruled that the Virginia Military Institute’s policy against admitting women was unconstitutional because the school did not show an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for excluding women. Ginsburg was also a core member of the Court’s liberal wing, casting important votes in cases like Obergefell v. Hodges, which established the right of same-sex couples to marry. Especially after President Trump’s appointments of Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, she was seen by advocates on both sides of the issue as a crucial bulwark against the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that established Americans’ right to an abortion. AFP via Getty Images Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer arrive at President Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017. Ginsburg criticized the legal rationale behind Roe, but was a staunch defender of abortion rights, writing in her dissent in Gonzales v. Carhart that the majority’s decision to uphold a so-called “partial-birth” abortion ban, which prohibited a type of later abortion in which part of the fetus is removed intact, “cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this court — and with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women’s lives.” Trump’s appointment of Kavanaugh in 2018 was seen as a victory for abortion opponents, but many mainstream anti-abortion groups took the view that while Ginsburg remained on the Court, there was no reliable majority to overturn Roe. With her death, that calculus has changed. Ginsburg’s cultural impact was as important as her legal one Ginsburg’s dissents didn’t have the force of law — you only write a dissent, after all, when you’re on the losing side. But Ginsburg wrote them in such a way that her ideas could influence the country as a whole, from Congress to advocacy groups to ordinary voters. Her dissents illustrate the concept of popular constitutionalism, De Hart said: “the people, and the pressure groups and social movements that they can mobilize, do ultimately affect the Constitution.” In her dissent in Gonzales v. Carhart, Ginsburg made “a very, very powerful cultural point,” Hirshman said, essentially telling the majority on the Court to “stop telling women they can’t think for themselves.” She was making the point in the context of abortion rights, but it was “really of a piece with all of her life’s work,” Hirshman said. But it wasn’t just her work that made her an icon to so many Americans. Part of her appeal was her ability to lead a joyful life even as she worked to change the world, Hirshman said. She was known for her love of opera and Ferragamo shoes, and her trademark collars were immortalized in necklaces and even bibs. In her later years, the justice became known for her workout routine, so strenuous that it left “young and reasonably fit” Politico reporter Ben Schrekinger “sore, disoriented and cranky” when he gave it a try. “Sometimes I get so absorbed in my work I just don’t want to let go,” Ginsburg said in a 2019 interview. “But when it comes time to meet my trainer I drop everything.” Meanwhile, sharing Ginsburg’s full life until his death in 2010 was her husband, lawyer Martin Ginsburg. In My Own Words, Ginsburg writes that the two shared domestic responsibilities (not necessarily the norm in the 60s and 70s), with Martin doing all the cooking for them and their two children. He even released a cookbook called Chef Supreme. The Washington Post via Getty Images Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg with husband Martin Ginsburg, “Marty coached me through the birth of our son, he was the first reader and critic of articles, speeches, and briefs I drafted, and he was at my side constantly, in and out of the hospital, during two long bouts with cancer,” Ginsburg writes. “And I betray no secret in reporting that, without him, I would not have gained a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.” Ginsburg believed that in order to lead the “flourishing life” they deserved, women had to be “treated equally not just at the workplace but in the family,” Hirshman said, and by all accounts, her marriage exemplified that ideal. Ginsburg was criticized by some for failing to step down from the Court during President Barack Obama’s time in office, ensuring that she would be replaced by another liberal. But her profile as a cultural icon only grew in the Trump era, with young progressives looking to her for inspiration. T-shirts and other memorabilia reading “I dissent” became popular, seeming to reference not only Ginsburg’s opinions but also a general attitude toward the direction of the country. Two films about her life, the biopic On the Basis of Sex and the documentary RBG, were released in 2018; the latter was nominated for an Oscar. All the “Notorious RBG” hype risked oversimplifying Ginsburg’s intellectual strengths — “she is less a radical feminist ninja than a meticulous law tactician,” Lithwick wrote at the Atlantic. But her public image is as much a part of her cultural impact as her dissents, especially for a generation of young Americans who looked to her as a symbol of radical gender equality — a value that, as Hirshman points out, she believed in, fought for, and lived. Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images A demonstrator evokes Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg while participating in the Woman’s March in New York City on January 18. In a 2018 essay in Glamour, Ginsburg’s granddaughter Clara Spera wrote that Ginsburg had hosted her third birthday party at the Supreme Court, just months after becoming a justice. “I realize now that my birthday party wasn’t held there to show off or because the Court’s such an impressive space,” she wrote; “it was because she wanted me to know, from the age of three, that my grandmother, my ­Bubbie, worked there, and that I shouldn’t consider anything out of my reach.” For many American women, Ginsburg stood as a symbol of a future in which nothing would be out of reach for them. And in her work, from her years at the ACLU to her time on the Court, she fought to make that future happen.
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A furious battle over a Supreme Court vacancy is arguably the last thing the United States needed right now.The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg today represents a devastating loss for feminists who held up the 87-year-old as an icon of women’s rights, and as a bulwark protecting abortion rights and a wide range of other progressive ideals on a conservative Supreme Court.But her passing less than two months before the presidential election also tosses one more lit match into the tinderbox of national politics in 2020: It will surely inflame a deeply polarized country already riven by a deadly pandemic, a steep economic downturn, and civil unrest in its major cities.In Washington, the vacancy fight could ratchet up tensions to a level unseen even in the tumultuous Trump era. President Donald Trump will be eager to fill Ginsburg’s seat immediately, seizing an opportunity to rally his base before the election and to cement his legacy in the event he is defeated in November. He could also become the first president since Richard Nixon to install three justices on the high court in a single four-year term. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already indicated he’s ready for another confirmation battle, either before or immediately after the election. Republicans might be hard-pressed to consider and approve a Trump nominee in the eight weeks before November, but even a victory by Vice President Joe Biden and a Democratic takeover of the Senate might not prevent Trump from successfully appointing another justice. Republicans would still control both the White House and the Senate until a new Congress takes office in early January.Moreover, McConnell has insisted that the precedent he created to deny former President Barack Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland in the final year of Obama’s term—in a vacancy that occurred nearly nine months before the 2016 election—no longer applies, because the same party controls both the White House and the Senate majority. “Oh, we’d fill it,” the Kentucky Republican promised in May 2019, more than a year before Ginsburg announced the cancer recurrence that took her life. Never mind that the rationale McConnell gave at the time—that voters should have the chance to weigh in on their next Supreme Court justice—would seem to apply even more strongly during an election in which the first ballots have already been mailed.[Read: Mitch McConnell’s grand plan was obvious all along]The more salient question is not whether McConnell would try to confirm Trump’s nominee but whether his GOP majority would go along with it—either before the election ends in November or in a lame-duck session of Congress afterward. A number of Republican senators have already said they’d want to fill a Supreme Court vacancy if Trump is still in office. But McConnell would need the votes of 50 out of his 52 members to allow Vice President Mike Pence to break a tie (assuming all Democrats voted against Trump’s nominee), and the numbers may not be on his side. One Republican, Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, already voted against the president’s last Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, who won confirmation by a single vote in 2018. Another, Senator Susan Collins of Maine, supported Kavanaugh but is now in danger of losing her bid for a sixth term this fall. And a third Republican, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, voted to convict Trump during the president’s impeachment trial earlier this year; having already tried to remove Trump from office, Romney might be disinclined to give him another lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court.The Supreme Court has now seen three vacancies in the last five years. Because of her age and ill health, Ginsburg’s is the least surprising. But it may be the most consequential. Justice Antonin Scalia’s 2016 death did not change the balance of power on the court (he was replaced not by Garland but by the conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch), and Kavanaugh is only somewhat more conservative than the justice he succeeded, Anthony Kennedy, who was an appointee of President Ronald Reagan. Should Trump pick Ginsburg’s replacement, however, the ideological shift rightward it represents would likely be the largest for a single Supreme Court seat since the conservative Clarence Thomas succeeded the liberal Thurgood Marshall nearly three decades ago. And that opportunity could be too enticing for Republicans to pass up.McConnell, backed by the Senate Republicans who have ratified his decisions, has shown above all a willingness to wield power to its fullest extent when it comes to the federal judiciary, to interpret as widely as possible the Constitution’s delegation to the Senate of the authority to “advise and consent” on presidential nominations. He cares more about the confirmation of conservative judges than anything else the Senate does, and historically, conservative leaders and voters have seemed to care more about the judiciary, and the Supreme Court, than their progressive counterparts. Republicans saw the vacancies on the high court during both the 2016 and 2018 elections as boosting their base’s turnout, including in key Senate races, while Democrats were unable to parlay the anger over McConnell’s handling of Garland into sufficient turnout to elect Hillary Clinton or a Democratic Senate majority four years ago.Republicans may hope the vacancy caused by Ginsburg’s death will have the same mobilizing effect this year, especially in states like Arizona, North Carolina, Iowa, Maine, and Colorado, where both Trump and GOP Senate candidates are at risk of losing. But the Ginsburg seat holds even more significance for Democrats, who have panicked about her health scares and advancing age for years. They fear not only the rollback of progressive gains—including restrictions on abortion rights and the possible invalidation of the Affordable Care Act—but also the potential that a 6-3 conservative majority could hand Trump virtually unchecked power or overturn any major achievement a President Biden could hope to accomplish. The vacancy thus might provoke the turnout boost for Democrats that previous court battles did not, as well as a push for retribution if Republicans are seen as ignoring the will of the voters. A successful GOP effort to replace Ginsburg with a conservative before or immediately after a Democratic victory will almost certainly lead to more progressive calls for Biden—along with a willing Democratic Senate—to simply pack the Supreme Court with more seats to offset the conservative advantage.The stakes of the next two months—with hundreds dying daily from the coronavirus, with an incumbent president fanning violence and undermining the integrity of a national election—could hardly have been higher before Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbed to cancer. Into that cauldron now goes a Supreme Court fight, with an outcome that could alter American society not only for the next four years, but for a generation to come.
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8 Ruth Bader Ginsburg Quotes That Define the Supreme Court Justice's Legacy
"The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government."—Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her 2012 book, 'My Own Words'
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“The slight figure alone at the big table”: The enduring image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg photographed on the occasion of her 20th anniversary on the bench in 2013. | Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images The Supreme Court justice was a brilliant legal mind. The way she presented herself was important, too. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, in the summer of 1993, was a no-drama affair. As a judge on the DC Circuit of the US Court of Appeals, Ginsburg had a reputation for her quiet, almost retreating demeanor, her meticulousness, and her preference for building consensus rather than defining herself by one political ideology or another. This controlled sensibility was on full televised display as she was questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by chairman Joe Biden. “If there is such a thing as a judicial temperament and it can be recognized on the screen, Judge Ginsburg surely has it. The unshowy mien; the moderate language; the carefully focused answers; the disinclination or inability to break into arias,” reported the New York Times in a story analyzing Ginsburg’s presentation during her confirmation hearing. “Although no reviewer has suggested that Judge Ginsburg is a show-stopper, she grows on you,” the article read. “There was something moving about the slight figure alone at the big table, with husband, children and grandchildren basking behind her.” Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma/Getty Images Ginsburg in her signature large glasses, statement jewelry, and low ponytail affixed with a scrunchie at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1993. In its coverage of Ginsburg’s career until this point — from her hiring as Columbia Law School’s first full-time female professor to her sex discrimination arguments before the Supreme Court to her nomination to the DC appellate court by President Carter — the Times had paid Ginsburg’s physical appearance little mind. Women are disproportionately assessed for their looks rather than professional accomplishments, and perhaps the newspaper purposely refrained from describing her as a very small woman occupying a series of increasingly big jobs. But when she was appointed as the second-ever female Supreme Court Justice, the biggest of big jobs, the image proved too powerful to ignore. Ginsburg died at the age of 87, following complications from pancreatic cancer. In her later years, her physicality was a key piece of how we, the public, understood her. In her 80s, Ginsburg became a feminist and liberal avatar, her likeness immortalized on T-shirts and mugs and as an action figure. We knew the oversized glasses, the big earrings, the scrunchies, the distinctive collars she paired with her black robes, including the glittering neckpiece she wore to issue dissenting opinions. We knew that “slight figure,” which grew smaller with age. “She does look vulnerable — she is this tiny little person — and that is somehow in contrast with being the ferocious defender of minorities and women and certain kinds of ideals,” said NPR’s Nina Totenberg in RBG, a 2018 Oscar-nominated documentary about the Justice’s life. What the New York Times wrote in July 1993 rings true decades later: There was something moving about the sight of Ginsburg, especially to women and to anyone who had ever felt underestimated. Despite graduating at the top of her class from Columbia Law School, tied for first place, she couldn’t get a job at a law firm because she was a woman. Nevertheless, Ginsburg advanced to the highest position in her field, arguing cases that advanced gender equality along the way. Her visible femininity — those lace collars and scrunchies — made her all the more compelling, emphasizing her presence as a woman on the court and the challenges she overcame to get there. Her smallness only underscored her intellectual might. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images Ginsburg embraced her meme status, even carrying a tote featuring her likeness at a 2017 event at Georgetown University. Critics questioned whether it was prudent to turn a Supreme Court Justice into a superhero in the way we did with Ginsburg, or if it was belittling to transform one of our greatest legal minds into a keychain bobble. It may have been. But with so few women in this country with real power, Ginsburg’s image resonates. A woman like Ruth Bader Ginsburg becomes the person on whom other women project their most ardent hopes, dreams, and fears — a sense of identification only magnified by its rarity. An increasingly conservative Supreme Court changed how we perceive Ginsburg The perception of Ginsburg as a dissenting liberal firebrand developed relatively late in her career. It was facilitated in part by changes in Ginsburg’s voice as a Supreme Court Justice, but more so by a shifting court. When President Carter was weighing nominating Ginsburg to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, a high-profile position and a feeder to the Supreme Court, there was concern that she was in fact too liberal for the job. Liberalism itself was not the issue; the problem was that Carter had already named a number of left-wing judges. “There was a long, anxious period in which she really wondered if she was going to get the appointment,” Jane De Hart, the author of the 2018 biography Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life, told Vox in an interview before Ginsburg’s death. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images President Bill Clinton and Ginsburg walk to the White House Rose Garden to announce her nomination to the Supreme Court. Ginsburg felt that she had a neutralizing job to do when she started as an appellate court judge in 1980, so she staked out a position as a centrist, a judge’s judge. She prized collegiality and bridged political differences, famously becoming good friends with the late Antonin Scalia, a fellow opera lover and her colleague on both the DC Circuit and later on the Supreme Court. That moderate reputation propelled her onto the Supreme Court in 1993. Announcing Ginsburg’s nomination in the Rose Garden of the White House that June, President Clinton said, “I believe that in the years ahead she will be able to be a force for consensus-building on the Supreme Court, just as she has been on the Court of Appeals, so that our judges can become an instrument of our common unity in the expression of their fidelity to the Constitution.” In the Rose Garden, Ginsburg wore a cobalt blue double-breasted suit dress with teal and red accents on the pockets. On the first day of her confirmation hearing, she wore a jacket in nearly the same shade of blue, with a high, rounded collar and bright silver buttons running down the front; the following day, she wore a leopard print shirt under a blue blazer. They were eye-catching outfits, but ones conservative enough for stuffy DC. It’s clear that Ginsburg took joy in clothing, as many women do — she wasn’t one to shy away from color, pattern, or a good glove in her nonjudicial wardrobe — and while she didn’t dampen her sense of style when the spotlight was on her, she didn’t peacock, either. Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images An off-duty Ginsburg reads to a group of children in honor of Reading Rainbow’s 10th anniversary. Clinton’s prediction held true, at least at first. When Ginsburg dissented with the court’s opinion, she did so using neutral language and an impersonal air, eschewing the personal, fiery style of justices like Scalia. But with the confirmations of John Roberts in 2005 and Samuel Alito in 2006, the Supreme Court took a marked turn for the conservative during President George W. Bush’s administration. This change in the dynamic of the court, which persisted into the Obama and Trump eras, pushed Ginsburg in an increasingly liberal direction. “She really, I think, was quite frustrated with the direction of the court,” said De Hart. Ginsburg began dissenting more frequently than before, and in a different, more pointed way. Her dissents were still reasoned and rooted in precedent, but they were no longer so neutral. She started issuing zingers that went viral. During oral arguments for United States v. Windsor in 2013, she said the Defense of Marriage Act created two classes of marriage for gay and straight couples: “full marriage, and then this sort of skim milk marriage.” In her dissent to 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling, which effectively dismantled states’ requirement to get federal preclearance before changing their voting laws, thus potentially enabling voter suppression, Ginsburg wrote: “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.” This is when Ginsburg started becoming a larger-than-life pop culture hero. A wave of dissents, and particularly Ginsburg’s dissent in the Shelby County case, inspired a NYU law student named Shana Knizhnik to start a Tumblr called “Notorious RBG,” named in reference to the late rapper Biggie Smalls, also known as the Notorious B.I.G. The blog blew up, the name took hold, and photoshopped images of Ginsburg in a crown like Biggie’s spread across the internet. Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma/Getty Images Ginsburg, along with Sandra Day O’Connor, wore feminine jabots with her black robes during her early days on the court. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Ginsburg later chose more stylized collars. Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images And no collar would be complete without a scrunchie. “It is a pretty marked contrast to her reputation on the DC Circuit, and even during the Rehnquist court,” said De Hart. “I don’t think it’s that her basic views changed that much, but the court changed.” While certain key elements of Ginsburg’s self-presentation also remained the same — the big glasses, the big earrings, the low ponytail in a scrunchie — the collars that she wore with her black court robes evolved over time. Earlier in her Supreme Court career she was often seen in a white lace collar, or “jabot,” which gave a feminized spin to the judge’s uniform. (“The standard robe is made for a man, because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie. So Sandra Day O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman,” Ginsburg explained in an archival clip included in the RBG documentary.) Her collection of collars grew in number and style, most notably with the addition in 2012 of a somewhat rock-n-roll Banana Republic necklace that she wore to offer dissenting opinions. Or to dissent more generally. It’s what Ginsburg wore on the bench following President Trump’s election, presumably as a silent form of protest. As Ginsburg became a pop culture icon, her image turned into a meme and a merchandising opportunity With notoriety came many, many products bearing Ginsburg’s likeness. The earliest burst of Ginsburg-inspired merchandise started in 2012 or 2013, the journalist Irin Carmon, who co-wrote Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Knizhnik, told Vox. “Most of what initially followed was spontaneous and relatively uncommercial — people making nail art and zines and needlepoint, tattooing themselves. It’s gotten much bigger in the past couple of years,” Carmon wrote in an email in February 2019. Notorious RBG Shana Khizhnik and Irin Carmon, authors of Notorious RBG, sell merch with Ginsburg styled like rapper Notorious B.I.G. TheCardBureau/Etsy These pins are just one of many Ginsburg-themed items sold on Etsy and beyond. This cottage industry spanned fairly faithful representations of the justice — in the form of enamel pins, say — and giant leaps of imagination, like a T-shirt with a drawing of Ginsburg throwing up two middle fingers. Her “dissent collar” was replicated as a necklace, a baby onesie, and an adult-size T-shirt. You could find Ginsburg’s face in the splotches of a leopard-print shirt. Meanwhile, fans routinely dressed up as Ginsburg on Halloween, a tradition that, like the business of Ginsburg paraphernalia, is unlikely to dissipate any time soon. Kate McKinnon portrayed her with feisty swagger on Saturday Night Live starting in 2015, issuing lines like, “That’s a third degree Gins-burn!” Asked during the RBG documentary whether McKinnon’s impression reminded her of herself, Ginsburg said with a laugh, “Not one bit. Except for the collar.” Did accuracy matter? Ginsburg was bigger than herself by that time, the subject of a stirring 2018 biopic called On the Basis of Sex starring the British actress Felicity Jones. Ginsburg was perfect fodder for impersonations, posters, and costumes because her style was so consistent and recognizable, with the glasses, the lace collars, and the earrings. And there was something else at play: A delight in upending societal attitudes toward aging women by celebrating this little 85-year-old as a badass. For younger women who feared the judgment and invisibility that can come with age, expressing enthusiasm about Ginsburg seemed to bolster all women’s futures. Dana Edelson/NBC/Getty Images Kate McKinnon’s Saturday Night Live portrayal of Ginsburg of course involved glasses, collars, and earrings. A woman’s public image is a complicated thing, though, and some worried that idolatry could slip into condescension. Wrote Jill Lepore in the New Yorker: “Trivialization—R.B.G.’s workout tips! her favorite lace collars!—is not tribute. Female heroes are in short supply not because women aren’t brave but because female bravery is demeaned, no kind more than intellectual courage. Isn’t she cute? Ginsburg was and remains a scholar, an advocate, and a judge of formidable sophistication, complexity, and, not least, contradiction and limitation. It is no kindness to flatten her into a paper doll and sell her as partisan merch.” When I asked Carmon about the line between expressing enthusiasm for Ginsburg’s work and turning her into a commodity, she said she didn’t have a problem with people wearing Ginsburg-themed T-shirts. She and Knizhnik have sold products with the image of Ginsburg in a crown. “There are some products that I’ve flinched at when they come my way — if they seem disrespectful, if they evince absolutely zero connection to the causes that RBG stands for or are super-corporate with no significant charitable component,” wrote Carmon. “But I also think it’s easy to mock something because women (young or any age) like it, and wrong to assume that just because someone drinks out of an RBG mug they know nothing about the Supreme Court.” De Hart, too, sees a seriousness in young people’s fascination with Ginsburg. A sub-category within the Ginsburg merch market are products that say something along the lines of “Ruth Is the Truth.” Younger Americans, De Hart said, responded to Ginsburg’s integrity at a time when there didn’t seem to be a great deal of it among politicians. She was appealing precisely because she wasn’t a politician, because her impressive career was built on the opposite of bluster and falsehoods. Hers was a contained presence, with jabs and style artfully deployed. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Getty Images Ginsburg arrives to President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress in 2009.
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