CULTURE & ARTS

Ruth Bader Ginsburg Was More Than A Political Icon

The Supreme Court justice had an indelible impact on the culture at large. Now, what will we do with her legacy?
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday at age 87, leaving behind an incredible body of work and an enduring
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on Friday at age 87, leaving behind an incredible body of work and an enduring legacy.

Within 15 minutes of the news breaking that Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the Supreme Court justice for 27 years, the meme, the advocate, the scholar, the writer, the lawyer, the icon — had died at the age of 87, I watched a mass outpouring of grief and rage among women in their 20s to their 50s play out on my iPhone.

The news came in the middle of Rosh Hashanah dinners, the beginning of the Jewish New Year, one of the holiest days in the Jewish calendar, and I was flooded with texts from women in my life. The messages ranged from shock: “Omg no no no.” “Fuck fuck fuck.” To anguish: “I’m sobbing.” “All out weeping.” “My heart hurts so deeply.” To righteous anger: “Let’s riot.” 

I immediately thought of my grandmother, just a few years older than Ginsburg, a fellow ambitious, politically minded Cornell alum who too had met her sweet, supportive, feminist husband named Marty at the university. I also thought of the generations of women for whom Ginsburg meant so much, and the generations of women whom Ginsburg’s work has — and will, if not be completely undone — impact. 

We’ve lost the woman who had the audacity to challenge a legal system that formally regarded women as second-class citizens. We’ve lost one of the few moral anchors in a world that increasingly feels set out into an unimaginably rocky sea. RBG’s magic lay in her ability to connect with people whose life experiences were eons away from her own. In her last decade, she became a cultural phenomenon in a way few political figures do ― no small feat for an octogenarian. Her notoriously subdued, practical demeanor — not to be confused with a lack of humor, because the woman was very funny — became larger and more exaggerated in the public imagination, beloved by young people, especially young women.

In June 2013, after a 5-4 Supreme Court decision effectively gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, law student Shana Knizhnik read Ginsburg’s scathing, clear-eyed 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,” Ginsburg wrote in her opinion.

This dissent is what inspired Knizhnik to start a Tumblr account, aptly titled, “The Notorious R.B.G.,” a play on words that jokingly likened Ginsburg to the rapper The Notorious B.I.G. The first post was the aforementioned quote from Ginsburg’s Shelby County v. Holder dissent.

The Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr went viral, and since then, Ginsburg’s signature hardened stare — which, truly, can only accurately be described as an epic Resting Bitch Face — has adorned mugs and socks and T-shirts and face masks and sweatshirts and bras and coloring books and stickers and book covers and even peoples’ bodies in tattoo form. (The latter, like any Jewish elder, she did not necessarily approve of.) 

“There’s a certain amount of irony in the fact of an 85-year-old Jewish grandmother who is rough and tough and speaking truth to power,” Betsy West, the co-director of the documentary, “RBG,” told me in 2018 when I asked why she thought Ginsburg was a figure who resonated so much with young people. “The Kate McKinnon ‘Saturday Night Live’ impersonation, of course, is nothing like the real Justice Ginsburg, but there’s the truth at the heart of it, that she is speaking truth to power, and I think young people identify with that.”

Ginsburg was deeply affected by the sexism and anti-Semitism she faced while growing up and when she entered the workforce. But in many ways, she was ahead of the curve. She was a woman who knew she was going to make an impact by way of her profession; a woman who said during her Senate confirmation hearings that she considered abortion rights to be “central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity”; a woman who admitted that “work-life balances was a term not yet coined” when she had young kids, but who spoke openly about the “respite” that her ability to be present in her work gave her from her parenting duties and vice versa; a woman who got married when she could be required to get her husband’s permission to receive a line of credit but had the kind of egalitarian partnership with Martin Ginsburg that is still (sadly) treated like a unicorn today. (“He was my campaign manager,” she said in December 2018, half-jokingly, of Marty’s active involvement in getting her on then-President Bill Clinton’s radar for the Supreme Court nomination.) 

And damn, did she know how to write. Not just well, but also clearly, concisely and powerfully. It’s such a simple thing, not very Internet Age at all, but Ginsburg’s way with words — her wit, her ability to craft such precise and deadly barbs with the gravitas bestowed on her by the SCOTUS bench — was what set her apart from her colleagues.

Ginsburg wrote many majority opinions, but she is best known for her writings about cases that did not go the way she hoped. It’s also why so many of the aforementioned Ginsburg-themed merchandise items are accompanied by two words: “I dissent.” Her dissents could produce metaphorical fire, and they spoke to the way that Ginsburg was always thoughtful and intentional about what her work would mean beyond the moment.  

Ginsburg’s words painted murals of a more just society, and legal roadmaps on how to get there.

In an op-ed she wrote for The New York Times in 2016, she recalled a lesson she learned during her Cornell days: “Words could paint pictures.”

Ginsburg’s words painted murals of a more just society, and legal roadmaps on how to get there.

West pointed to the way that Ginsburg wrote not just for legal scholars but for citizens. She described Ginsburg’s dissent in 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder as a “turning point” for the justice’s cultural resonance, in part because she wrote in “language that non-lawyers could really connect with.” 

And connect they did.

Her strongest dissents were arguably ones that spoke to the challenges faced by and opportunities bestowed upon young women. She was an ardent advocate for reproductive autonomy, workplace equality and liberation for people of all genders. 

In 2014, Ginsburg wrote that the Supreme Court had “ventured into a minefield,” with Burwell v. Hobby Lobby by allowing companies to deny coverage of contraceptives for religious reasons. She also pointed out that “the cost of an IUD is nearly equivalent to a month’s full-time pay for workers earning the minimum wage.” Her dissent was so striking that The Atlantic published it in full, and musician Jonathan Mann turned it into a song.

In 2007, when the court sided with Goodyear Tire Co. instead of Lilly Ledbetter in a gender pay discrimination case, Ginsburg delivered her dissent from the bench. “The court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women can be victims of pay discrimination,” she said.

Her dissent would make a concrete impact. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. In 2018, Ledbetter recounted what Ginsburg’s dissent meant to her when she lost her Supreme Court case. “I get chills and goosebumps today just thinking about it... knowing how fierce she was.”

And just this year, when the Supreme Court struck down the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, Ginsburg gave the conservative justices a verbal lashing. “Today, for the first time, the Court casts totally aside countervailing rights and interests in its zeal to secure religious rights to the nth degree,” she wrote. “This court leaves women workers to fend for themselves, to seek contraceptive coverage from sources other than their employer’s insurer, and, absent another available source of funding, to pay for contraceptive services out of their own pockets.” 

Her dissents do not merely indicate disagreement. They paint a picture of systematic, policy-based discrimination and marginalization. Her words are galvanizing.

Going back through Ginsburg’s older interviews, it becomes clear she was always acutely aware of the ways in which her words would outlive her.  

“Dissents speak to a future age,” Ginsburg said in a 2002 interview on PBS. “It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong and I would do it this way,’ but the greatest dissents do become court opinions… I will not live to see what will become of them, but I remain hopeful.”

That hope is something that the people who most admire Ginsburg, and are grieving her loss most deeply, will have to hold onto in the coming days and weeks and years. Ginsburg played the long game. Even on her deathbed she was thinking about our collective futures. So out of our collective grief, must come action.

One last post now sits atop the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr feed. It is a black-and-white photo of Ginsburg, imposing as ever even in her petite-ness. Underneath the photo is a message: “May her memory be a blessing, and a revolution.”

Mourn today, fight tomorrow. It’s what Ruth would have wanted.