How Ruth Bader Ginsburg, second woman to serve on US Supreme Court, became an unlikely cultural icon

Ginsburg's late-life rock stardom could not remotely have been predicted in June 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court

The New York Times September 19, 2020 15:18:00 IST
How Ruth Bader Ginsburg, second woman to serve on US Supreme Court, became an unlikely cultural icon

File image of former US Supreme Court judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The New York Times

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court and a pioneering advocate for women’s rights, who in her ninth decade became a much younger generation’s unlikely cultural icon, died Friday at her home in Washington. She was 87.

The cause was complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer, the Supreme Court said.

By the time two small tumors were found in one of her lungs in December 2018, during a follow-up scan for broken ribs suffered in a recent fall, Ginsburg had beaten colon cancer in 1999 and early-stage pancreatic cancer 10 years later. She received a coronary stent to clear a blocked artery in 2014.

Barely 5 feet tall and weighing 100 pounds, Ginsburg drew comments for years on her fragile appearance. But she was tough, working out regularly with a trainer, who published a book about his famous client’s challenging exercise regime.

As Ginsburg passed her 80th birthday and 20th anniversary on the Supreme Court bench during President Barack Obama’s second term, she shrugged off a chorus of calls for her to retire in order to give a Democratic president the chance to name her replacement. She planned to stay “as long as I can do the job full steam,” she would say, sometimes adding, “There will be a president after this one, and I’m hopeful that that president will be a fine president.”

When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor retired in January 2006, Ginsburg was for a time the only woman on the Supreme Court — hardly a testament to the revolution in the legal status of women that she had helped bring about in her career as a litigator and strategist.

Her years as the solitary female justice were “the worst times,” she recalled in a 2014 interview. “The image to the public entering the courtroom was eight men, of a certain size, and then this little woman sitting to the side. That was not a good image for the public to see.” Eventually she was joined by two other women, both named by Obama: Sonia Sotomayor in 2009 and Elena Kagan in 2010.

After the 2010 retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, whom Kagan succeeded, Ginsburg became the senior member and de facto leader of a four-justice liberal bloc, consisting of the three female justices and Justice Stephen Breyer. Unless they could attract a fifth vote, which Justice Anthony Kennedy provided on increasingly rare occasions before his retirement in 2018, the four were often in dissent on the ideologically polarized court.

Ginsburg’s pointed and powerful dissenting opinions, usually speaking for all four, attracted growing attention as the court turned further to the right. A law student, Shana Knizhnik, anointed her the Notorious RBG. — a play on the name of the Notorious B.I.G, a famous rapper who was Brooklyn-born, like the judge. Soon the name, and Ginsburg’s image — her expression serene yet severe, a frilly lace collar adorning her black judicial robe, her eyes framed by oversize glasses and a gold crown perched at a rakish angle on her head — became an internet sensation.

Young women had the image tattooed on their arms; daughters were dressed in RBG costumes for Halloween. “You Can’t Spell Truth Without Ruth” appeared on bumper stickers and T-shirts. A biography, “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” by Irin Carmon and Knizhnik, reached the bestseller list the day after its publication in 2015, and the next year Simon & Schuster brought out a Ginsburg biography for children with the title “I Dissent.” A documentary film of her life was a surprise box office hit in the summer of 2018, and a Hollywood biopic centered on her first sex discrimination court case opened on Christmas Day that year.

The adulation accelerated after the election of Donald Trump, whom Ginsburg had had the indiscretion to call “a faker” in an interview during the 2016 presidential campaign. (She later said her comment had been “ill advised.”) Scholars of the culture searched for an explanation for the phenomenon. Dahlia Lithwick, writing in The Atlantic in early 2019, offered this observation: “Today, more than ever, women starved for models of female influence, authenticity, dignity, and voice hold up an octogenarian justice as the embodiment of hope for an empowered future.”

Her late-life rock stardom could not remotely have been predicted in June 1993, when President Bill Clinton nominated the soft-spoken, 60-year-old judge, who prized collegiality and whose friendship with conservative colleagues on the federal appeals court where she had served for 13 years left some feminist leaders fretting privately that the president was making a mistake. Clinton chose her to succeed Justice Byron White, an appointee of President John F. Kennedy, who was retiring after 31 years. Her Senate confirmation seven weeks later, by a vote of 96-3, ended a drought in Democratic appointments to the Supreme Court that extended back to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s nomination of Thurgood Marshall 26 years earlier.

There was something fitting about that sequence, because Ruth Ginsburg was occasionally described as the Thurgood Marshall of the women’s rights movement by those who remembered her days as a litigator and director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union during the 1970s.

The analogy was based on her sense of strategy and careful selection of cases as she persuaded the all-male Supreme Court, one case at a time, to start recognizing the constitutional barrier against discrimination on the basis of sex. The young Thurgood Marshall had done much the same as the civil rights movement’s chief legal strategist in building the case against racial segregation.

Ruth Bader’s father, Nathan Bader, immigrated to New York with his family when he was 13. Her mother, the former Celia Amster, was born four months after her family’s own arrival. Ruth, who was named Joan Ruth at birth and whose childhood nickname was Kiki, was born on March 15, 1933. She grew up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood essentially as an only child; an older sister died of meningitis at the age of 6 when Ruth was 14 months old. The family owned small retail stores, including a fur store and a hat shop.

Ruth Bader attended Cornell on a scholarship. During her freshman year, she met a sophomore, Martin Ginsburg. For the 17-year-old Ruth, the attraction was immediate. “He was the only boy I ever met who cared that I had a brain,” she said frequently in later years. By her junior year, they were engaged, and they married after her graduation in 1954.

Theirs was a lifelong romantic and intellectual partnership. In outward respects, they were opposites. While she was reserved, choosing her words carefully, he was an ebullient raconteur, quick with a joke of which he himself was often the butt. The depth of their bond was nonetheless apparent to all who knew them as a couple.

Martin Ginsburg, a highly successful tax lawyer, would become his wife’s biggest booster, happily giving up his lucrative New York law practice to move with her to Washington in 1980, when President Jimmy Carter named her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Thirteen years later, he lobbied vigorously behind the scenes for her appointment to the Supreme Court.

Their 56-year marriage ended with his death from cancer in 2010 at the age of 78. Their two children, Jane, a professor of intellectual property law at Columbia Law School, and James, a producer of classical music recordings in Chicago, survive, along with four grandchildren.

Ginsburg’s opinions were tightly composed, with straightforward declarative sentences and a minimum of jargon. She sometimes said she was inspired to pay attention to writing by studying literature under Vladimir Nabokov at Cornell.

It was a moment of personal triumph when she announced the court’s majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, a 1996 discrimination case involving the Virginia Military Institute. By a lopsided 7-1 vote, the court had found that the all-male admissions policy of the state-supported military college was unconstitutional. In her majority opinion, the most important of her tenure, Ginsburg explained that the state had failed to provide the “exceedingly persuasive justification” that the Constitution required for treating men and women differently.

Still, it was her dissents, particularly those she announced from the bench, that received the most attention. Playing along with her crowd, she took to switching the decorative collars she wore with her judicial robe on days when she would be announcing a dissent. She even wore her “dissenting collar,” which one observer described as “resembling a piece of medieval armor,” the day after Trump’s election.

Linda Greenhouse c.2020 The New York Times Company

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