“I ask no favors for my sex,” abolitionist Sarah Grimké wrote in 1837. “I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright.” That quotation is a favorite of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the second woman named to the court and subject of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH).
Life informs practice
Notorious RBG is an immersion into a woman who came of age when, in Ginsburg’s words, “Being a woman was an impediment.” In the 1950s and 1960s, college was for finding a husband, after which women were chiefly expected to be wives and mothers.
The exhibit brings Ginsburg to life as a person and jurist through film, audio clips, photos, documents, and artifacts, striking an intimate tone without shortchanging her groundbreaking legal achievements. It’s based on a 2015 book by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, who created the presentation in collaboration with the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.
Ginsburg once was denied a job because she was pregnant. Later, she could not secure a prestigious clerkship despite graduating at the top of her law school class. At Harvard Law, as one of nine women in a class of more than 500, she was turned away from the men-only library and was challenged by a faculty member for taking a space that could have gone to a male student. Nevertheless, she excelled, making law review at Harvard and then Columbia, where she completed her third year. These slights would fuel her practice, which focused on equal rights.
A meeting of hearts and minds
Gender stereotypes were never an issue in Ginsburg’s 56-year marriage to Martin Ginsburg, whom she met as a Cornell undergraduate and married in 1953. “I became a lawyer because Marty supported that choice unreservedly,” Ginsberg has said. While both were in law school, Marty became ill with cancer. Ginsburg cared for him and their daughter, helped him with coursework, and kept up with her own.
When his wife’s career began to accelerate, Marty, an accomplished tax attorney, cared for their children so Ginsburg could focus on her practice. Throughout their marriage, he did the cooking and reminded her to come home for dinner. “I have been supportive of my wife since the beginning of time and she has been supportive of me,” he said. “It’s not sacrifice; it’s family.” Marty died in 2010.
Discrimination cuts both ways
In 1972, the couple collaborated on Moritz v. Commissioner, a case depicted in On the Basis of Sex, a 2018 film written by their nephew Daniel Stiepleman, and starring Felicity Jones. Charles Moritz, a single man, was denied the ability to claim costs for caring for his elderly mother—something a daughter could then do. “The idea that a man might be a caregiver had apparently never crossed the government’s mind,” Ginsburg noted. “That law was blind to the life Charles E. Moritz lived. We took his case…Marty argued the tax part of it and I argued the equal protection part.” The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in their favor.
Demonstrating that discrimination hurt men and women was an effective strategy to establish what fellow attorney Arthur Miller called a “legal landscape” for equal rights, and brought Ginsburg to the American Civil Liberties Union, where she founded the Women’s Rights Project, leading it until 1980. Six WRP cases eventually went to the Supreme Court.
“She captured for the male members of the court what it was like to be a second-class citizen,” said her WRP co-director Brenda Feigen in RBG, a 2018 documentary.
According to Nina Totenberg of National Public Radio, speaking in RBG, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg quite literally changed the way the world is for American women.”
Tiny, but mighty
The seed of Ginsburg’s iconic status was planted in June 2013 when she read three dissenting opinions from the bench, an unprecedented action declaring her vigorous disagreement with, among others, Shelby County v. Holder, in which Voting Rights Act protections were rolled back.
Impressed by Ginsburg’s audacity, Knizhnik created a Tumblr blog with an in-your-face name referencing The Notorious B.I.G. The juxtaposition of the late, revered rapper with the bespectacled, grandmotherly justice captured public imagination. Soon, Ginsburg was celebrated across pop culture, from memes to a hilarious Saturday Night Live impression. A judicial superhero was born.
A shifting court
The Supreme Court recently has become entangled in political controversy. A digital display depicts how Ginsburg, who began at the court’s philosophical center in 1993, has shifted to the left as her peers have become increasingly conservative.
“I don’t see myself in the role of a great dissenter, and I would much rather carry another mind, even if it entails certain compromises,” Ginsburg has said. “Of course there is a question of bedrock principle where I won’t compromise.” Which is why progressives see her as a bulwark on the right-leaning court and follow her recent health problems with deep concern.
Ginsburg’s relationships on the court have been cordial, particularly with the late Antonin Scalia, with whom she shared a love of opera. Among items on view is a moss-green gown Ginsburg wore in 2016 as the Duchess of Krackentorp in a surprise non-singing appearance with the Washington National Opera.
When Ginsburg joined Sandra Day O’Connor on the court, they decided to add collars to their robes, a feminine variation on the shirt and tie. The sartorial statement has become non-verbal communication for Ginsburg, who wears an ornate gold fabric at her neck when she is in the majority, and a black beaded collar for dissents.
In demeanor, Ginsburg appears fragile, almost owlish in her glasses. She speaks softly and chooses her words, giving an impression of timidity, but careful observers know better: Notorious RBG is biding her time, working out with her trainer, and not missing a thing. When the time is right, she’ll slip into her robe and collar, and resume lifting the boot of discrimination, no matter whose neck it’s on.
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What, When, Where
Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Through January 12, 2020 at National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East, Philadelphia. (215) 923-3811 or nmajh.org.
All public areas of NMAJH are wheelchair-accessible, and a limited number of wheelchairs are available to borrow on a first-come basis. Accommodations are available throughout the museum, including assistive listening devices, captioned films, Braille signage, and sensory backpacks. To address a specific need, contact the museum.