When Ruth Bader Ginsburg began making the case for gender equality in the 1970s, she was anything but notorious. The page 10 New York Times story announcing her victory in the first case she argued before the Supreme Court didn’t even mention her name. It wasn’t until four decades later that she morphed into “the Notorious RBG,” a rock star in black robes, a role model for women and girls, and a cultural icon. How this happened says something about celebrity in the internet era, but it also underscores some essential aspects of a remarkable career devoted to promoting equality—one that ended on Sept. 18 when Ginsburg died at the age of 87.
Already in her ninth decade when fame found her, Ginsburg went viral. Little girls dressed up like the justice on Halloween. Young women got RBG tattoos. Her public appearances drew cheering standing-room-only crowds. RBG, an Academy Award-nominated 2018 documentary co-directed by one of us ( Julie), and On the Basis of Sex, a 2018 feature film starring Felicity Jones, offered examinations of her life. Comic actress Kate McKinnon performed her own amped-up take on Ginsburg as a trash-talking, sexy-dancing motormouth in a recurring skit on Saturday Night Live.
All of this marked a big change for Ginsburg, who, even after joining the Supreme Court in 1993, remained relatively obscure outside legal circles. One of us (Paul), a former Supreme Court correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, can recall a dinner in 1995 with Ginsburg and her late husband, Martin Ginsburg, during which the justice spoke of the importance of the court’s doing its business out of the public’s eye.
The celebrification of a jurist who in reality was softspoken and deliberate in manner can be traced to her role in an important 2013 voting rights case called Shelby County v. Holder. By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down as unconstitutional a part of the Voting Rights Act that required federal “preclearance” of changes to election procedures in certain states and counties— including Shelby County, Ala.—with a history of denying racial minorities the right to vote.
Ginsburg, the most senior member of the high court’s outnumbered liberal wing, dissented with an unmistakable vehemence, particularly to the majority’s premise that preclearance was no longer justifiable because the jurisdictions in question don’t discriminate as they once had. She wrote: “Throwing away 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.”
“She was angry, and I was feeling that anger with her,” Shana Knizhnik, then a law student at New York University, recalled in an interview for the documentary RBG. A classmate came up with the hashtag #NotoriousRBG, a play on the stage name of rapper Notorious B.I.G. Knizhnik set up a Tumblr account called Notorious RBG, filled it with images of the justice and best-of passages from her legal writings, and watched it take off. “I just thought it was an amazing sort of juxtaposition between this quiet, demure, traditionally feminine woman who at the same time packed such a punch with her words,” Knizhnik said.
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September 28, 2020