Of the many things Ruth Bader Ginsburg, famously known as “Notorious RBG” (a nod to the famed American Rapper The Notorious B.I.G., also known as “Biggie Smalls”) was celebrated for, and, in fact, was emulated for, were her many and varied statement necklaces. RBG, only the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, was an associate justice of that court from 1993 until her passing in 2020. (The first woman, Sandra Day O’Connor, was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1981 by then president, Ronald Reagan.)
But make no mistake: while these necklaces, also known as collars, might originally have been seen as fashion statements, a way to dress up her judicial black robes, anyone in the know, anyone in RBG’s circle, knew that these were no ordinary pieces of jewelry that she wore to court on important days. Known as jabots, RBG’s necklaces glinted in the courtroom lights, metaphoric and steely declarations of her unflinching opinions on decisions handed down by the Supreme Court.
Arguably RBG’s most renowned jabot was her dissent collar, a heavily jewel-studded necklace which she wore when she was proclaiming her condemnation and disapproval — her dissent — to a decision handed down by the Supreme Court. The fact that RBG would speak her dissent is unusual in itself; announcing a majority opinion in the court chamber is custom, but reading aloud in dissent is rare.1 And so, the dissent collar, that RBG wore on the day after Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential win speaks volumes without uttering a word. Just as intriguingly, it was the yellow jabot, with its thin bejewelled strips extending symmetrically from the collar, that RBG chose to wear to Barack Obama’s first address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress, on December 31, 2005.
So, who is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and how did this diminutive woman who fought and won myriad impactful battles on the stage of equality, especially as it relates to women, get tagged to the phenomena that is The Notorious B.I.G.?
Shana Knizhnik, co-author with Irin Carmon of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2015), is a public defender working in the criminal defence practice of the Legal Aid Society of New York City. It is she who was the original master-maker behind the idea of linking the rapper’s B.I.G. acronym to that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
“I started the Notorious RBG movement on Tumblr back in 2013. I wanted it to have a sense of irreverence and fun,” Knizhnik says. “It was a spur-of-the-moment response to recognize a moment in time in 2013, in large part stemming from the Shelby County vs. Holder voting rights case. The majority opinion in that case rolled back the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s protections, which would inherently impact the ability of certain communities to vote. RBG made it clear that this action would erode the rights of people of colour, poor people and other marginalized populations. And while B.I.G. and RBG are two people who could not be any more different on so many fronts, their words, in different ways, both spoke truth to power.”
Famously, near the end of her dissent in the Shelby County case, RBG explained why the regional protections of the Voting Rights Act were still necessary. “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.”2
‘‘ IN EVERY GOOD MARRIAGE, IT HELPS SOMETIMES TO BE A LITTLE DEAF — Evelyn Ginsburg
It is important to understand RBG’s background and what the defining experiences were that drove her to be a tireless advocate for women’s rights and equality well into her eighties, an age when most people put down their gauntlets in favour of a more sedate lifestyle.
Born to Jewish parents on March 15, 1933, Ruth, nicknamed “Kiki” by her older sister, was a cellist and a high-school cheerleader whose young life was steeped in sorrow. She lost her two-year-old sister to meningitis when she was 13, and tragically the day before she was to graduate from high school, RBG’s beloved mother, Celia, succumbed to cancer.
But Celia’s counsel to her daughter stuck: “Hold fast to your convictions and your self-respect, be a good teacher, but don’t snap back in anger,”1 advice that RBG followed her entire life by advocating for what she believed in and creating powerful environments in which the people she was championing thrived.
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