Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Publisher: Dey Street Books
Published: 10/27/2015
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg never asked for fame—she was just trying to make the world a little better and a little freer. But along the way, the feminist pioneer's searing dissents and steely strength have inspired millions. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, created by the young lawyer who began the Internet sensation and an award-winning journalist, takes you behind the myth for an intimate, irreverent look at the…

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg By Irin Carman and Shana Knizhnik

What You’ll Learn

  • How an elderly Supreme Court Justice became a pop icon

  • What was her journey to the Supreme Court

  • How a moderate justice became the most liberal of the nine judges

  • What is the source and meaning of the iconic necklace in the viral memes preserving her legacy

Who This is For

  • Students of U.S. History

  • Feminists and liberals

  • Anyone seeking to understand the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Key Insights

At 5 ft tall and 80 years old, Ruth Bader Ginsberg became a pop icon, dubbed “Notorious RBG” as a play off the then-popular rapper “Notorious B.I.G.” In 2013, she became a viral internet hero by the millennials who looked to her as the champion of their liberal ideals. With a Tumblr and Facebook page, created by the coauthor of this book, Shana Knizhnik, RBG’s fame was built. Although her massive popularity came late in life, her accomplishments dated back to her youth. Notorious RBG shares the life journey and triumphs of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, aka RBG.

Key Points

Growing Up Kiki

Joan Ruth Bader’s original nickname was Kiki. Her mother was a first-generation American whose family had immigrated to escape the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Kiki was an intellect and a reader from a young age. Her musical talent included playing the cello and she spent time in the Adirondacks during the summer. It was a relatively normal childhood except for two tragedies: the death of a sister to meningitis when Kiki was just two years old, and her mother’s cervical cancer diagnosis when she was 13.

Her mother always wished for Kiki to receive the higher education that she hadn’t, so Kiki worked hard to please her mom by excelling in her studies. As a result, she was awarded multiple scholarships to attend Cornell University. Sadly, Kiki missed her graduation due to her mother’s passing only the night before.

Two messages of inspiration from her mother were a profound influence on Kiki’s life. One was to always be a lady, never overcome with “pointless emotions” such as anger and envy. The other was simply, “be independent.”

The Formation of Ruth’s Future

During the Cornell years, much of Ruth’s future was in the embryo and began its development. When she arrived at Cornell, the ratio was four men to every woman. Unlike most of the females there, Ruth was not looking for a “Mrs. Degree.” Finding a husband was far from the priority list, as were the parties of the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority she was in.

Ruth majored in government and studied under Professor Robert E. Cushman, who taught Constitutional Law. There was a “Red Scare” during the Cold War, as fear of communism was widespread. A Zoology professor at her university, Marcus Singer, was removed from his teaching position for not giving up the names of his fellow Marxist study group participants. Ironically, Ruth was working alongside Professor Cushman on a censorship exhibition at the time and was shown how lawyers were involved in defending the censored professor. This led Ruth to decide to pursue a career in law as a way to improve society.

While she settled on a career as a lawyer, Ruth also discovered the man she would marry. Marty Ginsburg met Ruth through friends while they were both dating other people. Ruth quickly noticed how intelligent Marty was and likewise, Marty appreciated her career choice and aptitude to be successful. Marty’s appreciation of her intelligence won Ruth over. Just days after graduating from Cornell, Ruth and Marty were married.

First-hand Experience with Prejudice

Both Marty and Ruth were accepted to Harvard Law, but before they began, Marty fulfilled his commitment to the U.S. Army by spending two years at Fort Sills Army Base in Oklahoma, teaching artillery school.

Ruth made the best of being an army wife and sought work with the government while she waited for Marty to fulfill his duties. It was then she discovered the prejudice against pregnant women, as her own pregnancy dropped her to the lowest rank in the government and prevented her from any promotion. Later at Harvard Law School, Ruth was prevented from borrowing books from the university’s library because women simply weren’t allowed inside.

RBG Always Stood Out

In law school, as a new mother, Ruth excelled and made the Law Review, a legal journal that was published by faculty and senior students.

Due to Marty’s bout with testicular cancer, Ruth worked to ensure her husband didn’t get behind. She obtained notes from his classmates, typed them, and wrote papers as Marty dictated, working until late in the night. It was then that she started on her own studies. Ruth learned she could survive on only a few hours’ sleep.

When Marty graduated and became a tax attorney in New York City, Ruth moved to Columbia Law and finished there. Again she made the Law Review and tied for first place, graduating at the top of her class.

Prejudice in the Workplace

Although Ruth graduated at the top of her class at a renowned university and was highly recommended by the professors, she was refused clerkship by Supreme Court Associate Justice, Felix Frankfurter.

Law professor Gerald Gunther went to bat for her and told Edmund Palmieri, a Federal Judge, that if he didn’t hire Ruth, he would never recommend a clerk to him again.

Ruth worked there successfully for two years when she was given the opportunity to move to Sweden and co-author a book about the United State’s Judicial System.

When she returned to the U.S. after accepting the offer to work in Sweden, Ruth taught at Columbia and was then offered a faculty position at Rutgers, teaching civil procedure, becoming only the second woman to work there full time.

When she discovered she was pregnant with their second child, Ruth kept it a secret until her contract was signed, as she didn’t want to experience the prejudice she had previously. However, the laws at the time allowed employers the right to fire women who became pregnant. Women had fewer rights than men in all areas of life at the time. All of this was happening to Ruth on the threshold of major social change, when women began taking to the streets demanding equality, like a 1970’s era echo of the earlier 1960’s civil rights movements.

RGB’s Life Work

Ruth wasn’t one to march in protest, instead, she kept her head down and went to work in the most effective ways she was capable… using her skills as a lawyer. She was a volunteer with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and began reading the letters written to them by women complaining of prejudice.

Ruth wrote a brief for Reed v. Reed, a case asserting that the state had no right to assume women are less capable of administering estates than men. She educated the judges by pointing out that women are second class citizens and the law which prevented women from the political or economic activity was cited as “protective” while the same law applied to ethnic minorities would be seen as unlawful.

Ruth won the case and her work for women’s rights began in earnest. In 1972, she co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project with the mission to educate the public about sex discrimination, change the law to give women equal rights, and support people who bring their cases to court.

But it wasn’t just women Ruth fought for; she also represented a widower who was denied Social Security benefits to support his infant on the basis he was a man. Being discriminated against based on gender is bad for everyone, Ruth pointed out, and she demonstrated that change can be made through hard work, one step at a time.

Eventually, Ruth became the first female tenured professor at Columbia Law School. Shortly after being hired, she helped women employees at Columbia with a class action lawsuit for equal pension and pay.

Joining the Supreme Court

In the ’80s, President Carter nominated RBG to the U.S. Court of Appeals. There, her reputation was as a moderate focusing on compromise. While she found the work boring, it was the path to becoming a Supreme Court Justice.

In 1993, President Clinton was to appoint a nominee for the Supreme Court. Minutes into his interview with Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the President could see her brilliance. Her nomination by the President was followed by a Senate confirmation 96-3. RBG became the second female in U.S. history to be given a seat in the Supreme Court.

RBG’s Reputation Today

Early on, Ruth was not the most liberal judge in the court. Her goal was to find consensus and move things forward. Today, however, RBG's public image is a dissenter. During the election of George W. Bush, Ruth was one of four who dissented against his election after the vote recounts in Florida.

During his time in office, Bush appointed two conservative justices, shifting the court to the right. Eventually, RBG became one of the most liberal of the nine judges. Many of her arguments surround abortion and birth control rights.

Ruth’s dissents were noticed by millennials who began to post about her online. One especially popular meme is a picture of her wearing a crown on her head and what became known as the “dissent necklace” around her neck (a bib necklace made of glass beads on velvet that was given to her in 2012 at the Glamour Women of the Year event).

As a pop icon for feminists, RBG’s image inspired tattoos, a frequent character on Saturday Night Live, and Halloween costumes. Every time she gave a new dissent, the internet exploded.

Critics had been telling her since 2009 to retire, as she developed pancreatic cancer, but she refused to stop working even though it meant Obama couldn’t replace her with another liberal judge.

The Main Takeaway:

Ruth Bader Ginsberg began her law career as a champion for equal rights, and later became one of the first females to join the Supreme Court. Late in life, she became an unlikely hero and pop icon for her strong dissents after the Supreme Court began to shift towards conservatism. RBG is the nickname upon which her legacy has been preserved by Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s many fans and followers.

About the Authors

Irin Cameron is an Israeli-American journalist and commentator. She is a senior correspondent at New York Magazine and a CNN contributor.

Shana Knizhnik is a civil rights attorney. While a student at NYU law school, she created the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr, a feminist website dedicated to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.


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