Notorious RBG Young Readers' Edition

by Irin Carmon, Shana Knizhnik

Clock Icon 13 minute read

A Supreme Inspiration

Sometimes a necklace is more than just a necklace. If you’re Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the United States Supreme Court—someone who has a lot to say—even what you wear around your neck sends a message. When it’s the end of June and everyone is breathlessly waiting for the Supreme Court to hand down its most important decisions, those lacey or sparkly collars over her black robe, called jabots, are a clue to what’s about to happen.

On June 25, 2013, Justice Ginsburg, nicknamed RBG, took her seat on the curved Supreme Court bench wearing a spiky jabot with scalloped glass beads. It’s a necklace she only brings out when she has to, and that day her message was loud and clear. I dissent.

The math of the Supreme Court is pretty simple. Nine: that’s how many justices there (usually) are, picked by a president to serve for life or as long as the justice wants. Four: that’s how many justices have to agree to take a case, since they get asked to decide thousands of disputes and can take fewer than one hundred. Five: that’s how many justices need to agree on a result. And then at least one of the majority needs to explain, in writing, why. After all, they say what the law means for the entire country, and everyone, including the president, Congress, and judges across America, is supposed to follow.

But let’s say one of the justices thinks the five or more in the majority are wrong. She or he doesn’t have to clam up and take it. That’s when she can publicly push back in a written dissent, to tell the world how she thinks the case should have gone. And if she’s feeling particularly salty, the justice can sit in the courtroom when the majority announces its opinion and tell the world exactly how she feels. The Supreme Court is a pretty polite place, so it doesn’t happen a lot.

RBG was feeling particularly salty that week.

After twenty years as a Supreme Court justice, the eighty-year-old was about to break a record by dissenting from the bench: publicly and verbally demanding her colleagues and the world listen to her protest. That’s how bad she believed matters had gotten.

That day, five justices, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, had decided the country no longer needed an important part of a law known as the Voting Rights Act. The law, first passed by Congress in 1965, acknowledged an ugly truth. State governments, which create many voting rules, had been coming up with all kinds of ways to block African Americans from voting. Thanks to the Voting Rights Act, states that had a track record of discrimination had to ask the federal government for permission to change their voting laws so the government could decide whether those laws hurt historically oppressed people.

But no more. “Any racial discrimination in voting is too much,” Roberts declared that morning. “But our country has changed in the last fifty years.” He pointed out that America had elected the first black president in 2008. Roberts said his piece, then added, evenly, “Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion.”

A woman who defies stereotypes, RBG has survived sorrows and setbacks, always beating the strong odds against her. Fierce and knowing, she does not mess around, and you don’t want to mess with her. But even after she had spent years as one of the most important judges in the country, some people assume they can count her out because she is small and delicate and has survived cancer twice. But on that morning, there was no mistaking her passion.

At stake, RBG told the courtroom, was “what was once the subject of a dream, the equal citizenship stature of all in our polity, a voice to every voter in our democracy undiluted by race.” It was an obvious reference to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, but the phrase “equal citizenship stature”—meaning everyone is treated equally under the law—had special meaning to RBG in particular.

Forty years ago, she had stood before this very bench, as a young lawyer before nine male justices, and forced them to see that women were people too in the eyes of the Constitution. That women, along with men, deserved equality, to stand with all the rights and responsibilities that being a citizen meant. As part of a global movement for women’s rights, RBG had gone from facing closed doors to winning five out of six of the women’s rights cases she argued before the Supreme Court.

No one—not the firms and judges that had refused to hire her because she was a young mother, not the bosses who had paid her less for being a woman—had ever expected her to be sitting up there at the court.

At nearly ten thirty a.m. that day in June, RBG quoted Martin Luther King Jr. directly: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice,” she said. But then she added her own words: “if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.” Not exactly poetry. But pure RBG. She has always been steadfast, and when the work is justice, she has every intention to see it to the end.

In her written dissent, RBG had a snappy way of explaining what made no sense about the majority’s opinion. They were killing the Voting Rights Act because it had worked too well. That, she wrote, was like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

Although three of her colleagues agreed with her, she couldn’t get one more to make a majority. But all was not lost, because the country was listening, and they were inspired.

In Washington, D.C., two friends, Aminatou Sow and Frank Chi, plastered the city with stickers of RBG’s image, giving the justice an illustrated crown inspired by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and a caption: “Can’t spell truth without Ruth.” In Cambridge, Massachusetts, twenty-six-year-old law student Hallie Jay Pope started drawing comics of RBG, made an “I Heart RBG” shirt, and donated the proceeds to a voting rights organization. And in New York, twenty-four-year-old NYU law student Shana Knizhnik, one of the authors of this book, was aghast at the gutting of voting rights. She tried to look on the bright side: at least Justice Ginsburg was speaking up. On Facebook, Shana’s friend gave the justice a nickname: Notorious RBG. Inspired, Shana took to Tumblr to create a tribute.

It started as kind of a joke, the reference to the three-hundred-pound deceased rapper Notorious B.I.G. After all, what did an eighty-year-old Jewish lady have in common with a nineties gangsta rapper? But there were similarities. They were both from Brooklyn. And like her namesake, B.I.G., this jurist who demanded patience as she spoke could also pack a verbal punch.

You could say the Notorious RBG meme took off from there. RBG, already a hero to people who knew about the law and women’s rights, was suddenly being celebrated in all kinds of places you don’t usually hear about the Supreme Court. She was on mugs and even tattoos. (For the record, the tattoos kind of freak her out. She’s still a Jewish grandma.)

Her family, while amused, was also a little surprised at this late-in-life turn to megafame. “I would not have thought of her as hip,” says her son, James.

Why now? Well, RBG’s position on the court had changed. She had more seniority, meaning she had been on the court longer and had more power to shape how decisions turned out. At the same time, she found herself outnumbered as new justices pulled the court in a more conservative direction. In decisions that gave more political power to the wealthy and made it harder for people who were discriminated against to see justice, to name just a few, RBG had been dissenting more than ever.

Can you believe this firebrand once had a reputation for being shy and trying to make things work? And yet even when she chose to use her voice more softly, RBG has never been one to shrink from a challenge. People who think she is hanging on to this world by a thread underestimate her. RBG’s main concession to hitting her late seventies was to give up water-skiing.

But don’t worry, she’s still keeping herself in fighting shape. In late November 2014, RBG felt a little faint during a workout session with her regular personal trainer and had to have heart surgery. Still, she had court arguments to attend and plans to keep. “I would be glad to greet the clever creators of the Notorious R.B.G. in chambers,” she had written to them. (Chambers is what the justices call their offices.)

So on a December morning, RBG stood, flanked by her clerks, ready to greet the creators of Notorious RBG and Can’t Spell Truth without Ruth. Her slender wrist was still slightly bruised from the surgical procedure.

Her guests asked her what message she had for all the young people who admired her. RBG paused to think it over. “You can tell them,” she replied, “I’ll be back doing push-ups next week.”

Nine Things to Know about the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS)

1. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, the place of last resort. It reviews and can overturn decisions by the lower courts.
2. It was men only for two centuries until Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed in 1981. RBG, the second woman to join SCOTUS, was appointed in 1993.
3. Getting to be a justice—a chief justice or one of the eight associate justices—is a long, hard road.
4. Justices are appointed for life, serving on the court until they die or decide to retire.
5. As soon as one justice exits, the president nominates a new justice and asks the Senate to confirm her or him.
6. SCOTUS starts its term every year on the first Monday of October, hearing cases, doing heavy-duty research, and arguing like mad until June or July, when it delivers its verdicts.
7. SCOTUS is picky—it takes only about seventy-five cases a year out of the seven thousand it is asked to hear. It looks for the cases where other judges have disagreed about what the law means, especially ones that raise the most significant issues relating to the US Constitution.
8. Its decisions, which are explained in written opinions, can be controversial.
9. The court affects the daily lives of every American, from how police interact with people to how schools treat students.

2
A Girl Who Could Think for Herself

Baby Ruth was born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, to proud parents Celia and Nathan Bader. She had an older sister, Marilyn, who nicknamed her Kiki.

Alas, Ruth lost one of them when she was still a toddler. Her sister, Marilyn, died of meningitis, a painful—and at the time deadly—inflammation. She was only six.

Celia poured her hopes and dreams into her daughter Ruth. Her fondest wish was that Ruth would be able to achieve things she hadn’t been allowed to do herself.

When Celia was young, she had shown great promise, graduating from high school with top grades at age fifteen. But Celia was born in 1903 and in her day girls didn’t go on to higher education. Instead, she had helped put someone else through college—a boy (her brother).

Celia went to work as a bookkeeper in Manhattan’s garment district, the center for fashion design and manufacturing. Dutifully she turned her earnings over to her family.

Then she married Nathan, Ruth’s dad, who worked in the fur trade. With furs being a luxury item, his business was not doing particularly well during the Great Depression, when most people were struggling.

As soon as she got married, Celia quit her job. To work outside the home was to have people think her husband couldn’t support her. That was the way things were then, not that Celia ever necessarily agreed with “the way things were.”

Even as a little girl, Ruth could sense her mother’s disappointment in life, the pang of her thwarted ambitions. Celia had loved to learn, and could have had a successful career—or at least a job. But doors for women were closed, and few were doing much to open them.

In Ruth’s neighborhood, the paths for boys and girls were clear: sons were to become doctors or lawyers, and “the girls were supposed to marry doctors or lawyers,” according to one of Ruth’s classmates.

Celia, on the other hand, wanted to push Ruth to follow her own path, a path that would be just right for Ruth.

THE POWER OF NANCY DREW

It wasn’t long before Ruth was devouring books. From their house on East Ninth Street, Celia walked her to the local library once a week. While her mom got her hair done at the salon, Ruth picked out five books at a time. From an interest in mythology she moved on to Nancy Drew mysteries: “This was a girl who was an adventurer,” she said later, “who could think for herself, who was the dominant person in her relationship with her young boyfriend.”

A strong girl who could think for herself—that sounded like a goal.

Ruth treasured her weekly adventures, a special mother-daughter time. The library was one floor above a Chinese restaurant: “I learned to love the smell of Chinese food in those days,” she remembered fondly.

From her Irish, Polish, and Italian neighbors, Ruth sometimes encountered anti-Jewish prejudice. She never forgot one hurtful sign: No Dogs or Jews Allowed. Children couldn’t help hearing their parents whisper about what was going on in Europe—the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed.

Compared to Europe, Brooklyn seemed a safe place to grow up. Ruth had mostly happy memories of her childhood—riding her bike to school, learning new things, playing with cousins and friends.

One of her earliest interests was music. When she was eleven, she saw a stirring performance of an opera. Instantly, Ruth decided she wanted to be a singer. Unfortunately, she said, “I am a monotone.” No one encouraged her, either: “My grade school teachers were cruel. They rated me a sparrow, not a robin.”

But there was plenty she was good at.

Quiet but popular, Ruth made a splash when she got to high school. She earned excellent grades—once she showed her mom a report card that was less than perfect, and that was the last time that happened. And she whirled her way through activities. She played cello in the orchestra, wrote for the school newspaper, and served as treasurer of the Go-Getters cheerleading club. She was high-energy—at halftime she twirled her baton so vigorously that she once chipped a tooth with it.

In the summers, she journeyed to leafy Upstate New York, to a camp for Jewish children in the Adirondack Mountains. Showing a gift for leadership, she was named camp rabbi, its religious leader (at a time when there were no women rabbis in real life).

Fifteen-year-old RBG as camp rabbi at Che-Na-Wah in the Adirondacks

She also met a nice boy headed for law school. He became her boyfriend.

Ruth was always curious. At Passover seders—the festive meal recounting the Jews’ exodus from Egypt—she was the one who asked the most questions. But, like all Jewish girls at the time, she wasn’t allowed to join the boys studying for their bar mitzvahs, the coming-of-age ritual. The bat mitzvah, the Jewish ceremony for girls, was rarely performed then, and it wouldn’t have occurred to Ruth to ask for one.

NO ORDINARY MOM

Part of Ruth’s childhood ended when she turned thirteen. Her mother was struck with cancer, and it became clear that Celia wasn’t going to survive.

Later, Ruth described her house as having the smell of death. But at the time, she told no one what was happening, not wanting people to pity her. Dealing with death at such a young age was overwhelming.

Trying to keep her mom’s spirits up, Ruth did her homework every night at Celia’s bedside. Ruth would treasure her mother’s words for years to come:

Always be a lady: “That meant always conduct yourself civilly, don’t let emotions like anger or envy get in your way. . . . Don’t snap back in anger. Anger, resentment, indulgence in recriminations waste time and sap energy.”

Hold fast to your convictions and your self-respect.”

Last but definitely not least: always be independent.

These were not the typical lessons that typical moms were passing on to daughters in those days—especially that last one. Even then Ruth seemed to realize that her mom was unusual, a source of strength not all girls were lucky enough to have.

No one impacted Ruth more than her mom.

By the time Ruth graduated from James Madison High School, her name peppered the graduation program, with multiple awards and honors.

Just Some of the Things Women Couldn’t Do in the 1930s and 1940s

* Practice law in most states, much less become a judge
* Get paid the same amount as men for doing the same work
* Answer want ads for jobs labeled “men only”
* Attend most Ivy League universities
* Serve on a jury in most states
* Play school sports on an equal basis with boys
* Open a bank account or get a credit card without a husband’s or male relative’s permission
* Attend a military academy
* Become an astronaut
* Get pregnant without the real threat of losing her job
* In some states, own property without having a husband in sole control as “head and master”
* Wear pants on the US Senate floor
* Serve in combat in the military

On the much-anticipated day of the ceremony, she should have been at school, happily accepting her awards while her parents beamed.

Instead she was absent, home with her father.

Her beloved mom had died the day before, at age forty-seven. It broke Ruth’s heart that Celia hadn’t lived long enough to see her daughter on her big day.

Ruth was submerged in sadness as their house filled up with mourning women. None of them—much less a girl like Ruth—was allowed to be in the minyan, the quorum of adults needed for prayer under Jewish law. All she could do was try to help her father and grieve in silence.

ON HER WAY UP

Ruth’s high school yearbook predicted that one particular senior would go all the way to the top and become a Supreme Court justice.

The senior wasn’t Ruth, though. In 1950, the idea of a woman on the Supreme Court was supremely laughable.

No, it was a classmate named Joel . . . who went on to become a perfectly respectable dentist.

With her stellar grades and impressive roster of activities, Ruth was proud to be headed to prestigious Cornell University. Cornell was one of the few Ivy League universities that would accept women. And in one of her last acts to help her daughter, Celia had managed to scrape together eight thousand dollars to help with college expenses.

“It was one of the most trying times in my life,” Ruth said of the painful period following her mom’s death. But the grief seemed to give her a focus, to fine-tune her goals: “I knew that she wanted me to study hard and get good grades and succeed in life.

“So that’s what I did.”

Ruth Bader was already on her own path, on her way to becoming the glorious and notorious RBG.

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