National Geographic's book In Praise of Difficult Women by Karen Karbo profiles women throughout the world who have pushed societal norms and boundaries in areas spanning the gambit from politics, art, media, books, and more.
Eighty-five-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg does not do girl push-ups. During her twice-a-week workouts in the Supreme Court gym, she busts out two sets of 10 standard push-ups without stopping for a break. She leg presses 70 pounds. She easily nails one-arm side planks, one-legged squats, and a medicine ball toss. Since the death of her husband, Martin, in 2010, and best friend on the bench, Antonin Scalia, in 2016, Ruth jokes that the most important person in her life is her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson. Justice Ginsburg is not much of a wisecracker; I’d wager that she thought this probably sounded amusing, but she was actually serious.
Born in 1933 in Brooklyn, New York, Ruth Bader Ginsburg attended Harvard Law School, where she was one of nine women in a class of ﬁve hundred and the ﬁrst female member of the Harvard Law Review. After transferring and graduating at the top of her class from Columbia Law School in 1959, she made a name for herself as a quiet yet stalwart courtroom advocate for gender equality. In 1972, she co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union women’s rights project and became the ﬁrst female tenured professor at Columbia Law School. Between 1973 and 1975, she argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, and won ﬁve of them. In 1980 President Carter appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, and in 1993 President Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court. She was the second woman to serve, joining Sandra Day O’Connor.
If you were born after 1970, and have thus beneﬁted from changes in the law Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped eﬀect, you might be forgiven for viewing her ascent as a smooth escalator ride to the top—the obvious outcome for a woman who is clearly brilliant. (In the early 1960s, when Ruth went to Sweden to study civil procedure—something in which she holds a passionate interest—she learned Swedish.) But let’s not forget that her Depression-era generation of women breathed sexism as if it were air. Most fell in line with societal norms, accepting the fallacy that female biology transcends individual intelligence, aptitude, ambition, or the understandable human desire to escape a lifetime of picking up the dirty socks of others. The kind of blatant, dispiriting discrimination Ruth experienced as she advanced in her career wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. But whereas many women were thwarted, Ruth persevered. Misogyny was simply one more hill to climb. Ruth was diﬃcult because she refused to be discouraged. She really persisted, one tiny foot in front of the other.
The daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, Joan Ruth Bader was born during the worst year of the Great Depression. Her father, Nathan, was a furrier, when the last thing a person could aﬀord was a fur coat. Her mother, Celia, denied a college education because of her gender, especially valued education for her daughter. She hoped that if Ruth studied hard, she might become a teacher. But Celia was stricken with cancer while Ruth was in high school, and died the day before her daughter graduated.
At Cornell, Ruth met Martin Ginsburg, whom she would marry a few days after she graduated in 1954. Together they went to Harvard Law, where the dean berated Ruth at a dinner party for taking a man’s spot. Even though there were 491 men in her class of 500, she was made to feel guilty for displacing a presumably now despondent male applicant whose life she’d made more difﬁcult. During her second year at Harvard, Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer. They also had a toddler, Jane. Ruth took care of her husband as he underwent surgery and chemotherapy, went to class for him, and typed up his papers from dictation, while also caring for their daughter. She managed, amid all this, to keep her own grades up and made the Harvard Law Review.
Marty recovered and graduated. He accepted a position at a ﬁrm in New York. Ruth dutifully transferred to Columbia Law School, graduating in 1959. She leaned in before it was a thing, had it all before women knew they could want it all. She made it work because her husband was a partner, and her views on motherhood—like pretty much everything else about RBG, as she’s come to be known of late—were ahead of her time. “When I started law school, my daughter Jane was 14 months, and I attribute my success in law school largely to Jane. I went to class about 8:30 a.m., and I came home at 4:00 p.m.; that was children’s hour. It was a total break in my day, and children’s hour continued until Jane went to sleep. Then I was happy to go back to the books. So I felt each part of my life gave me respite from the other.”
Despite being ﬁrst in her class at Columbia Law, Ruth couldn’t get a job. Think about it: First in her class, and not one oﬀer. It was a discriminatory trifecta: Jewish, woman, mother. Gerald Gunther, a forward-thinking professor who believed in her, ﬁnally strong-armed Manhattan federal judge Edmund Palmieri into hiring her to clerk for him. “Gunther told the judge he’d never recommend another Columbia student to him unless he gave me a chance,” Ruth said in a 2013 New Yorker interview.
But the challenges continued. In 1963, Ruth was the ﬁrst woman to teach at Rutgers Law School, where the dean helpfully explained that because her husband made a good living, it was unnecessary to pay her what her male colleagues were making. When she became pregnant with her son, James, in 1964, she hid her condition.
If Ruth ever struggled with insomnia, tossing and turning while brooding over the heinous injustices she was being forced to endure, it never manifested itself in her approach to the law. She’s a believer in baby steps. Goethe said about writing, “Do not hurry, do not rest”—a description that also describes Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s jurisprudence. One day, her secretary was typing up a brief and suggested that Justice Ginsburg change the phrase sex discrimination to gender discrimination. The problem was the word “sex.” Her secretary pointed out that like a dog distracted by a squirrel, the male justices were no doubt distracted from Ruth’s argument by the constant repetition of the word. From then on Ruth used the term “gender discrimination,” which stuck and is now used in court.
Ruth’s radicalism ﬂies under the ﬂag of 1950s-era good manners; it’s hard to believe a woman so genteel and soft-spoken is such a mighty litigator. Her mother-in-law once advised her that the key to a happy marriage was sometimes pretending to be a little deaf; Ruth has said the same applies to being a female Supreme Court justice. “When a thoughtless or unkind word is spoken, best to tune it out,” she observed. “Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”
Dahlia Lithwick, in her Slate story tracing the rise of the Internet meme “Notorious RBG,” wrote, “Ginsburg was so institution-minded and retiring in her ﬁrst decade at the high court that it was often diﬃcult to reconcile her presence with the monster Supreme Court litigator whose work . . . would reshape U.S. gender law forever. Yet, on and oﬀ the bench, Ginsburg always looked and sounded like the most dangerous weapon she could possibly be carrying would be a potato kugel.” Proving, in case there was any doubt, that you don’t need to possess the strapping badass countenance of Xena Warrior Princess to be a truly, deeply diﬃcult woman.
Of everything Ruth Bader Ginsburg must have imagined when she was appointed to the Supreme Court, I’m conﬁdent that being a pop culture sensation was not on the list. Shana Knizhnik, a law student at New York University in 2013, was inspired by Ruth’s recent dissenting opinions. In 2006, when Sandra Day O’Connor retired, Ruth didn’t like being the only woman on the court (she would be the lone woman for three years, until the appointment of Sonia Sotomayor in 2009). She began to see that a lot of the work she had done for gender equality was starting to erode. Over the years, her dissenting opinions became positively scathing. She would read them to the court in her soft little voice. To some, I imagine this seemed out of character. Tiny, unassuming Justice Ginsburg! I don’t think writing and delivering these historic opinions required the summoning of untapped reserves of strength and chutzpah. By this time Ruth had spent her entire life battling for her own right to excel. Without knowing it, she’d been in training for just this moment.
Knizhnik followed Ruth’s dissents, became inspired, and started a blog on Tumblr called Notorious R.B.G. (with apologies to the late rapper Biggie Smalls, also known as the Notorious B.I.G.) and subtitled Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in all her glory. The blog went viral (with a name like that how could it not?), Knizhnik whipped up some cool T-shirts, and an Internet sensation was born. The tattoos, Halloween costumes, coloring books, greeting cards, mugs, and tarot cards were not far behind. In 2015, Knizhnik and MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon published a saucy biography, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It became a New York Times best seller.
The media also become interested in RBG’s fashion choices. Ruth is known for sprucing up her somber black judge’s robe with a collection of fancy jabots (lace collars). The website Bustle has respectfully suggested the justice might be termed an accessory hoarder. Her day-to-day jabot appears to be a white beaded collar from Cape Town, South Africa: very chic. She sports a black velvet-and-gold jeweled collar on the days she reads the dissenting opinion. It would not be out of place around the neck of Cleopatra, and looks as though it might conceal a tiny dagger. For majority opinions, she busts out a woven gold collar with dangly beads, given to her by her law clerks. The style is a little Harmless Grandma, but it’s probably better, tactically, to come oﬀ as a tiny old lady with a crocheted doily around your neck when you’re handing the losing justices their asses.
Now that she’s captured our cultural imagination, we know things about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that we might not otherwise. She loves opera. She hates to cook (her late husband Marty was the chef in the house). In her 70s she developed a hankering for white-water rafting. She is also digging the attention and keeps a supply of Notorious R.B.G. T-shirts in stock. (She especially loves one that says “You can’t spell truth without Ruth.”) She’s been blunt about her dislike of President Trump. During the election she called him “a faker”—a crazy outburst by her normally low-key standards. She later apologized, but barely. She is notorious, after all.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg—always determined, disciplined, and polite—has become in her great old age, diﬃcult. And the world is loving it.