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Notorious RBG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s journey from ACLU lawyer to pop culture icon

tidyboom | Notorious R.B.G.

Among young people today, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is seen as more than a Supreme Court Justice — she's a cultural icon. That couldn't have been clearer this past Friday, as Ginsburg look-alikes gathered outside the Supreme Court to celebrate the 5-4 decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Although she didn't pen the majority opinion, Ginsburg has been seen as the "hero" of the movement, and one of the primary reasons many more Americans can join in matrimony today.

Ginsburg is currently the court's most popular justice overall, despite being the least popular among Republicans, according to a recent Public Policy Polling survey. Ginsburg's biggest fans are often younger, with 42 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds viewing her favorably, compared with a base rate of 36 percent for all ages.

There is no shortage of Ginsburg merchandise you can find to show support for the liberal justice — from cookies to T-shirts to emojis, the internet has it all. There is even a rather catchy acoustic cover of Ginsburg's famed dissent in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision.

Before she was an icon, who was Ruth Bader?

Ginsburg was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933. (Little did she know that several decades later, Christopher Wallace, a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G., would be born in that same borough, thereby constituting one of the few things Ginsburg and her meme's namesake have in common.)

After high school, Ginsburg matriculated to Cornell where, she told the audience in a 2014 talk at Cornell, she was one of about seven Jewish women at the Ivy League university — and they were all housed along the same corridor.

Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

(Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

It's possible that Ginsburg's famous zest for equality took root at Cornell. While recounting her experiences as an undergraduate, Ginsburg explained how she worked with professor Robert Cushman researching Hollywood blacklists of potential communist sympathizers. She also saw the devastating impacts of McCarthyism firsthand, as a beloved Cornell professor was barred from teaching because of ties to a socialist group more than 20 years prior.

After graduating Cornell University in 1954, Ginsburg followed her husband, Martin D. Ginsburg, to Harvard Law School, where she was one of just nine women in attendance.

When Martin decided to practice law in New York City, Ruth Ginsburg and their daughter moved with him, and Ginsburg finished her final year of law school at Columbia first in her class.

Despite her academic achievements, Ginsburg had difficulty finding jobs out of Columbia. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter famously turned her down for a position as his law clerk because of her gender. By her count, 41 firms rejected her application. Discrimination was still common in the legal practice, as Ginsburg explained: "The traditional law firms were just beginning to turn around on hiring Jews. But to be a woman, a Jew, and a mother to boot — that combination was a bit too much."

So instead of going corporate, Ginsburg returned to academia: first at Rutgers, then at Columbia, where she became school's first tenured female professor in 1972.

What did Ginsburg do before her time on the Supreme Court?

As general counsel for the ACLU in the 1970s, Ginsburg was known as the Thurgood Marshall of women's causes. Although she only appeared before the Supreme Court in six cases (a small number in comparison to Chief Justice John Roberts's 39), all six were major civil rights cases that changed the landscape of gender equality.

However, one of Ginsburg's first — and perhaps most important — gender discrimination cases wasn't even for the Supreme Court.

Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue was a 1972 gender discrimination case decided by the 10th Circuit. The plaintiff, Charles Moritz, was a bachelor paying for the care of his aging mother — an expense that if Moritz were a woman would have been tax-deductible. But because Moritz was a bachelor, the law at the time did not consider him eligible for such a deduction. While all women were eligible for the deduction, men had to meet additional criteria (such as being a widower or divorcé).

Ginsburg's husband, a tax lawyer, convinced her to take the case, and together they won the decision on behalf of Moritz. The trial will reportedly be featured in the upcoming Ginsburg biopic On the Basis of Sex, written by Ginsburg's nephew, Daniel Stiepleman. The film stars Natalie Portman as Ginsburg, and — perhaps in homage to the feminist icon — Portman reportedly stalled the development of the film until a woman director could be found to lead it.

What was so important about a tax deduction case that didn't even make it to the Supreme Court? The Ginsburg win in Moritz provided "a gift beyond price."

After the 10th Circuit ruled in favor of Moritz, the government tried — and failed — to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. Attached to the petition was a list of hundreds of other statutes that similarly differentiated on the basis of sex. This list provided the starting point for some of Ginsburg's most famous Supreme Court cases, as she worked through the list little by little to chip away at institutionalized gender discrimination.

Ginsburg also wrote the brief in Reed v. Reed, which marked the first time the Supreme Court used the 14th Amendment to invalidate a law that discriminated against women.

Many of the cases Ginsburg argued as founder and director of the ACLU Women’s Rights Project involved men who appeared to be the victims of sex-based legal distinctions. It is perhaps this tactic, which may have appealed to the all-male Court, that allowed Ginsburg to win five of her six appearances in front of America's highest court.

In Califano v. Goldfarb, Ginsburg won the case for the appellee,

widower Leon Goldfarb in 1976. Goldfarb's late wife had paid into Social Security during her working life. After her death, Goldfarb tried to apply for Social Security survivor's benefits, only to find that he was ineligible for benefits because as a man he had to meet additional criteria that women did not have to meet. Ginsburg argued that the law was based on a "stereotypical assumption that earnings of men are vital to the family and earnings of women are not," and since Leon Goldfarb's wife had paid into Social Security, it was discriminatory for the agency not to pay out to her husband the way they would to the spouse of an "identically situated male worker."

In her last appearance before the Supreme Court as a litigator, Ginsburg argued for the appellant in Duren v. Missouri. Billy Duren, a convicted murderer, believed that his Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial were violated because women — and not men — were eligible for special exemption from jury duty. Ginsburg took the case on Duren's behalf, in order to eliminate the female-only exemption and increase equal representation on the jury bench.

Her case rested on the assumption that Duren, because his jury had fewer women than the general population, was at a disadvantage and skewed jury deliberations. Listening to the oral arguments in the case today, it is slightly jarring to hear Ginsburg arguing for the existence of this certain "indefinable something" — as she put it — that women bring to a jury panel. As Justice John Paul Stevens said in response, "That sounds kind of like a stereotype answer to me." But perhaps it just shows how far the country has come around in its views on gender in the past 40 years.

A modern fairy-tale romance

There's something so archaic about articles on brilliant women that focus on their married life. But Ginsburg's 56-year marriage to her husband gives great insight not only to her successes in the courtroom but also her rise to cultural icon.

In an age when many women (and growing numbers of men) struggle to balance work with duties at home, it can be refreshing to hear advice from someone as successful as Ginsburg. The Washington Post put together a list of Ginsburg's advice on love and family, cobbled together from interviews she had given over the years. Her advice was refreshingly honest: "You can’t have it all at once. Over my lifespan, I think I have had it all. But in different periods of time, things were rough."

For someone whom the right sees as embodying the paradigmatic liberal, man-hating modern woman, Ginsburg has often expressed an awe-inspiring love for her late husband, whom she often refers to as "my dear Marty." It never ceases to amaze that Ginsburg, in addition to being a brilliant student elected to the Harvard Law Review, found the time to help her husband with coursework while he was bedridden from cancer operations during his final year at law school.

Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States

(Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

The Ginsburgs turned over the traditional gender roles in more than one way. Martin, who Ginsburg has described as her "biggest booster," supported his wife's then-unusual career. When Ruth became an appellate judge in Washington, DC, Martin left his position on Columbia's law faculty — and at a lucrative law firm — for Georgetown University in order to be closer to his wife.

But perhaps the sweetest anecdote of the couple is one that anyone, even those without a JD, can relate to. According to her husband, Ginsburg was a "fairly terrible cook, and for lack of interest unlikely to improve." As a result, she was "banished" from the kitchen, and he was responsible for the traditionally feminine realm of the kitchen. For those looking to emulate Marty and his enviable role as RBG's right-hand man, a cookbook of his recipes is available on the Supreme Court website.

Who started the "Notorious R.B.G." Tumblr, and why?

Ginsburg's recent rise to millennial icon status really took root in 2013, when Shana Knizhnik started the Notorious R.B.G. Tumblr while a student at NYU School of Law ("Notorious" being a reference to the Notorious B.I.G., the celebrated '90s rap superstar.) The blog has also spawned a online shop selling T-shirts, phone cases, and even baby onesies with Ginsburg's face.

smartgirlsattheparty | Notorious R.B.G.

(smartgirlsattheparty/Notorious R.B.G.)

When asked about the popularity of her icon, Knizhnik stated, "People really find her politics powerful, especially in a time when the court is moving to the right in a lot of ways. In recent years, she has really emerged as a central voice on a lot of issues young people especially find to be really important."

Take the issue of same-sex marriage, which the Supreme Court legalized in a close 5-4 ruling. Americans celebrating the victory have Ginsburg in part to thank — during the oral arguments, she tore apart many of the opponents' arguments, and has also been a fierce advocate of marriage equality outside the Court. In 2013, Ginsburg became the first Supreme Court justice to officiate a same-sex marriage ceremony, just a few months after striking down key portions of the Defense of Marriage Act.

Those wanting to read more about the rise of RBG can look forward to Knizhnik's biography, titled Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which she co-wrote with MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon. The book will be released in October. Carmon, who has interviewed Ginsburg in the past, said, "RBG is also one of the few people who actually gets cooler the more you know about her. It's not about idolatry but seeing someone you can admire and, over the course of our reporting and writing the book, learning that there's so much more people don't know about her."

Retirement and health scares

All the memes in the world, however, haven't saved Ginsburg from the specter of retirement.

In the past few years, Democratic supporters have criticized Ginsburg for failing to retire while a Democratic president and Congress were in power. For her part, Ginsburg finds the criticisms silly: "Anybody who thinks that if I step down, Obama could appoint someone like me, they’re misguided."

Part of Ginsburg's cult status is the seeming contradiction between her small frame (she is about 5 feet tall) and her fierce physical resilience. At 82, Ginsburg is currently the court's oldest justice. She has survived two bouts of cancer, one in 1999 and again in 2009.

In spite of that, Ginsburg travels frequently. Longtime friend and fellow SCOTUS Justice Antonin Scalia traveled with her to the French Riviera one summer, where he was amazed to see her try parasailing. "I would never do that," he said.

Ginsburg's impressive stamina seems to plays no small role in her cult status. "We have a particular vision of someone who’s a badass — a 350-pound rapper," Carmon explained, referring to Notorious B.I.G. "And she’s this tiny Jewish grandmother. She doesn’t look like our vision of power, but she’s so formidable, so unapologetic, and a survivor in every sense of the word."

Who is Ginsburg's BFF on the court?

Surprise — it's Antonin Scalia. The two justices, who are often considered to be polar opposites on the bench, are great friends in real life. Scalia himself is an icon on the judicial right for his acerbic opinions and championing of conservative values; a play centered on Scalia opened this year.

Their unlikely friendship has drawn amusement and curiosity — it is mentioned, in some aspect or another, in most of the interviews with the two justices. It could be that the justices' friendship — so successful in spite of the ideological odds — goes against the aggressively partisan divide American has become accustomed to in politics.

The Economist suggested, "Too often, folk on right and left refuse to concede that some problems are hard, so that reasonable people disagree about how to solve them ... But even such polar opposites as Justices Scalia and Ginsburg do not think that the other is stupid. Instead they acknowledge that they simply see the world differently."

Jeff Dionise | ABA

(Jeff Dionise/ABA)

Scalia and Ginsburg have famously bonded over their shared histories in academia (hers at Columbia, his at the University of Chicago), as well as their love of opera. It is fitting, therefore, that opera is the medium in which their friendship will be enshrined. Scalia/Ginsburg, is a new opera by Derrick Wang, a composer with a master's in music from Yale School of Music and a JD from the University of Maryland Carey School of Law.

Speaking of the final duet in the opera, Ginsburg said, "The idea is that there are two people who interpret the Constitution differently yet retain their fondness for each other, and much more than that, their reverence for the institution that employs them."

The opera is opening on July 11, and Ginsburg will be speaking at the event.