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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sitting in a high-backed chair in front of a fireplace and below a large portrait.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg photographed on the occasion of her 20th anniversary on the bench in 2013.
Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post/Getty Images

“The slight figure alone at the big table”: The enduring image of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The Supreme Court justice was a brilliant legal mind. The way she presented herself was important, too.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, in the summer of 1993, was a no-drama affair. As a judge on the DC Circuit of the US Court of Appeals, Ginsburg had a reputation for her quiet, almost retreating demeanor, her meticulousness, and her preference for building consensus rather than defining herself by one political ideology or another. This controlled sensibility was on full televised display as she was questioned by the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by chair Joe Biden.

“If there is such a thing as a judicial temperament and it can be recognized on the screen, Judge Ginsburg surely has it. The unshowy mien; the moderate language; the carefully focused answers; the disinclination or inability to break into arias,” reported the New York Times in a story analyzing Ginsburg’s presentation during her confirmation hearing.

“Although no reviewer has suggested that Judge Ginsburg is a show-stopper, she grows on you,” the article read. “There was something moving about the slight figure alone at the big table, with husband, children and grandchildren basking behind her.”

Ginsburg in her signature large glasses, statement jewelry, and low ponytail affixed with a scrunchie at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 1993.
Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma/Getty Images

In its coverage of Ginsburg’s career until this point — from her hiring as Columbia Law School’s first full-time female professor to her sex discrimination arguments before the Supreme Court to her nomination to the DC appellate court by President Carter — the Times had paid Ginsburg’s physical appearance little mind. Women are disproportionately assessed for their looks rather than professional accomplishments, and perhaps the newspaper purposely refrained from describing her as a very small woman occupying a series of increasingly big jobs. But when she was appointed as the second-ever female Supreme Court Justice, the biggest of big jobs, the image proved too powerful to ignore.

Ginsburg died September 18 at the age of 87, following complications from pancreatic cancer. In her later years, her physicality was a key piece of how we, the public, understood her. In her 80s, Ginsburg became a feminist and liberal avatar, her likeness immortalized on T-shirts and mugs and as an action figure. We knew the oversize glasses, the big earrings, the scrunchies, the distinctive collars she paired with her black robes, including the glittering neckpiece she wore to issue dissenting opinions. We knew that “slight figure,” which grew smaller with age.

“She does look vulnerable — she is this tiny little person — and that is somehow in contrast with being the ferocious defender of minorities and women and certain kinds of ideals,” said NPR’s Nina Totenberg in RBG, a 2018 Oscar-nominated documentary about the justice’s life.

What the New York Times wrote in July 1993 rings true decades later: There was something moving about the sight of Ginsburg, especially to women and to anyone who had ever felt underestimated. Despite graduating at the top of her class from Columbia Law School, tied for first place, she couldn’t get a job at a law firm because she was a woman. Nevertheless, Ginsburg advanced to the highest position in her field, arguing cases that advanced gender equality along the way. Her visible femininity — those lace collars and scrunchies — made her all the more compelling, emphasizing her presence as a woman on the court and the challenges she overcame to get there. Her smallness only underscored her intellectual might.

Ginsburg embraced her meme status, even carrying a tote featuring her likeness at a 2017 event at Georgetown University.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Critics questioned whether it was prudent to turn a Supreme Court Justice into a superhero in the way we did with Ginsburg, or if it was belittling to transform one of our greatest legal minds into a keychain bobble. It may have been. But with so few women in this country with real power, Ginsburg’s image resonates. A woman like Ruth Bader Ginsburg becomes the person on whom other women project their most ardent hopes, dreams, and fears — a sense of identification only magnified by its rarity.

An increasingly conservative Supreme Court changed how we perceive Ginsburg

The perception of Ginsburg as a dissenting liberal firebrand developed relatively late in her career. It was facilitated in part by changes in her voice as a Supreme Court justice, but more so by a shifting court.

When President Carter was weighing nominating Ginsburg to the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, a high-profile position and a feeder to the Supreme Court, there was concern that she was too liberal for the job. Liberalism itself was not the issue; the problem was that Carter had already named a number of left-wing judges.

“There was a long, anxious period in which she really wondered if she was going to get the appointment,” Jane De Hart, the author of the 2018 biography Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Life, told Vox in an interview before Ginsburg’s death.

President Bill Clinton and Ginsburg walk to the White House Rose Garden to announce her nomination to the Supreme Court.
David Ake/AFP/Getty Images

Ginsburg felt that she had a neutralizing job to do when she started as an appellate court judge in 1980, so she staked out a position as a centrist, a judge’s judge. She prized collegiality and bridged political differences, famously becoming good friends with the late Antonin Scalia, a fellow opera lover and her colleague on both the DC Circuit and later on the Supreme Court.

That moderate reputation propelled her onto the Supreme Court in 1993. Announcing Ginsburg’s nomination in the Rose Garden of the White House that June, President Clinton said, “I believe that in the years ahead she will be able to be a force for consensus-building on the Supreme Court, just as she has been on the Court of Appeals, so that our judges can become an instrument of our common unity in the expression of their fidelity to the Constitution.”

In the Rose Garden, Ginsburg wore a cobalt blue double-breasted suit dress with teal and red accents on the pockets. On the first day of her confirmation hearing, she wore a jacket in nearly the same shade of blue, with a high, rounded collar and bright silver buttons running down the front; the following day, she wore a leopard-print shirt under a blue blazer. They were eye-catching outfits, but ones conservative enough for stuffy Washington. It’s clear that Ginsburg took joy in clothing, as many women do — she wasn’t one to shy away from color, pattern, or a good glove in her nonjudicial wardrobe — and while she didn’t dampen her sense of style when the spotlight was on her, she didn’t peacock, either.

An off-duty Ginsburg reads to a group of children in honor of Reading Rainbow’s 10th anniversary.
Wally McNamee/Corbis/Getty Images

Clinton’s prediction held true, at least at first. When Ginsburg dissented with the Court’s opinion, she did so using neutral language and an impersonal air, eschewing the personal, fiery style of justices like Scalia. But with the confirmations of John Roberts in 2005 and Samuel Alito in 2006, the Supreme Court took a marked turn for the conservative during President George W. Bush’s administration. This change in the dynamic of the court, which persisted into the Obama and Trump eras, pushed Ginsburg in an increasingly liberal direction.

“She really, I think, was quite frustrated with the direction of the court,” said De Hart.

Ginsburg began dissenting more frequently than before, and in a different, more pointed way. Her dissents were still reasoned and rooted in precedent, but they were no longer so neutral. She started issuing zingers that went viral. During oral arguments for United States v. Windsor in 2013, she said the Defense of Marriage Act created two classes of marriage for gay and straight couples: “full marriage, and then this sort of skim milk marriage.” In her dissent to 2013’s Shelby County v. Holder ruling, which effectively dismantled states’ requirement to get federal preclearance before changing their voting laws, thus potentially enabling voter suppression, Ginsburg wrote: “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.”

This is when Ginsburg started becoming a larger-than-life pop culture hero. A wave of dissents, and particularly Ginsburg’s dissent in Shelby County, inspired an NYU law student named Shana Knizhnik to start a Tumblr called “Notorious RBG,” named in reference to the late rapper Biggie Smalls, also known as the Notorious B.I.G. The blog blew up, the name took hold, and photoshopped images of Ginsburg in a crown like Biggie’s spread across the internet.

Ginsburg, along with Sandra Day O’Connor, wore feminine jabots with her black robes during her early days on the Court.
Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma/Getty Images
Ginsburg later chose more stylized collars.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
And no collar would be complete without a scrunchie.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images

“It is a pretty marked contrast to her reputation on the DC Circuit, and even during the Rehnquist Court,” said De Hart. “I don’t think it’s that her basic views changed that much, but the Court changed.”

While certain key elements of Ginsburg’s self-presentation also remained the same — the big glasses, the big earrings, the low ponytail in a scrunchie — the collars that she wore with her black court robes evolved over time. Earlier in her Supreme Court career she was often seen in a white lace collar, or “jabot,” which gave a feminized spin to the judge’s uniform. (“The standard robe is made for a man, because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie. So Sandra Day O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman,” Ginsburg explained in an archival clip included in the RBG documentary.) Her collection of collars grew in number and style, most notably with the addition in 2012 of a somewhat rock-’n’-roll Banana Republic necklace that she wore to offer dissenting opinions.

Or to dissent more generally. It’s what Ginsburg wore on the bench following President Trump’s election, presumably as a silent form of protest.

As Ginsburg became a pop culture icon, her image turned into a meme and a merchandising opportunity

With notoriety came many, many products bearing Ginsburg’s likeness. The earliest burst of Ginsburg-inspired merchandise started in 2012 or 2013, the journalist Irin Carmon, who co-wrote Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Knizhnik, told Vox.

“Most of what initially followed was spontaneous and relatively uncommercial — people making nail art and zines and needlepoint, tattooing themselves. It’s gotten much bigger in the past couple of years,” Carmon wrote in an email in February 2019.

Shana Khizhnik and Irin Carmon, authors of Notorious RBG, sell merch with Ginsburg styled like rapper Notorious B.I.G.
Notorious RBG
These pins are just one of many Ginsburg-themed items sold on Etsy and beyond.
TheCardBureau/Etsy

This cottage industry spanned fairly faithful representations of the justice — in the form of enamel pins, say — and giant leaps of imagination, like a T-shirt with a drawing of Ginsburg throwing up two middle fingers. Her “dissent collar” was replicated as a necklace, a baby onesie, and an adult-size T-shirt. You could find Ginsburg’s face in the splotches of a leopard-print shirt.

Meanwhile, fans routinely dressed up as Ginsburg on Halloween, a tradition that, like the business of Ginsburg paraphernalia, is unlikely to dissipate anytime soon. Kate McKinnon portrayed her with feisty swagger on Saturday Night Live starting in 2015, issuing lines like, “That’s a third degree Gins-burn!” Asked during the RBG documentary whether McKinnon’s impression reminded her of herself, Ginsburg said with a laugh, “Not one bit. Except for the collar.” Did accuracy matter? Ginsburg was bigger than herself by that time, the subject of a stirring 2018 biopic called On the Basis of Sex starring the British actress Felicity Jones.

Ginsburg was perfect fodder for impersonations, posters, and costumes because her style was so consistent and recognizable, with the glasses, the lace collars, and the earrings. And there was something else at play: a delight in upending societal attitudes toward aging women by celebrating this little 85-year-old as a badass. For younger women who feared the judgment and invisibility that can come with age, expressing enthusiasm about Ginsburg seemed to bolster all women’s futures.

Kate McKinnon’s Saturday Night Live portrayal of Ginsburg of course involved glasses, collars, and earrings.
Dana Edelson/NBC/Getty Images

A woman’s public image is a complicated thing, though, and some worried that idolatry could slip into condescension. Wrote Jill Lepore in the New Yorker:

Trivialization—R.B.G.’s workout tips! her favorite lace collars!—is not tribute. Female heroes are in short supply not because women aren’t brave but because female bravery is demeaned, no kind more than intellectual courage. Isn’t she cute? Ginsburg was and remains a scholar, an advocate, and a judge of formidable sophistication, complexity, and, not least, contradiction and limitation. It is no kindness to flatten her into a paper doll and sell her as partisan merch.

When I asked Carmon about the line between expressing enthusiasm for Ginsburg’s work and turning her into a commodity, she said she didn’t have a problem with people wearing Ginsburg-themed T-shirts. She and Knizhnik have sold products with the image of Ginsburg in a crown.

“There are some products that I’ve flinched at when they come my way — if they seem disrespectful, if they evince absolutely zero connection to the causes that RBG stands for or are super-corporate with no significant charitable component,” wrote Carmon. “But I also think it’s easy to mock something because women (young or any age) like it, and wrong to assume that just because someone drinks out of an RBG mug they know nothing about the Supreme Court.”

De Hart, too, sees a seriousness in young people’s fascination with Ginsburg. A subcategory within the Ginsburg merch market are products that say something along the lines of “Ruth Is the Truth.” Younger Americans, De Hart said, responded to Ginsburg’s integrity at a time when there didn’t seem to be a great deal of it among politicians. She was appealing precisely because she wasn’t a politician, because her impressive career was built on the opposite of bluster and falsehoods. Hers was a contained presence, with jabs and style artfully deployed.

Ginsburg arrives to President Barack Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress in 2009.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Getty Images

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