Justice Ginsburg gives life to a legend

Author: Andrea Vale


“She is known to cry at operas, to sing in the shower,” Fr. John Jenkins described as he introduced the crowd to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,  “She is known the world over as the Notorious RBG,” he added, to raucous applause and cheers.

“A Conversation with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg” was held Monday night in the Joyce Center. During the “Conversation,” Ginsburg answered several questions from Judge Ann Williams, before answering a few from students towards the end of the program.

The sold-out crowd filling the Joyce Center was almost entirely comprised of ND students, and maintained a buzzing vibe similar to a concert. It might be befuddling to some to see an elderly legal legend attract such a youthful following, especially considering that Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s visit to campus last year was held in a significantly smaller auditorium in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. But when a Tumblr post a few years back coined the term “Notorious RBG,” featuring a photograph of Ginsburg looking particularly stern, the idea of Ginsburg as an elderly yet hip justice spiraled into a wide following of additional Tumblr posts, t-shirts, and memes — none of which are words one would normally associate with an aging icon of women’s rights and legal equality.

How does a Supreme Court justice — and an 83-year-old one, at that — become a youth cultural icon? Justice Ginsburg quickly made it clear that she is in on the joke.

“I do know where the Notorious RBG came from: a rapper,” Ginsburg said. “And we have something terrific in common — we were both born and raised in Brooklyn, New York!”

Not only is Ginsburg in on the joke, she gives it life. The entire Notorious RBG shtick pinpoints its humor on an unassuming, perhaps even crabby octogenarian put up against ridiculously profane youth culture. But in reality the concept can’t work as a joke, only a celebration, because RBG is anything but a crabby old woman. In 2012, The Onion published an article that based its humor in exactly those concepts of Ginsburg, the gag being that 83-year-old Ginsburg threw a wild, booze-fueled party at her house. But that parody falls flat, because Ginsburg is that saucy and lively.  Many characterize Ginsburg in their minds as a caricature of equal fervor and hilarity, but in person, both traits are all too real.

As both she and Judge Williams led the audience through Ginsburg’s life story, she continually caused the crowd to erupt into uproarious laughter.

Ginsburg opened by describing her favorite childhood books. In contrast to Jane of Dick and Jane’s “pretty dresses,” Nancy Drew “was a do-er and an act-er,” Ginsburg said. “Her boyfriend mostly did what she wanted him to do, and I liked that!”

And on the marriage advice she received on her wedding day: “Sometimes it helps to be a little deaf.”

But alongside the hilarious Ruth Bader Ginsburg, there’s the other Ruth Bader Ginsburg — equally self-assured, whose reputation commands respect and whose name, headlining an event, filled hundreds of seats in minutes.

She described meeting her now-late husband Martin Ginsburg, whom she met in college, as “the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain.”

During college, she recalled being told that “women are really not wanted by the law” — and so she became a teacher for a few years instead.

Years later, as a student at Harvard Law School, she was one of only nine women in a class of over 500 men. While struggling to balance motherhood and her studies at the same time that her husband was studying law, Ginsburg was invited to the dean’s home for dinner, during which he asked her to justify why she, a woman, was at law school.

“I think it’s very important for a woman to understand her husband’s work,” Ginsburg recalled answering sarcastically.

After graduating, Ginsburg found herself rejected by 14 law firms, because, as she noted, she had four strikes against her: She was married, a woman, had a baby and was Jewish.

“A few law firms would take a chance on a woman, but none would take a chance on a mother,” Ginsburg described.

And decades later, as a Supreme Court justice, Ginsburg was diagnosed with cancer. She described how she scheduled her chemotherapy treatments for Fridays, so that she could be back in court on Monday. She never missed a day on the bench.

“I couldn’t dwell on the aches and pains,” Ginsburg said simply. “I just had to do the job.”

Ginsburg’s humor was sharp and knowingly biting, and her recollections of her career were succinct, powerful and effective.

“I never thought about the possibility of being a judge until 1976 when Jimmy Carter became president,” Ginsburg said, “It would have been an impossible dream.”

At one point, Williams asked her, “When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?”

“When there are nine,” Ginsburg answered coolly.

The enthusiasm of the crowd, be it deafening laughter at all of her jokes or riotous applause at her more touching statements, was practically palpable. It felt like the incarnation of The Notorious RBG — her hilarity, her grandiosity and, above all, the very genuine love the young audience felt for her, were all proven completely real.

At one point, Ginsburg explained that her ultimate Supreme Court opinions are never worded exactly the way she would say them, but that she appreciates the importance of compromise while working within a nine-member court.

“So you’re not Queen Ruth?” Williams asked.

Ginsburg replied, “I’d rather be notorious.”