I don’t know the precise moment when Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States Ruth Bader Ginsburg stepped out of her august robes and lace collar and into the pantheon of popular culture. When this pillar of jurisprudence in the cause of women’s rights turned up as an image on everything from tea towels to spandex leggings. When the first woman honored by her government to lie in state in the US Capitol, became a Hallowe’en costume for little girls. In short, when this dedicated and studious jurist became The Notorious RBG.
The good news is that she fully appreciated the transformation. Her film biographers, Julie Cohen and Betsy West, note that in 2019, when they presented her with an image of herself photoshopped onto the body of a Marvel comics superhero, “RBG giggled with glee—and…a nod of pride.”
Justice as Avenger. Perfect.
None of this, of course, is news to the lawyers and feminists who have long been in awe at her pioneering success in opening doors and forging pathways for us. In fact, when I took a look at a conversation I’d had with her back in 2000, I realized how consistent and revolutionary and utterly charming she has been throughout her career.
In November 2000 I was invited by the New York City Bar Association and NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDEF), to interview RBG in front of a live audience. It was the first of a series of distinguished lectures in her name. At the time, I was still a correspondent at ABC News, and the Court was then just about to deliberate the outcome of the 2000 Bush/Gore election. So I was disappointed that we could not discuss that case, or anything else on her docket. But everything else was on the table, and looking back, I still marvel at what a superstar she has always been.
Our conversation ranged from her then-recent bout with colon cancer (“I am doing just fine”) to her gratitude to President Jimmy Carter for changing the face of the federal judiciary (“a practice of including on the bench people who represent all of the United States”). From the consequences of having two women at the Supreme Court (they created “a women’s bathroom equal in size to the men’s”) to her dismissal of Phyllis Schlafly (read that one yourself). She giggled (and honestly, I guess I didn’t realize that Supreme Court justices giggled) over a newspaper headline calling her “Rude Ruth” and boasted about the t-shirt she and Sandra Day O’Connor, who preceded her, were given, in the face of inevitable but incomprehensible confusion. RBG’s read, “I’m Ruth, not Sandra.”
What strikes me so vividly today is how determined she was throughout her life. “It still takes persistence,” she said to me in 2000, long before we started applauding the women who still persist today. And I am thrilled to recall her support for our foremothers in this year of the Suffrage Centennial. Today some criticize Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others who felt betrayed by the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution – the one giving the vote to freed black male slaves, and to no women of any color. RBG understood the issue: “There were people who said…there were more important things to be done. The women should wait. They should wait until racial injustice is eradicated. …Always, women should wait.”
RBG was never willing to wait.
Except for her turn at the Supreme bench.
She understood that President Ronald Reagan would never appoint her to the court, but was genuinely thrilled when Sandra Day O’Connor broke the legal ceiling in 1981. As for her own elevation to legal stardom a dozen years later, RBG offered this advice to anyone seeking to follow in her tiny but profound footsteps: “Have not a little, but a lot of luck! There are only nine of us, and who the nine will be at any particular point in time depends so much on chance.”
At this fraught time in our history, we are, I fear, running out of luck. And cannot leave her successor to chance. So while I thank you, dear Notorious Justice, for everything you have done, and while I urge all to watch your magic in action, I also urge the rest of us to take direct action. Specifically, to turn out to vote in such massive numbers in November that RGB’s glorious legacy cannot be overturned.
And to maintain the truth of her words to me: “We are here to stay, and in all our diversity.”