Notorious RBG
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Notorious RBG

The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Maira Kalman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2009. (© Maira Kalman. Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York.)
Maira Kalman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 2009. (© Maira Kalman. Courtesy Julie Saul Gallery, New York.)

Yoo-hoo, Justice Ginsburg, welcome to the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.

“Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” has arrived for its East Coast premier at the National Museum of American Jewish History on historic Independence Mall in Philadelphia.

The informative retrospective looks at biographical moments that have defined who is Justice Ginsburg and spotlights her six-decade career “to make the USA ‘a more perfect Union.’” It is the right exhibition of the right person at the right moment in the right place. This inspirational show will remain on view here through January 12, 2020; it then will continue on a multi-city tour, traveling well into 2021.

Courtroom sketch of Justice Ginsburg’s dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, June 25, 2013. (SKETCH BY ART LIEN)

The family-friendly presentation with interactives was developed by Cate Thurston, an associate curator at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. She worked in close partnership with Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik, who co-authored the best-seller book of the same title, bringing “the exhibition from the page to the gallery wall.”

Although “Notorious RBG” initially opened at the Skirball a year ago, Josh Perelman, the chief curator and director of exhibitions and interpretation at NMAJH, acknowledged the unique significance of this venue, just a block from Independence Hall. At the Philadelphia preview, Perelman said: “RBG stands for justice, expanding the promises to all Americans that were enshrined in that building across the street from us.”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 86, is only five feet, one inch in height, yet the Supreme Court Justice walks tall as she champions “equal protection of the law” and the “growth potential of those values.” Ms. Carmon emphasized: “We want people to understand Justice Ginsburg both as an individual whose work to achieve justice and equality is ongoing — and see her in the context of movements and historical forces that inspired and shaped her.”

“We want everyone to be inspired by Justice Ginsburg’s work,” Ms. Knizhnik added.

RBG and Marty with their daughter, Jane, in 1958. (Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

RGB, who was appointed by President Bill Clinton, was the second woman — and the first Jewish woman — to sit on the Supreme Court. Her “Jewish faith has helped guide her towards justice — and kept her questioning,” Ms. Carmon said. The words “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” the admonition in the Book of Deuteronomy (16:18), is kept framed in Justice Ginsburg’s chambers. In a recent email, Ms. Carmon also noted: “For the opening of the court’s session this fall, she wore a collar by the Jewish artist Marcy Epstein with the word ‘Tzedek’” — justice — “woven into it.”

As a result of several fiery and momentous dissents from the Supreme Court bench in June 2013, Justice Ginsburg has been admired as a powerful voice, speaking to an audience that goes well beyond her fellow justices. This swagger triggered the nickname Notorious RBG, a moniker that references Notorious B.I.G., the celebrated rapper who also came from Brooklyn. Justice Ginsburg truly has become an American pop culture icon.

Writing in the New York Times, columnist Thomas Friedman described the reception given to Justice Ginsburg at the National Symphony Orchestra’s opening concert in late September. “It was extraordinary,” he wrote. “This was a spontaneous, bipartisan expression of respect, and longing for, a national leader of integrity and humility.” Similarly, on the telephone from her office at NPR, Nina Totenberg, the network’s legal affairs correspondent, theorized that in this “polarized and cynical time” many “look up to her character and dignity … someone who has stood for women’s rights and is a pioneer of women’s rights.”

In December, Justice Ginsburg will receive the prestigious 2019 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture, with its $1 million award. It will be in recognition of the truth that she has been “a lifelong trailblazer for human rights and gender equality” and “a constant voice for justice, equal and accessible to all.”

At the entrance of the exhibit, on the museum’s fifth floor, visitors are greeted with the official Supreme Court portrait of Justice Ginsburg, and they can see a black robe adorned with her signature lace jabot — a white collar — that is on loan from the RBG’s judicial wardrobe. The oil painting and the collar give Justice Ginsburg a visceral presence as the show goes behind the bench to focus on the compelling aspects of her life and her trailblazing professional career.

Above, Ruth Bader Ginsberg as a federal appeals court judge, 1980. (Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

The exhibition, whose walls are painted red, blue, and green — RBG! — is arranged in a chronological circle, so the visitor begins and ends with Shelby County v. Holder, the 5-4 decision that swept away federal protections (preclearance by states with a history of discrimination) in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Justice Ginsburg, wearing a sparkling bejeweled collar that looks “fitting for dissent,” delivered a strongly worded “dissent from the bench to sound the alarm,” saying that the removal of such protections was akin to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

From her beginnings as “a very lucky girl who grew up in Brooklyn” to becoming the subject of a Hollywood movie and an internet sensation, the exhibit gives us a glimpse of the evolution of this American superhero. With archival photographs, historic artifacts (do not miss the silver ERA charm bracelet by the suffragette Alice Paul), and contemporary art, as well as listening stations — and also home movie and video clips — visitors see documentary evidence of the ways in which Justice Ginsburg has been tenacious in her defense of constitutional rights, supporting equality for all.

There are two exhibits that replicate important, intimate places in her private life: the living room of the Bader home in Brooklyn, and the kitchen of the Ginsburg home, where the Justice’s husband prepared family meals and made cakes from scratch to celebrate the birthdays of his wife’s law clerks. A third three-dimensional display near the end of the exhibition is the recreation of the Justice’s pad-strewn desk from the Supreme Court Chambers, providing a glimpse of her professional side.

This “hyperreal recreation” of RBG’s desk as it is right now in her Supreme Court Office. (COURTESY FRED B. ADELSON)

When they are at Cornell, we learn at the exhibit, Ruth Bader met Martin Ginsburg; Marty became Ruth’s life partner, and her unwavering source of support. There is a quote by their daughter, Jane, who matter-of-factly reveals her parents’ fluid gender roles: “Mommy does the thinking, and Daddy does the cooking.” At the press preview, Ms. Carmon mentioned that RBG had recalled: “Marty was the only boy who cared that I had a brain.” Interestingly, Mr. Perelman interjected that Ruth and Marty were married in 1954. That year marked the 300th anniversary of the first Jews’ arrival in colonial America.

Just days before Marty lost his battle with cancer in 2010, when he was in hospital, he wrote a touching note on yellow-lined paper: “My dearest Ruth — you are the only person I have loved in my life…. What a treat it has been to watch you progress to the very top of the legal world!” (The exhibit includes a copy of that note.)

RBG’s ascendancy to the Supreme Court certainly was not easy. As a woman, a mother, and a Jew, she had three strikes against her. Although Justice Ginsburg had graduated at the top of her class at Columbia Law School in 1959, no law firm would hire her. Nonetheless, her legal career began with a teaching appointment at Rutgers School of Law — Newark. That made her the second female professor “on a faculty of about 25,” she said. She taught at Rutgers from 1963 to 1972.

During her first year there, she unexpectedly became pregnant; she had to conceal the pregnancy by wearing her mother-in-law’s clothing. She rightfully was worried that the pregnancy could jeopardize her faculty position. She gave birth to a son at the very end of the summer break, and was able to return to the classroom without repercussion.

By the mid-1960s, Rutgers Law was becoming a “leader in the defense of constitutional rights” and a progressive force in social consciousness. For some, it seemed like “Berkeley East.” It was known as “the People’s Electric Law School,” as remembered by William Hodes, a student of RBG’s in the class of 1969 who became a legal ethics scholar and a law professor; he’s now retired from Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law. In 1996, Mr. Hodes took a sabbatical from his teaching post and went to Washington as “our most seasoned law clerk,” Justice Ginsburg quipped.

Professor Ginsburg typically taught civil procedure (aka “Remedies”), a basic requirement but not an especially riveting subject of the first-year curriculum. Kenneth Abrams, one of her students from the class of 1970, confided that classmates privately referred to their professor as “Ruthie Remedies.” She also taught conflict law, another important core course.

As a young academic in the late 1960s in Newark, RBG became involved with the ACLU of New Jersey and took on discrimination cases with “fierce determination.” These experiences affected her seminar topics, bringing her outside litigation into the classroom. At Rutgers, in 1970, she established the “Women’s Rights Law Reporter, “the first legal periodical in the country to focus exclusively on the field of women’s legal rights.”

Marjorie Gelb Jones, who had Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a professor at Rutgers and was one of only a handful of female law students in the class of 1968, said in a telephone conversation from her home in Philadelphia: “Justice Ginsburg was an inspiration but didn’t come across as notorious. Who knew?”

It may seem curious that Justice Ginsburg enjoyed a close friendship with Antonin Scalia (1936-2016), the darling of conservatives and her polar opposite on the Supreme Court. Despite their ideological differences on most constitutional matters, they were best buddies, who often traveled together. A photograph sits on the desk in her museum-recreated judicial chamber. It’s a picture of the two Supreme Court justices atop an elephant. It was taken during a visit to India the two justices made in 1994. In the photo, Justice Ginsburg is perched behind Justice Scalia. Some of RBG’s female friends were upset by her seemingly submissive placement at the back. But, with understatement and considerable wit, she explained their positions. “It has to do with distribution of weight,” she said.

Justice Antonin Scalia and RBG riding an elephant, 1994. (Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States)

Considering her age and her health, the real elephant in this exhibition is Justice Ginsburg’s mortality. In an interview at the National Book Festival in Washington this August, Justice Ginsburg proclaimed, “I am alive!

“I love my job,” she continued. “It has kept me going though four cancer bouts. Somehow, I have to surmount whatever is going on in my body and concentrate on the court’s work.”


What: The exhibition “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg”

Where: At the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall East (corner of fifth and Market streets) in Philadelphia

When: From now through January 12; it’s open from Mondays to Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Admission: Free to museum members, to children 12 and under, and to active military members with ID; it’s $9 for everyone else.

For more information: Go to nmajh.org or call (215) 923-3811

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