January 15, 2016

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg

by Shana Knizhnik, co-author and founder of the Notorious RBG Tumblr

In late June 2013, as in every June, the Supreme Court decided a number of high-stakes cases. A majority of the Court threatened the future of affirmative action, made it more difficult to seek redress for employment discrimination, and gutted the Voting Rights Act, one of the most important pieces of civil rights legislation in the history of the United States. In each of these cases, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg used her voice to stand up and speak out on behalf of the rights of the disenfranchised, dissenting from the bench to protest the actions of the majority. As an incoming second-year law student, I was appalled at what the court was doing. But amidst that anger, RBG’s words stood out as a shining beacon, exemplifying the egalitarian and inclusive values I knew were embodied in the Constitution. I took to the internet, and Notorious RBG was born on Tumblr.

As it turns out, RBG has been speaking out for the marginalized for most of her life. In Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, reporter Irin Carmon and I explain how RBG has captured the imagination of so many—from t-shirts to embroidery, music videos to nail art—but also why. RBG’s popularity represents so much more than just a fascination with a cool grandma (although she certainly has that going for her). In a time where rights many Americans take for granted are on the chopping block, RBG refuses to back down from her life’s mission: the continued expansion of “We the People.” We believe that this book, like the Notorious RBG phenomenon itself, draws a broad, inter-generational audience into the important work of the Court.

We chart the course of this extraordinary woman’s journey, uncovering details and artifacts that bring the Supreme Court justice to life. RBG grew up in Brooklyn at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant—an experience that helped shape her passion for social justice. She experienced the tragic loss of both her sister and her mother, who put her hopes and dreams into her daughter’s education and passed away the day before young Ruth’s high school graduation. As one of nine women in her class at Harvard Law, Ginsburg was asked to justify taking the spot of a man, but ended up on top. She co-founded the Women’s Rights Project of the ACLU, crafting the legal strategy that changed the legal status of women under the United States Constitution. She shared a life with a brilliant, gregarious man who was never intimidated by her intelligence or success, who shared equally in the responsibilities of raising two children, and who supported and pushed her forward to achieve all that she could up until the day he died. She made history as the second woman appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, ultimately amplifying her voice in the face of a conservative shift that threatened the very gains for which she had spent her career fighting.

So much of RBG’s life has been defined by her work. We examine RBG’s revolutionary vision for gender equality through the cases that fought not only for women’s liberation, but (as she herself puts it) for men’s and women’s liberation. We show how the cautious incrementalist and the radical egalitarian are in fact one in the same. We celebrate her commitment to championing the causes of the voiceless, all while giving credit to those on whose shoulders she stood.

Ultimately, as our nation faces the unfinished business of equality and justice for all, we hope to inspire readers of all generations to be a little more like RBG, and use their talents to help move our society forward. RBG shows us all how much is possible with a little chutzpah. And if you don’t know, now you know.