She was an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who, at least for the last decade of her life, did not need an introduction. The diminutive—5’ 1”—Ruth Bader Ginsburg was regaled with standing ovations wherever she went, often to her bewilderment. But she was much more than just the “Notorious RBG.” The fullness of her achievements is being recognized by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, which has posthumously given her its Great Americans Award.
Museum Director Anthea Hartig awarded the signature 1.85-ounce gold coin to Ginsburg’s daughter Jane C. Ginsburg and son James S. Ginsburg in a virtual ceremony on March 30. The award, modeled after the 1907 Double Eagle coin designed by sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, has been presented each year since 2016. Recipients have included Madeleine K. Albright, Colin Powell, Tom Brokaw, Cal Ripken Jr., Billie Jean King, Paul Simon and Anthony S. Fauci.
During a recent ceremony, her daughter Jane, a professor at Columbia University Law School, and her son James, founder of a classical music record label in Chicago, reminisced about their mother. They also gave contextual back stories for a trove of objects from Ginsburg’s chambers, including a stack of printed briefs from her own arguments before the court and a nameplate for her library cart, that the family has donated to the museum.
Also in attendance was women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, who honored Ginsburg “for her ground-breaking judicial work, her fierce advocacy for gender equality and her extraordinary leadership in the quest for justice under law.” Ginsburg served on the Supreme Court from 1993 until her death at age 87 on September 18, 2020.
The 20-some objects will be used to “tell more fully the complex history of the United States and Justice Ginsburg’s connections to pivotal moments in women’s history, especially the fight for gender equity,” says Hartig. They may eventually be displayed, but otherwise, once catalogued, will be available for viewing online.
Curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy says that many of the objects “show the connection Justice Ginsburg made with the public,” while others reflect the many aspects of Ginsburg’s life and career, including her pre-Supreme Court legal work, her position as a federal employee and her advocacy for equality.
A parade of equality and justice advocates, along with a handful of celebrities, paid tribute via video to Ginsburg, starting with Jason Carter, who delivered a message on behalf of his grandfather, Jimmy Carter. The former president nominated Ginsburg in 1980 to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts says he had been honored to serve with Ginsburg for 15 of her 27 years at the Supreme Court. “Prior to that, it was my more stressful honor to argue before her as an advocate in the Court,” he says. He remarked upon her long legal career, which began with Ginsburg being one of nine women in a class of more than 500 at Harvard Law School. She was a law professor at Rutgers in the 1960s and a founding attorney with the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberty Union in the 1970s, arguing as lead counsel before the Supreme Court in six cases, winning five. After serving 13 years on the D.C. appeals court, Ginsburg was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1993 to the Supreme Court. “She modeled excellence in the craft for more than four decades on the bench,” says Roberts.
Bryan Stevenson, founder and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, who has argued cases in the Supreme Court, says that while other justices labeled his clients “juveniles” or “delinquents,” Ginsburg would always call them “children.” Ginsburg “had this ability to get people to understand what the truths are,” he says. Years later, she told him to “remember that sometimes you don’t see what you’re doing to make a difference in the world, but you are making a difference,” says Stevenson. “She made an extraordinary difference,” he adds.
Ginsburg was also honored by a host of notable women, including Billie Jean King, Barbara Streisand and Oprah Winfrey, who harkened to a quote from Ginsburg played earlier in the ceremony: “Whatever you choose to do, leave tracks and that means don’t do just for yourself because in the end it’s not going to be fully satisfying. You will want to leave the world a little better for your having lived.”
“Well, RBG, you did just that,” affirms Winfrey. “You left the world a better place.”
Among the items that the Ginsburg family donated were her specially tailored judicial robe from Maison Bosc in Paris and four of the many collars she wore with the gown. Ginsburg and fellow Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—the first woman on the Court—began wearing the collars to feminize the traditionally masculine garment. People occasionally would give Ginsburg collars, but the donations started pouring in after 2013, the year that then-law student Shana Knizhnik started the Notorious R.B.G. blog, recalls Jane Ginsburg.
The Smithsonian received one of her most-widely recognized collars, the “dissent” collar. It was simply a repurposed rhinestone and faux crystal necklace from the retailer Banana Republic that she received in a swag bag at the Glamour Women of the Year Awards in 2012. James Ginsburg described it as a “dour” collar to match his mother’s mood when she had to give a dissenting opinion. The “majority” collar was brighter. Her law clerks purchased the necklace—sunflower-like with its bright yellow beadwork and pendulous small crystal balls—from Anthropologie.
The collars were more than just adornments. They “helped journalists because they would see which collar she came to the courtroom with and know which way the case went,” says James.
One of Ginsburg’s signature dissents was in 2007 in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. The Court ruled 5-4 that Lilly Ledbetter, a 19-year-employee of the tire maker, had waited too long to sue for discriminatory pay, even though a lower court had ruled in her favor. Ginsburg wrote in her dissent that “every new paycheck was a new form of discrimination,” says James, adding that the opinion signaled that Congress needed to fix the imbalance. She wrote that the “ball is now in Congress’ court.”
Legislators quickly moved to make equal pay the law of the land, passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. President Barack Obama signed the bill in January 2009. A framed copy of the law’s text, along with a photograph of the signing ceremony—and a dedication to Ginsburg by Obama—is one of the items donated to the Smithsonian.
The Ledbetter case—and Ginsburg’s majority opinion in U.S. v. Virginia, finding that Virginia Military Institute’s ban on admissions of women was unconstitutional—were also celebrated in a bobblehead doll that she kept in her chambers. That, too, will go into the Smithsonian’s collections.
The bobblehead was not available to the public. Neither was a custom Lego set built by author Maia Weinstock. The “Legal Justice League” set featured Lego figures of Ginsburg, and fellow female Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Weinstock gave the set to Ginsburg in 2015 and it, too, will now reside at the Smithsonian.
Ginsburg increasingly permeated pop culture in the mid-2000s. In 2019, MTV viewers bestowed the first-ever “Real-Life Hero” award on the justice. The red metal popcorn bucket—set on a pedestal and overflowing with gold-colored popcorn—was also donated. “You don’t get many justices that manage to get themselves an MTV Award,” says Graddy.
And few justices have likely found themselves as a tattoo. One of the items donated was a framed photograph—sent to Ginsburg in 2017—of a close-up image of the justice as a tattoo. The photo was inscribed, “To Justice Ginsburg, with great appreciation for your work (that apparently also left an indelible mark on someone’s arm).”
It was a strange and not-all-together welcome tribute. “I think she was appalled,” says Jane Ginsburg. However, it did not prevent Ginsburg from displaying the tattoo photograph—but it was hung in her private bathroom in her chambers, Jane says. “She came to rather enjoy her celebrity although she certainly didn’t seek it out.”
James adds that not only did Ginsburg come to enjoy it, but that she used her fame to bring attention to the cases that came before the Supreme Court. “These were the years of the dissents and more and more, she was not going to be on the winning side of these important constitutional and statutory cases,” he says.
Ginsburg’s personal life was frequently on display also, perhaps most obviously in a 2018 feature-length movie, On the Basis of Sex. The film, made by a Ginsburg cousin, was “inspired by” the justice’s early life. “I would say there is a lot of poetic license taken in the movie,” says Jane. Still, Ginsburg kept a film poster—signed by the cast and crew—in her chambers, which the Smithsonian will now archive.
One of the better-known aspects of Ginsburg’s life outside the court was her close friendship with Justice Antonin Scalia. An original illustration from a children’s book, I Dissent, No I Dissent, that was donated to the Smithsonian depicts the two justices in their robes, facing off against each other. Opposites in ideology, politics and jurisprudence, they bonded in part over a love of opera, starting when they both were on the D.C. appeals court together. “One of her famous quotes is that one can disagree without being disagreeable; that was certainly true of their relationship,” says Jane.
Scalia and Ginsburg also shared a love of writing and frequently worked on each other’s opinions before they were made final, she says. The Ginsburg and Scalia families were close, spending every New Year’s together. “My father would cook and occasionally Justice Scalia would shoot and kill the main course,” says Jane. “I think with the wild boar he ultimately slipped in some regular domesticated pork in order to make it consumable.”
The relationship was memorialized in the 2013 operetta, Scalia/Ginsburg. “Mom makes her entrance by crashing through a glass ceiling,” James says.
Ginsburg was once asked when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court. “When there are nine,’” she said, according to James. The comment shocked some, but no one was shocked that only men were on the court for decades, he points out.
“Our expectations need to change,” he says. “We’re living in a very different world than the one that existed even just when she was nominated.”