Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second woman on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, when she was appointed by former President Bill Clinton, but the octogenarian justice is the first justice to become a cross-generational cultural phenomenon.
To wit: Ginsburg is the first to be the subject of runaway viral social media memes, a bestselling book, a tribute rap song, an action figure, tattoo art, manicurist-nail art, cartoons, Halloween costumes, coloring books, a children’s book, a fitness workout book and a wildly popular recurring Saturday Night Live parody by Kate McKinnon. Like other justices, she is also the subject of a recently released documentary and a forthcoming feature film. Ginsburg’s fierce dissents to Supreme Court rulings have even been set to music as part of musician Jonathon Mann’s 2014 “Song a Day” project.
So itonly seems right that in Ginsburg’s 25th year on the nation’s highest court and the so-called Year of the Woman (a nod to the wave of women running in the midterm elections), that an exhibition about her trail-blazing life opens Oct. 19 at the Skirball Cultural Center.
The exhibition, which runs through March 10, 2019, is based on the 2015 New York Times bestselling book and popular Tumblr blog of the same name, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (HarperCollins; 2015), co-authored by journalist Irin Carmon and lawyer Shana Knizhnik. Using archival photographs and documents, audio and video recordings, contemporary art and interactive elements, the show looks at the American legal system and civil rights movement through Ginsburg’s personal experiences and public service. It was organized by Cate Thurston, Skirball museum associate curator, and the book’s co-authors.
“I thought [Notorious RBG] would be perfect” for a museum exhibition, said Thurston. “It has a strong narrative and a point of view and it speaks to a moment in time. But you want it to be something people can relate to. That felt very true of Notorious RBG.”
The RBG cultural phenom grew, in part, out of Knizhnik’s hit Tumblr tribute dubbed “Notorious RBG” The blog was sparked by Knizhnik’s fury at the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act (Shelby County v. Holder). Inspired by Ginsburg’s searing dissent, Knizhnik, then a law student in New York, launched the Tumblr and coupled it with T-shirts. She took the name Notorious RBG from a friend’s Facebook post about the dissent, and her friends and colleagues later joined in, writing lyrics about Ginsburg that played off the late rapper Notorious B.I.G.’s rap song “Juicy”; they made a rap video tribute and posted it on YouTube, according to a 2014 New Republic story. Meanwhile, digital strategists Frank Chi and Aminatou Sow, who were in Washington, D.C., at the time of the ruling, were also inspired by Ginsburg’s raging dissent. Chi took a photo of Ginsburg and added a red background and a crown, jauntily clocked to one side, in artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s style; they added the words “Can’t Spell Truth Without Ruth,” printed stickers and posted them all over Washington and on Instagram. The now ubiquitous image grew into a meme, and the flurry of digital mashups was like a match to gasoline — it became an explosive Internet hit. The book would come later
“The name [Notorious RBG] is obviously a reference to Notorious B.I.G., who is this large imposing rapper, a really powerful figure; and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is this 90-pound Jewish grandmother,” Knizhnik told The New Republic. “The juxtaposition of the two made it humorous, but also a celebration of how powerful she really is.”
Connecting the reserved, diminutive justice to the late 300-pound rapper is a playful thread that runs throughout the book in chapter titles inspired by the late rapper’s lyrics. The exhibit mirrors the flow and content of the book — lyrics also inform the show’s section titles. The opera-loving, lace-glove-wearing Ginsburg is probably not exactly a rap fan, but she said, gamely, in a 2017 Charlie Rose Show interview, that linking her to the late rapper was “natural,” since both were born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.
When the Skirball approached the co-authors about building an exhibit around RBG and the book, they were thrilled. “We hope that Notorious RBG, whether it is the book or the exhibit, provides an entry point for everyone to engage with the court, the history of women and civil rights in this country, and RBG’s inspiring story,” co-author Carmon said in an email. “There’s so much about Justice Ginsburg’s life and work that all of us can learn from, whether it’s her passion for women’s rights or her commitment to the rule of law.”
While American feminists were loudly protesting in the ’70s, Ginsburg was quietly and methodically turning words into action by arguing gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. She made life-changing gains for women, winning five out of six cases by expanding the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to include women. The rulings struck down laws allowing job discrimination for pregnant women, permitting the forced sterilization of black women and making women’s jury service optional, which led to unbalanced juries. Ginsburg also argued so-called “widower cases” to secure Social Security survivor’s benefits for men, ultimately winning two cases in 1975 and 1977. And as a justice, her fierce dissent in a 2007 case about gender pay discrimination led Congress to pass the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which President Obama signed in 2009.
Thurston, who spent 18 months working on the exhibit, examined Ginsburg’s papers at the Library of Congress and was able to obtain archival objects and several reproductions as well as loans of originals from 13 other collections. The exhibit’s sections include “an imagined, immersive environment” that recreates Ginsburg’s childhood Brooklyn apartment replete with vintage Nancy Drew books (Ginsburg’s childhood favorites), along with a scrapbook of childhood memories that visitors can leaf through, said Thurston. A recreated “hyper-real” living room of Ginsburg’s first home is decked with objects that visitors can touch and feel. “We were conscious of telling an accurate story, but there are moments where we can’t tell everything” because details have dimmed over the years, said Thurston. “In those moments, we have built in an experience around it. So when details are vague, we can be playful and fill it in.”
There is a partial recreation of a gray Chevrolet that the young Ruth Bader and the late Martin Ginsburg, Ruth’s husband of 63 years, drove on their first date. When visitors pull down the car sun visors in the reimagined 1930s/40s–style Chevrolet, a photograph of the couple at their engagement party is revealed. Visitors can also watch a video of RBG’s college graduation and honeymoon as they imagine riding along with Marty and Ruth.
The childhood section is juxtaposed against an area dedicated to Ginsburg’s serious law school studies, first at Harvard University, and then at Columbia University where she transferred when Marty Ginsburg, by then her husband, landed his first job as a tax attorney in New York City. The exhibit also explores her undergrad days at Cornell University where she met Marty, fell in love and received her bachelor’s degree.
“We have 10 audio-listening stations where you are able to actually hear her when she was presenting oral arguments for one of the five sex discrimination cases to the Supreme Court, taken from the actual moment,” said Thurston, adding that Ginsburg argued these cases for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, which she cofounded in 1972. The audio is taken from the landmark Fronteiro v. Richardson case of 1973, the first time Ginsburg spoke before the Supreme Court. She was so nervous that she skipped lunch for fear she would vomit. She won. The court ruled that families of military women were entitled to the same benefits as those of their male counterparts.
The exhibit also includes video of Ginsburg reflecting on her important cases. “As much as possible we are dropping you into that moment in time,” Thurston said. “You hear her examining these important cases in her life. These sections of the exhibit are very concise. You see what the case was, the outcome and what was at stake and how it impacts people. ”
It is these engaging elements that make the exhibit “so magical” and important, achieving the organizers’ goal to “crystallize” Ginsburg’s important cases, said Thurston. Visitors can also sit at a facsimile of Ginsburg’s desk in the Supreme Court chambers. When the drawer opens, a video of her working is revealed. Several of her majority and dissent jabots (she coordinates fancy collars with decisions) are on loan and will be available for visitors to try on.
Though the exhibit is faithful to the book, it also delves more deeply into certain aspects of her career, such as the profound influence of the underrated and overlooked Pauli Murray, a lawyer, civil rights activist and founding member of the National Organization of Women (NOW). Murray originated the strategy of harnessing the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause to include women as grounds for litigating sex discrimination cases. Murray’s work informed Ginsburg’s legal efforts with ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project. “We had the space so were able to do a deep dive into Murray’s story,” said Thurston. “She was an incredible woman.”
The show’s organizers say Ginsburg’s life and work is particularly relevant as the country continues battling over women’s reproductive autonomy, as well as voting and civil rights. Indeed, the 85-year-old justice has vowed publicly to stay on the bench as long as possible. “As long as I can do the job full steam, I will do it,” Ginsburg told supporters at a 2017 Equal Justice Works event. She told a CNN interviewer that Justice John Paul Stevens served until he was 90, and she thinks she can serve five more years. A two-time cancer survivor, she works out with a personal trainer twice a week, a regimen reportedly too rigorous for some of her younger associate justices. RBG fans joke about sending her bushels of kale and longevity tonics to keep her on the court as long as possible.
That’s good news to admirers like former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson, whom The Hill quoted, saying: “She is an extraordinarily able, talented person. She remains so to this day…I have to say she is someone I have the hugest respect for. She is a hero in this country.”
Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg runs Oct. 19 through March 10, 2019, at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A. Coauthors Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik will discuss the book and blog at 11 a.m. Oct. 21; attendees can sip coffee and sample pastry prepared from a recipe in Chef Supreme, a collection published by Supreme Court spouses in 2011 in memory of Marty Ginsburg, who did all the cooking in the Ginsburg household. Museum hours are noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission costs $12, $9 for seniors, students and children over 12 and $7 for children 2 to 12; members and children under 2 are admitted free. Visit skirball.org.