In the middle of one especially eventful Supreme Court session more than five years ago—June 24, 2013, to be exact—Ruth Bader Ginsburg opened her mouth and began to speak. In two separate dissents, RBG excoriated the outcomes of three cases: Fisher v. University of Texas and two employment discrimination decisions, Vance v. Ball State and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar. But she wasn’t done yet. The next day, she read an even more scathing dissent, this time in Shelby County v. Holder. That decision ruled a section of the Voting Rights Act, requiring certain districts to get “preclearance” before changing voting laws, as unconstitutional. “The sad irony of today’s decision lies in its utter failure to grasp why the [Voting Rights Act] has proven effective,” Ginsburg opined. “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Reading aloud one’s dissent isn’t unheard of, but it is an undeniably vehement statement. Her outspokenness that day caused people all over the world—people who otherwise wouldn’t pay much heed to the decisions passed down by the Supreme Court of the United States—to sit up and take notice.
What people might not realize is that Justice Ginsburg has been using that quiet voice of hers to shape the course of our nation’s history for more than six decades. Below, a few things you might not know about Ginsburg—a.k.a. the Notorious RBG—who is the subject of a new biopic, On the Basis of Sex, which arrives in theaters today.
1. The injustice her mother faced left a lasting impression.
Celia Bader, née Amster, died the day before Ginsburg’s high school graduation. But in their short time together, Celia managed to instill in her daughter that an education was not something to be taken for granted. Celia herself—whom Ginsburg regularly, according to Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s Notorious RBG, called the most intelligent person she’d ever known—went to work at age 15 in order to help put her brother through college.
At the 1993 White House press conference announcing her nomination to the Supreme Court, Ginsburg wrapped up her remarks with an emotional tribute to the woman who was never allowed to reach her full potential. “I have a last thank-you,” she told the crowd assembled. “It’s to my mother. My mother was the bravest, strongest person I have ever known, who was taken from me much too soon. I pray that I may be all that she would have been had she lived in an age when women could aspire and achieve and daughters are cherished as much as sons.”
2. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing for Ginsburg, either.
As newlyweds, Ginsburg and her husband, Marty, relocated to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Marty was expected to fulfill his Army Reserve duties for the next two years. Ruth took the civil service exam and qualified to be a claims adjustor—but then made the mistake of mentioning that she was three months pregnant with their daughter, Jane. Suddenly, RBG’s civil service ranking was reduced, and with it, her title and pay. (She learned a valuable lesson from the experience, and during her second pregnancy—which coincided with her first year as a professor at Rutgers University—she did everything she could to conceal the fact that she was expecting.)
In 1956, Ginsburg was one of just nine female students matriculating at Harvard Law School. The dean of the Law School at the time, Erwin Griswold, hosted a dinner for the women—and at the end of the meal, asked each of them to go around and share how it was they justified taking a spot that would otherwise have gone to a man. Years later—when word got back to Griswold that his former student enjoyed recounting this tale on the lecture circuit—he insisted that it had all been in good fun.
3. She was first in her class, but struggled to find a job.
Ginsburg transferred from Harvard to Columbia, where she graduated at the top of her class. But few law firms at that point had opened their doors to women, and despite glowing recommendations from several of her professors, none of them were able to secure her a clerkship with a federal judge. Ginsburg was finally able to get her foot in the door with a lower-ranking district court judge, Edmund Palmieri—and only after one of her mentors threatened to stop sending clerks his way if he turned her down.
The famous judge and legal philosopher Learned Hand rejected her too—supposedly because he was afraid a woman’s presence in his office would force him to limit his swearing. Oddly enough, she found herself regularly carpooling with both Palmieri and Hand, who, as author Linda Hirshman put it in her book Sisters in Law, continued to “talk in [his] usual expressive style.” Ginsburg finally asked why he felt like he could swear like a sailor during their car rides, given that he had turned her down so as not to have to clean up his act. “Young lady, I’m not looking at you,” he reportedly replied, staring straight ahead at the windshield. Looking back on the exchange years later, Ginsburg marveled, “It was as if I wasn’t even there.”
4. Her marriage was one of equals.
During a time when women were expected to put their husbands’ needs before their own, Ruth and Marty Ginsburg refused to let prescribed gender roles dictate how they ran their household. In the years when Marty—a successful tax lawyer in his own right—was busy trying to make partner, Ruth took on the brunt of the housework and child rearing. And as Ruth’s career blossomed, Marty made sure there was dinner on the table for their two kids, and would often drag his wife out of the office late at night to ensure she ate a proper meal and got some rest. (Unlike his culinarily challenged wife, Marty was a whiz in the kitchen, and would famously bake cakes for her clerks’ birthday celebrations. After he passed, the Supreme Court Historical Society published a book of his recipes, titled Chef Supreme.)
Before Marty’s death in 2010, he reportedly told a friend, “I think the most important thing I have done is enable Ruth to do what she has done.”
5. She’s considered the Thurgood Marshall of the women’s movement.
In her role as lead counsel for the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, Ginsburg believed the most effective way to achieve lasting results was to pick cases that were winnable and would set precedents that would chip away at the legal barriers imposed on women. “Not all feminist issues should be litigated now,” she cautioned in the early ’70s, “because some are losers, given the current political climate, and could set back our efforts to develop favorable law.” (As her ACLU colleague Pauli Murray, a legend in both the civil rights and women’s movements, noted, “One bad decision of the Supreme Court has a terrible impact.”) In this way, bit by bit, Ginsburg could construct an unshakeable legal foundation for women’s equality, which would hold until society was ready to pass a more sweeping measure—say, an Equal Rights Amendment—explicitly banning gender discrimination. Ginsburg’s slow and steady approach drew the ire of some feminists who felt the ACLU wasn’t being bold enough.
6. She often picked cases that (seemingly) benefited men …
For Ginsburg, the gender of her plaintiff didn’t matter. What really mattered was whether or not each case could potentially overturn laws restricting women’s—and men’s—roles. In 1974’s Kahn v. Shevin, for example, she represented a widower who believed he should be entitled to a Florida tax exemption granted only to widows. And in 1975’s Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, she argued on behalf of a widower whose schoolteacher wife had been the family’s primary breadwinner. Once she passed away—leaving him and their infant son—he was unable to collect Social Security survivor’s benefits, which again, were only awarded to widows. (The court ruled unanimously in favor of Wiesenfeld, who only wanted to be able to stay home with his son until he was old enough to go to school full time.)
Ginsburg was also wary of any laws that purported to shield women from the harsh world outside the home, such as rules barring women from jury service. As she wrote in her very first Supreme Court brief, for 1971’s Reed v. Reed, “The pedestal upon which women have been placed has all too often, upon closer inspection, been revealed as a cage.”
7. … and developed a lifelong friendship with one of those male plaintiffs.
The Ginsburgs became incredibly close to the young father at the center of Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, Stephen Wiesenfeld. Wiesenfeld and Ginsburg keep in touch to this day; Ginsburg used her connections to help get baby Jason into Columbia Law School, and she officiated at his 1998 wedding, as well as at his father’s 2014 remarriage at the age of 71.
8. Before they met, Ginsburg admired Sandra Day O’Connor from afar.
The first two women to serve on the Supreme Court were, even before they met, a little bit in awe of one another. After O’Connor penned her first opinion, outlining the reasons why the Mississippi University for Women’s ban on male nursing students was unconstitutional, Marty Ginsburg half-jokingly asked RBG—then a D.C. circuit judge—if she had somehow written it. (Here, O’Connor had cited the argument put forth in Ginsburg’s very first Supreme Court brief for Reed v. Reed: the school’s decision to keep men out of its nursing program was, O’Connor wrote, “subject to scrutiny under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”)
Once O’Connor and Ginsburg had become properly acquainted, O’Connor took on more clerks from Ginsburg’s chambers than she did any other federal judge, and the two women often publicly praised each other.
9. She still misses her former colleague.
The Reagan-appointed O’Connor and the Clinton-nominated Ginsburg would serve 12 years together; they were even given matching T-shirts by the National Association of Women’s Judges to help clear things up for anyone not accustomed to seeing two female faces looking down on them from the bench. (“I’m Ruth, not Sandra,” Ginsburg’s read, while O’Connor’s proclaimed, “I’m Sandra, not Ruth.”)
Ginsburg confessed that the three years between O’Connor’s retirement in 2006 and Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment in 2009 were “the worst times” in a 2014 interview with the New Republic: “The image to the public entering the courtroom was eight men, of a certain size, and then this little woman, sitting off to the side. That was not a good image for the public to see.”
“But now,” continued Ginsburg, “with three of us on the bench, I am no longer lonely and my newest colleagues are no shrinking violets.” (When asked at what point there will be “enough women” on the Court, Ginsburg has consistently replied, “when there are nine … [There’d] been nine men, and no one’s ever raised a question about that.”)
10. She’s cultivated a reputation as this court’s “great dissenter.”
Although her career as a litigator mirrored that of Thurgood Marshall, Hirshman believes Ginsburg’s judicial legacy will place her among the Court’s so-called “great dissenters”: John Marshall Harlan, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Louis D. Brandeis. As Hirshman wrote:
“In disagreeing with their colleagues at the time they served among them, these legendary jurists anticipated every core development of twentieth century judicial law: the dismantling of Jim Crow segregation, the protection of free speech, and the allowance of economic recognition.”
By speaking up when her conservative colleagues arrive at a decision she believes to be regressive, Ginsburg, Hirshman argues, is planting “seeds” of social progress, lending her powerful words to the movements that will effect change from the ground up.
11. Her collars are coded.
Ginsburg and O’Connor jointly decided that they would use jabots to carve out a visual space of their own in what would otherwise be a sea of black robes and ties. “You know, the standard robe is made for a man because it has a place for the shirt to show, and the tie,” Ginsburg told The Washington Post in 2009. “So Sandra Day O’Connor and I thought it would be appropriate if we included as part of our robe something typical of a woman.” According to Carmon and Knizhnik, Ginsburg breaks out one of two collars on decision days. A lace collar featuring gold trim and charms, a gift from one of her former clerks, serves as her majority-opinion collar, while a mirrored bib necklace she was gifted at Glamour’s 2012 Women of the Year awards is what she wears when her side has come up short. “It looks fitting for dissent,” she explained after she broke it out for her 2014 Hobby Lobby opinion.
12. She and Antonin Scalia really were “best buddies.”
Fans of both Ginsburg and the late Antonin Scalia had a hard time wrapping their heads around the duo’s unshakeable bond. How is it, outsiders wondered, that two people with such dramatically different views could grow to be so close? Despite their opposing ideologies, Ginsburg and Scalia possessed an intense mutual respect for one another, a deep respect for the Court’s role, and, perhaps most importantly, both recognized that they made the other better. Oh, and then there was the opera: the friends’ love of the art form, plus their “odd couple” reputation, inspired one law student to compose an entire (satirical) opera about them. In the statement [PDF] she released following the passing of her “best buddy” on February 13, she wrote:
“Toward the end of the opera ‘Scalia/Ginsburg,’ tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet ‘We are different, we are one’ … We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots—the ‘applesauce’ and ‘argle bargle’—and gave me just what I need to strengthen the majority opinion.”
13. Did we mention she loves opera?
“If I had any talent that God could give me, I would be a great diva,” she said during a conversation at Georgetown University’s Law School last year. “But sadly I have a monotone … [I sing] only in the shower and in my dreams.” That hasn’t stopped her from appearing as an extra in a handful of productions—or from fangirling (in her typically decorous manner) when Plácido Domingo sang to her.
14. She can probably do more pushups than you.
For the past 20 years, Ginsburg has worked out twice weekly with a personal trainer—the same one Justice Kagan uses, on Ginsburg’s recommendation. Her regime includes an elliptical warm up, squats, planks, medicine ball tosses (she uses a 12-pounder!), and push-ups. She regularly does more than 20 push-ups. And she does it all while listening to classical music.
15. She’s not going anywhere just yet.
Just last week it was announced that Ginsburg had undergone surgery to remove two cancerous growths in her left lung. It’s not her first battle with the disease: Ginsburg refused to let two earlier bouts with the disease slow her down. She also quickly bounced back following a heart operation in 2014 and a fall in November that left her with three fractured ribs. Just days after her most recent surgery, outlets are already reporting that Ginsburg is back at work. So she certainly won’t let anyone convince her that everyone would be better off if she retired now. As she told the New Republic,
“As long as I can do the job full steam, I will stay here. I think I will know when I’m no longer able to think as lucidly, to remember as well, to write as fast. I was number one last term in the speed with which opinions came down. My average from the day of argument to the day the decision was released was sixty days, ahead of the chief by some six days. So I don’t think I have reached the point where I can’t do the job as well.”
Ginsburg also has a stock answer ready for any fair-weather supporters: “I asked some people, particularly the academics who said I should have stepped down last year: ‘Who do you think the president could nominate and get through the current Senate that you would rather see on the Court than me?’ No one has given me an answer to that question.”
Sounds like the RBG equivalent of a mic drop to us.