You may have seen her likeness — frilly collar and all — on a t-shirt, or read roundups of her zingers online. She’s inspired nail art and Halloween costumes and many a tribute song on YouTube.
Yep — over the past year or so, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the petite, 81-year-old Supreme Court justice, has become the unlikeliest of pop icons. That’s thanks, in part, to NYU Law student Shana Knizhnik, who launched the tumblr The Notorious R.B.G. last summer with this withering Ginsburg quote (from her dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, the case that struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act): “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.”
Since then the blog, its name a winking reference to hip-hop idol Notorious B.I.G., has become a repository for all things R.B.G. — from the justice’s musings on the progress of women to user-created images and gifs of Ginbsurg decked out in bling and paired with popular song lyrics. It’s received more than a quarter million hits, and Knizhnik has sold thousands of Notorious R.B.G. t-shirts.
This summer, Ginsburg is back in the news (and the tumblrverse) for her dissent to the court’s 5-4 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling that the government can’t require employers to provide insurance coverage for methods of contraception that conflict with their religious beliefs. The Washington Post recently declared “Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a meme. Again,” and The New Republic ran a piece called “How Ruth Bader Ginsburg Became the Most Popular Woman on the Internet,” in which Rebecca Traister praises Knizhnik’s tumblr as a leading example of “a new vocabulary, a library of visual and aural iconography that warmly appreciates female power in not just its nubile, but also its senior, its brainy, its furious, and its professionally brawny forms.”
Knizhnik recently checked in with NYU Stories by phone — between court hearings in Washington D.C., where the soon-to-be third year law student is working for the Public Defender Service this summer. Below is a conversation on Ginsburg fandom and what it means for the future of feminism.
— Eileen Reynolds
Why does Ruth Bader Ginsburg work as a meme?
First of all, people really find her politics powerful. She’s standing up to the conservative majority, who also happen to be men. So here’s this liberal feminist voice from the court, writing with a lot of force — and she’s also a 90-pound Jewish grandmother, which makes for a really amazing juxtaposition with the hip-hop reference in the name of the blog. She is an image of feminist rebellion, while still being a demure, quiet person in real life. People really find that attractive — and funny.
In addition to the Shelby County v. Holder and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby dissents, what makes your greatest hits list of RBG moments?
I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Virginia Military Institute case (United States v. Virginia), which was the first major women’s rights case that she wrote the opinion for. We studied it in Constitutional Law. The court deemed that a state military institution cannot be single gender — for men only.
And as someone who wants to be a public defender, I find her writing on criminal justice powerful as well. On the blog I just featured a quote from her dissent in the recent Fernandez v. California case, which had to do with whether you can consent to a house search on behalf of someone else in the house.
In The New Republic Rebecca Traister connected The Notorious R.B.G. to Tweets from Hillary and memes championing Wendy Davis’ pink sneakers. Were you conscious of participating in a particular online movement when you created your blog?
I definitely did not expect for Notorious R.B.G. to blow up the way it did, but it’s definitely true that it has become part of this canon of feminist imagery that combines pop culture with powerful women. [Traister] asked me if I remembered anything like this from my youth, any images celebrating powerful women, and I couldn’t really think of anything. So we are seeing a change with user-created content on platforms like tumblr — people are participating in a way that wasn’t possible before. It’s also a testament to the fact that the new feminism is not opposed to pop culture.
People often toss around phrases from political speeches, but it seems unusual for lines of legalese to make it into the blogosphere. What is it about Ginsburg’s writing that makes it so quotable?
Ginsburg really makes a point to focus on the human aspect of the cases. When you’re talking about a political campaign speech, there’s a factor of lowest common denominator. You’re trying to appeal as many people as possible, so there are platitudes, and you have to massage things in a certain way. But when you’re dealing with a particular case, as the Supreme Court does, there are actual people involved with lives and interests at stake. And when Ginsburg writes, it’s really clear that she’s focused on the implications for people’s lives.
Have you heard what Justice Ginsburg thinks of the blog — if she’s even aware of it?
I have heard through various channels that she has seen it. A friend of mine just emailed me to say that he asked her about it at an intellectual property conference in Italy, and she said that she loves it. He said she gave out [Notorious R.B.G.] swag to her clerks, so I’m pretty sure she both knows about it and likes it. That makes me feel good.
What will Ginsburg’s legacy be? Will her eloquent dissents make the history books — or will this be a time remembered for decisions by the conservative majority?
I’m hopeful that it’s the former rather than the latter. We’re in a time with politics more fragmented and polarised than most people have ever seen before. People talk about the fact that if R.B.G. were nominated for the Court today with the same record that she had back when she was appointed in 1993, she probably would not be confirmed. She worked for the ACLU, which is kind of a death mark for judicial nominations nowadays.
And of course there is a lot of talk about her retiring, basically as preventative measure in the event of a Republican president in 2016. As a rational matter, maybe that’s right. But thinking about her as a person, I think she should be doing the job for as long as she can. There’s a quote on the blog about how she writes dissents for a future age — that’s how she thinks about it. And there are ways that dissents can change the law and set out what should happen in the future.
Do you think she’ll ever write a memoir?
I hope she does! Her life story is remarkably inspiring: She’s the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court, and before that she litigated several of the major women’s rights cases of the ’70s. And while she was in law school, she would take notes and type up her husband’s papers because he was ill — all while going to school during the day and then coming home to take care of her child. As someone who’s currently in law school, it’s impossible for me to fathom that!
Any other feminist pop-culture blogs we should keep our eye on?
Beyonce Voters is really the one to watch right now. Basically it takes Beyonce and other hip-hop and R&B lyrics and matches them with powerful public figures. (Obama’s on there too, even though he’s a man.) The phrase “Beyonce voters” came from someone on Fox News talking about single women who are supposedly dependent on the government because they have no husbands to depend on — as if those are the only two options. So it’s clearly this was meant to be a negative thing, and now we’re sort of taking it back.
NOW WATCH: Briefing videos
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.