By Sophie Panzer | JE staff
By Sarah Wildman | JTA
Ruffled collars in shop windows. Heaps of flowers in front of the Supreme Court. Millions of dollars in donations to liberal causes.
These are just some of the tributes admirers across the country have dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died Sept. 18 from complications of pancreatic cancer at the age of 87. She was the first Jewish woman to serve on the Supreme Court, a tireless advocate for gender equality, a pop culture icon and the first Jew to lie in state at the Capitol.
“Her life’s work was to make sure the court took note and understood and comprehended what happens to we women when we are considered less worthy, less equal, unable to get equal pay for equal work,” said Lynne Abraham, former Philadelphia District Attorney. “It has a corrosive effect on every one of us.”
The Brooklyn, New York, native and Washington, D.C., resident visited Philadelphia many times and was honored by the city’s cultural and educational institutions. She received an honorary degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 2007 and visited the campus again in 2018 to celebrate 25 years on the Supreme Court. In 2019, she became the 21st inductee into the National Museum of American Jewish History’s Only in America Gallery/Hall of Fame. She was also named the recipient of the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal in August.
She was presented with the honorary degree by her friend Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania. The two met at an academic conference and bonded over their experiences growing up in Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. Gutmann was struck by Ginsburg’s friendliness and how easy it was to relate to her.
“She was, for me, as she was for so many other women, an inspiration,” Gutmann said. “But it was also for me very significant that we had very similar roots.”
“There’s a saying that if you can see it, you can be it. To see a woman, a Jewish woman and a Jewish first-generation woman from Flatbush, Brooklyn, achieve what she achieved was just an inspiration to me, and still is an inspiration to generations of women,” she continued.
During her visits to Philadelphia, Ginsburg enjoyed shopping at Sophy Curson, a women’s clothing boutique in Rittenhouse Square.
“A few years ago when she was in town for an event at the National Constitution Center, she stopped in the shop with her security detail in tow,” said David Schwartz, who co-owns the boutique with his mother, Susan Schwartz.
“My mother helped her and before she left the store she recounted a party dress that she had purchased previously that was colorful and rather wild. She said she only wore it to private parties when there would be no press in attendance.”
The store has created a tribute window display, designed by Dana Morelli, featuring photos, quotes and mannequins dressed in Ginsburg’s style.
Ginsburg’s status as a pop culture icon has local roots. Her nickname “Notorious R.B.G.,” a play on rapper Biggie Smalls’ nickname “Notorious B.I.G.,’’ originated on a 2013 blog written by Jewish lawyer and Philadelphia native Shana Knizhnik while she was still in law school.
Knizhnik later co-authored “Notorious R.B.G: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” with journalist Irin Carmon in 2015. It surged to the top of The New York Times Best Sellers list and fueled a seemingly endless demand for R.B.G.-themed merchandise, from T-shirts and pins to candles and collars.
“Her incredible superhero status in American culture was something that people were sort of yearning for and especially young people and young women, in particular,” Knizhnik told Anderson Cooper of CNN.
In 2019, Ginsburg officiated Knizhnik’s wedding.
Gutmann said Ginsburg embraced the nickname even though she did not invent the persona.
“She had a charisma that was captured in the ‘Notorious R.B.G.,’” she said. “She has shown that it’s not an oxymoron to be an intellectual and a rock star.”
Gutmann witnessed her impact on young people firsthand when she presented Ginsburg with the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture at the New York Public Library in 2019. As Gutmann waited in line for the restroom after the event, a 14-year-old girl overflowing with excitement turned to her and said she had just seen her idol speak.
Ginsburg was frank about the importance of Jewish tradition in her life and career, hanging the Hebrew injunction to pursue justice on the walls of her chambers.
“I am a judge, born, raised and proud of being a Jew,” she said in an address to the American Jewish Committee following her 1993 appointment to the court. “The demand for justice runs through the entirety of Jewish history and Jewish tradition.”
She was the daughter of Nathan Bader, a Russian immigrant and furrier, and the former Celia Amster. She attended Cornell University, where she met her husband, Martin Ginsburg.
She was one of only nine women in her Harvard Law School class with about 500 men. A well-known story has it that at a meeting of her female classmates with the law school dean, the women were asked why they deserved a spot taken from men.
Martin Ginsburg, a Harvard Law graduate, took a job at a New York law firm, while Ruth Bader Ginsburg transferred to Columbia. At both schools, she served on the Law Review, and she finished Columbia tied for first in her class. Yet not a single law firm would hire her.
Ginsburg eventually clerked for Judge Edward Palmieri and went on to teach law at Rutgers University. She created the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union and was the first tenured woman to teach law at Columbia. Ginsburg quickly built a reputation for establishing gender parity before the law, arguing six major sex-discrimination cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, winning all but one.
In one of those winning cases, Weinburger v. Wiesenfeld in 1975, Ginsburg represented a widower left with a child in his care when his wife died in childbirth. The father requested the child care benefits that a woman would receive if her husband died but which were then denied to men.
“She knew that gender stereotypes harmed both men and women, and that freeing men in those cases from gender stereotypes would reverberate to free everyone for gender stereotypes,” said David S. Cohen, a Drexel University law professor.
As a Supreme Court jurist, Ginsburg continued her fight for gender equality. In 1996, she wrote the majority opinion in United States v. Virginia, which deemed the Virginia Military Institute’s policy of not admitting women unconstitutional. She also authored the dissent in Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire, a pay discrimination case that would lead to the 2009 Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. She advocated for racial and LGBTQ equality, ruling to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act and overturn state marriage bans so that same-sex couples would have the right to wed.
“She definitely believed that the Constitution guarantees that equality should be expanded to protect more and more people from discrimination and government subordination,” Cohen said. “Through her work, we now have major precedents that have changed society and made the world a more equal place.”
“To learn of the loss of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, just as we gathered to commemorate Rosh Hashanah, was both terribly sad and deeply profound,” said Arlene Fickler, board chair of the Philadelphia JCRC. “A person who passes away on this holiday is said to be a tzaddik, a person of great righteousness. For Justice Ginsberg’s entire career she pursued a vision of America with justice and equality for all that is rooted not only in the words of the country’s Founding Fathers, but also in the values of the Jewish people. Her voice, set forth in judicial opinions reminding us of the obligation to pursue justice, will be heard for generations. May her memory be for a blessing.”