Only America's Golden Girl, Betty White, and Loyola basketball's Sister Jean might understand what it felt like for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to achieve cult-like status so late in life.
For years, Ginsburg was an idol and example for the kind of folks who read legal briefs and court opinions. But it was her perfectly worded dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, that earned her pop culture-icon status at the ripe old age of 80.
Among the most memorable lines she penned was in comparing the decision to scale back oversight to "... throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet."
Her words inspired a "Notorious R.B.G." Tumblr account, which led to action figures, coloring books, Halloween costumes, a feature film and a documentary. She found Kate McKinnon's homage to her, which routinely delivered "Gins-burns" at the "Saturday Night Live" Weekend Update desk, "marvelously funny," and said her hip-hop moniker was "altogether natural" because she and The Notorious B.I.G., Biggie Smalls, were born and raised in Brooklyn, New York.
The second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg died from complications of metastatic pancreatic cancer Sept. 18 at the age of 87. Friday, she will be the first woman, and first Jewish person, to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol. After news of her passing, social media feeds filled with tributes in the form of babies wearing her signature lace collar, men and women in "You Can't Spell Truth Without Ruth" T-shirts and photos of impromptu memorials and gatherings across the country.
I suppose it's no surprise that a trailblazing woman and tireless advocate for gender equality would earn a certain level of attention and acclaim in recent years, when the rights of women seem precariously close to revocation and reversal, but the devotion to Ginsburg became so much more than performative admiration. In learning about the feisty grandmother behind the T-shirts, bobbleheads and dissent collar necklaces, the uninitiated began to understand the incredible and profound impact she had on the life of every American, and that it wasn't so long ago that the status of a woman in this country was woefully -- and legally -- unequal.
When Ginsburg co-founded the Women's Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972, women in some states couldn't serve on a jury, take out a credit card in their own name, protect themselves from workplace harassment, take maternity leave or refuse sex from their husbands. In fact, when she began her pioneering work fighting sex discrimination, the Supreme Court had never once rejected any sex-based rule, nor allowed so much as a challenge of laws that allowed for the unequal treatment of women.
Ginsburg grew up in a society that told her she didn't deserve to be employed, paid, respected or trusted to make decisions about her own body like a man could. Her response was to prove it wrong, case by case, using pristine logic and argument.
In recent years, women -- notably women in sports -- have surveyed the landscape with a similar eye, arguing more and more that the way things have always been isn't good enough. On the court and the pitch, they have fought for equal pay, equal time, equal coverage and equal respect. And so it's somehow fitting, despite Ginsburg's small stature and glasses bigger than her biceps, that the octogenarian found herself to be a bit of an athletic inspiration in her final years, as well.
In 2018, late-night television show host Stephen Colbert joined Ginsburg for one of her twice-weekly workouts, sweat sessions that birthed a book by her trainer, Bryant Johnson: "The RBG Workout: How She Stays Strong ... and You Can Too!" In a 2019 SheBelieves Cup match in which U.S. Women's National Soccer Team players paid tribute to notable women on their jerseys, Becky Sauerbrunn's kit read "RBG." (A then-86-year-old judge making the cut alongside the likes of Beyonce and Cardi B says all you need to know about Ginsburg's official badass status).
For the duration of their upcoming season, the players of the Glasgow City women's soccer team in Scotland will wear Ginsburg's name on the left sleeve of their jerseys. The team's manager and co-founder, Laura Montgomery, who was denied opportunities to play soccer as a young girl, said of honoring Ginsburg, "A pioneer, feminist icon and role model, her work, rulings and dissenting opinions have paved the way for justice, equality and civil liberties. ... RBG certainly gave all of us hope of an empowered future ..."
Ginsburg's more complicated legacy in regard to racial justice has come up in recent days, as athletes of all races have paid tribute to her memory. In addition to her efforts to protect the aforementioned Voting Rights Act, Ginsburg credited African American legal scholar Dr. Pauli Murray for the strategy she employed in Reed v. Reed, which marked the first time the Equal Protection Clause that had been applied to racial discrimination was used to argue gender-based discrimination. And much of her work on reproductive rights, affirmative action and equal application of the law in criminal cases greatly benefited people of color.
But Ginsburg has been criticized for failing to hire a more diverse group of law clerks, and many were disappointed by her reaction to Colin Kaepernick's protest in 2016. In an interview that year, she was critical of Kaepernick and other NFL players who kneeled during the national anthem, calling it "dumb" and "disrespectful." She later issued a statement regretting her comments, saying, "Barely aware of the incident or its purpose, my comments were inappropriately dismissive and harsh. I should have declined to respond."
When ESPN's Rachel Nichols suggested that the NBA players remaining in the bubble should have paid tribute to Ginsburg after her death, as they did for Chadwick Boseman and civil rights leader John Lewis, some suggested the Kaepernick comment might have soured some on her. Plenty of NBA stars did post praise for Ginsburg on social media, though, so it's clear many were inspired by her work. In the end, the most meaningful way to honor the incredible achievements Ginsburg did make for women, men and people of all races in this country might be to imagine a fight for racial equality in the image of her fight for gender justice.
As both a witness to and key participant in the dramatic gains in women's rights over the past 50 years, Ginsburg created a blueprint for taking on what might seem like impossible fights. She proved that great imagination, airtight debate and incredible toughness can indeed enact major change. She proved that size and strength are not necessary to win a battle and that the best opinions are given calmly, sternly and with the facts and logic to back them up. (Oh, what the people of internet message boards and comment walls could learn from RBG.)
As our country goes through yet another race reckoning, and as marginalized groups fear the worst might be ahead, Ginsburg stands as an inspiration to continue fighting. She made us believe that if something is right and fair, it can be argued into law. She made us realize that even the longest-held "truths" might, in fact, be proved false. And she made us recognize that with enough heart and hustle -- and a little bit of flair -- a tiny Jewish woman from Brooklyn could become a worldwide inspiration.
Like the other Notorious once said: "Stay far from timid, only make moves when your heart's in it, and live the phrase, 'Sky's The Limit.'"