Life Lessons from the Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Life Lessons from the Notorious RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg

A feminist hero and champion of gender equality has recently passed and we would like to take this moment to honour and pay tribute to this beloved cultural icon – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, lovingly known as the Notorious RBG.

For those who don’t know her, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was without a doubt the most prominent member of the US Supreme Court. RBG is the first Jewish woman and the second woman justice who served the Supreme Court – for 27 years. From the very beginning, she was a force to be reckoned with, credited for unifying the Court’s liberal block and championing women’s rights and gender equality.

But she was more than that. RBG transcended generations. She was able to connect to a lot of people, even millennials. Her work in the Supreme Court inspired numerous quotes and memes on social media where she earned the moniker “Notorious R.B.G.” — yes, after the late rapper Notorious B.I.G. and it stuck with her legions of fans.

She has also featured on feminist merchandise so you’ve probably seen her bespectacled face and trademark lace collar printed on t-shirts, aprons, bags, mugs, etc. along with her famous quotes. She’s also featured on parody shows like Saturday Night Live and the movie, “On the Basis of Sex” which showcased her life, also cemented her status as a legitimate pop culture icon.

Reporter Nina Totenberg (NPR) interviews Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the DC film premiere of “On The Basis of Sex” in 2018. Photo: Craig James.

Rising above the odds

Gender equality was an issue close to RBG’s heart because she herself experienced how differently women were treated by society. Despite her academic achievements, she couldn’t get a decent job after graduating from college. When RBG finally got a job as a typist, she was terminated when she got pregnant. When she and her husband both entered law school, the dean of Harvard Law School told her that she was “taking up a place that should go to a man.” RBG would eventually graduate at Columbia Law School, again at the top of her class, but that still wasn’t enough for her to get into a law firm nor even be interviewed for a Supreme Court clerkship. She experienced how unfairly women were treated in a society that had closed its doors on women taking part in roles other than what was prescribed to them. It was a double whammy for RBG because she was also a mother and officials were concerned about her obligations to her family. It came to a point that she had to hide her second pregnancy so that she could continue teaching at Rutgers University Law School.

Related Post: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Forged a New Place for Women in the Law and Society

As a professor there, her salary was notably lower than her male colleagues. All of these experiences had a huge impact on RBG. She was never diminished by odds and fueled by a sense of equality after her experiences, used her intelligence and legal know-how to fight against gender discrimination, both for women and men. “She wanted better opportunities for generations that came after her,” said Irin Carmon, co-author on the book “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg“.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik.

In her own words

RBG was a woman of small stature who made a huge impact not only in the country where she served but also in the world. Her work and her words were her legacy. Let us look back on some of her most famous quotes and reflect on the life lessons we can get from them.

On what makes a meaningful life:

“To make life a little better for people less fortunate than you. That’s what I think a meaningful life is – living not for oneself, but for one’s community.”

This is reminiscent of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s equally famous quote, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived, this is to have succeeded.” RBG reminds us to care for others and not just think of ourselves. To use our knowledge, talent, and skills to help others especially those who cannot fight for themselves. The world needs more people like that.

On social change:

“Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

It can get so frustrating to see inequality around us. We get so impatient and want to see change in an instant. But the truth is, it doesn’t happen like that. RBG teaches us that change takes time and conscious effort to make a difference. Her colleagues noted that RBG’s style in pushing for her advocacy was “slow but steady and calculated.” She attacked issues on gender discrimination one issue at a time to make it clear to others, especially the legislators, on what they can or cannot do.

On being an advocate:

“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

Interestingly, this quote was from RBG’s 2015 speech in front of young women at Harvard University. She liked to empower women to lead the change by sharing that the secret for success is by inspiring others to join the cause. If hunger, homelessness, environmental degradation, or a certain social issue bothers you, do something about it. Learn more about the issue and think about how you can be an agent of change. Be passionate about your cause so that you can inspire more people to support it.

On relationships:

“Marty was most unusual. He was the first boy I ever met who cared that I had a brain. And he always thought I was better than I thought I really was.”

One would wonder what kind of a man would win the heart of such a strong woman. Well, the answer is: a man who saw her as an equal. Their love story was extraordinary. They got married right after their college graduation and had been by each other’s side until the end. Marty pushed RBG to be the best she could be and gave her the support she needed for her to achieve her dreams, not just financially and emotionally, but also by actually taking on household duties and childcare so that RBG could focus on her work. They were equal in their marriage and that made all the difference.

On speaking out:

“The number of women who have come forward as a result of the #MeToo movement has been astonishing. My hope is not just that it is here to stay, but that it is as effective for the woman who works as a maid in a hotel as it is for Hollywood stars.”

RBG welcomed and encouraged women who were speaking out on their sexual harassment experiences. RBG believed in empowering women to call out bad behaviour so that society would learn to regard it seriously and not brush it off as trivial. Bad behaviour, especially sexual harassment, should not be tolerated no matter who you are or where you are. When women support other women, they become a force to be reckoned with.

We will all remember RBG for her historic stature as a judge and an advocate of the women’s rights and that of the minority. But the truth is, through her life and her work, her legacy transcends the halls of justice and resonates in our everyday lives. This is how the Notorious RBG made a difference.

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Cover image of ceremony on September 25, 2020 to honour Justice Ginsburg at Statuary Hall; she became the first woman to lie in state at the US Capitol. Photo: Senate Democrats.

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