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5 Career Lessons From the Notorious R.B.G.


It’s never too late in life to change the world … or become an internet meme. In the case of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, changing the world has been her full-time occupation for most of the past eight decades. Internet fame, on the other hand, descended more recently.


(Photo Credit: Notorious R.B.G./Tumblr)

In honor of Ginsburg’s 82nd birthday this past Sunday, Dahlia Lithwick at Slate decided to investigate how the “diminutive, soft-spoken, and reserved” associate justice became emblazoned on t-shirts and shared on Tumblr with an avidity normally dedicated to hero cats and Benedict Cumberbatch.

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For years, Lithwick writes, Ginsburg was as well known for her gentle demeanor and calm as she was for her work with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and the D.C. Circuit. Then something changed:

That all started to change about a decade ago, and while it’s hard to carbon-date the shift, some say Ginsburg became a more outspoken and fiery presence at the high court around 2005, when her colleague Sandra Day O’Connor retired, leaving her as the sole female on the bench. She hated being the only woman, she hated being forced to speak for all women, and she saw the court tacking to the right on issues she had worked on for decades. So when her all-male colleagues issued a slew of opinions that seemed to be moving women’s rights backward, Ginsburg began to issue dissents that sounded markedly different from her former mild-mannered, collegial style.

The first came in 2007 with the court’s so-called partial-birth abortion case. Fired-up and furious, she elected to read it aloud from the bench in a move that was rare at that time but now quite common. Other such dissents followed, including in the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay case, which then-New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Linda Greenhouse pegged as the moment “when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg found her voice, and used it.”

In doing so, she’s done more than just attempt to form a bulwark against the tide of legal decisions that are eroding civil rights for women and people of color; she’s provided inspiration for generations of young women, who look to her for an example of how to be yourself and be the boss.

1. To be successful, women still need to be liked — but they don’t need to be “nice.”

Research has shown that women still need to pay more attention to social conventions than men do, if they want to negotiate raises and get ahead at work. In short, we need buy-in, and the current cultural norms dictate that we won’t get it if we’re perceived as aggressive.

Ginsburg is calm, soft-spoken, and feminine … and she keeps her gavel hand strong. Being likeable, in other words, doesn’t have to mean not having and opinion. In fact, it shouldn’t.

“My mother told me two things constantly,” Ginsburg has said. “One was to be a lady and the other was to be independent.”

2. Let the facts speak for themselves.

If you’re a woman, it doesn’t matter how reasonable you are; sooner or later, someone (cough, a man, cough) will accuse you of being emotional while you’re making an argument. Don’t feed into this by veering from the facts.

Before she ascended to the bench, Ruth Bader Ginsburg successfully argued before it as a litigator, winning five of six appeals. To do that, she relied on facts and reasoned argument. Her calm demeanor isn’t an accident of personality. A more immediately fiery (and female) person of similar skills probably wouldn’t have made it to where she is now.

3. Know who you are.

When asked why she became a lawyer, Ginsburg said it was not initially to promote women’s rights, but “for personal, selfish reasons. I thought I could do a lawyer’s job better than any other. I have no talent in the arts, but I do write fairly well and analyze problems clearly.”

In other words, she knew her strengths and weaknesses, and was confident enough to wholeheartedly focus on the former and go after her dreams.

4. Choose a supportive spouse.

“I have been supportive of my wife since the beginning of time, and she has been supportive of me,” her husband Martin Ginsburg, when she was nominated to the Supreme Court, according to The New York Times. “It’s not sacrifice; it’s family.”

The Ginsburgs were married for over 50 years, until his death in 2010. In 2009, Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted in a speech that her husband was a “regular contributor to the lighter side of life at the Supreme Court,” attempting to help her manage her correspondence by creating a form letter to use as a response. For a section on favorite recipes, he suggested:

“The justice was expelled from the kitchen nearly three decades ago by her food-loving children. She no longer cooks, and the one recipe from her youth, tuna fish casserole, is nobody’s favorite.”

5. Have a sense of humor.

When was the last time you read a fact about a famous person that really tickled you? Try this on for size: per Slate, Ginsburg admits to having “quite a large supply” of Notorious R.B.G. t-shirts and passing them out to friends. If there’s anything better than the mental picture of the Supreme Court’s accidental rock star gifting friends with her own merch, it’s hard to say what that could possibly be.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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