Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — the 85-year-old liberal legal icon — has spent 25 years on the Supreme Court and says she plans on staying put for at least five more.
But while most know of her work, far fewer know about her backstory.
During her tenure on the high court, Ginsburg has become an unlikely star who has inspired operas, tattoos, T-shirts and millions of young women who never knew that the law was once reserved for male lawyers. In 2016, these fans got a glimpse of a more personal side of the Justice when she published a book called “My Own Words,” a compilation of a lifetime of Ginsburg’s writings and speeches.
Here are 10 highlights that reveal the woman behind the bench:
A Nancy Drew-loving “twirler”
“Kiki” Bader grew up in a working-class neighborhood in New York where she learned the cello and was a “twirler,” performing with her baton at football games and even in a Manhattan parade. She was heavily influenced by a mother who always wished she could have furthered her own education. Celia Bader’s advice? “Be a lady” which meant, in part, that one wasn’t to let emotions like anger or envy get in her way, and “be independent.”
The young Ginsburg spent Friday afternoons at the library, housed between a Chinese restaurant and a beauty parlor, reading Nancy Drew. According to Ginsburg: “Nancy was a girl who did things. She was adventuresome, daring and her boyfriend was a much more passive type than she was.”
An unlikely mentor
She credits her Cornell college professor, Vladimir Nabokov, the writer known for the novel “Lolita,” with improving her writing skills. According to Ginsburg, she took Nabokov’s advice to use words “to paint pictures.”
In the book she tells her biographers, “I try to give people the picture in not too many words, and I strive to find the right words.”
Nabokov’s advice was evident when Ginsburg joined an opinion of the court to strike down a Texas abortion law in 2016. In a brief two-page concurrence — laced with a flourish of French — Ginsburg got right to the point: “When a state severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners, faute de mieux, at great risk to their health and safety.”
Partner in life
Ginsburg’s more than half-century marriage to noted tax expert Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, who died in 2010, was one of Washington’s most legendary pairings.
Besides his legal expertise, he often told audiences that he took over the kitchen at the demand of their two children who recoiled at the idea of their mother’s pot roast. The book includes a 2003 speech Marty gave summing up their marriage. The two were attending a play in New York just after the release of Bush v. Gore, the controversial opinion that cleared the way for George W. Bush’s presidency.
As they walked down the aisle at intermission, the entire audience began to applaud and Ginsburg “beamed.” Marty reveals that he leaned over and whispered to his wife, “I bet you didn’t know there’s a convention of tax lawyers in town,” at which point he writes, “without changing her bright smile, Ruth smacked me right in the stomach, but not too hard.”
Pathmaker: The Stephen Wiesenfeld case
As a young lawyer, she blazed trails to fight laws that discriminated on the basis of gender. Ginsburg, a keen tactician, knew that it would be particularly powerful if she could show that gender discrimination hurt men as well as women. As such, she represented Stephen Wiesenfeld, who fought a provision of the Social Security Act after his wife died in childbirth. As Ginsburg explained it in 2008: Wiesenfeld “sought to care for the baby personally, but was denied child-in-care Social Security benefits then available only to widowed mothers, not to widowed fathers. Stephen Wiesenfield won a unanimous judgment in the Supreme Court.”
Supreme Court nomination
President Bill Clinton waited until after an NBA Finals basketball game to call Ginsburg to offer her the job on the high court in 1993. But the phone line, from the White House kitchen, went dead three times. Finally, Clinton got it right. “If I’m going to propose,” he joked to Ginsburg, “we might as well have a good line.”
One would think the first time that Justice Elena Kagan and Ginsburg shared a hearing room it would have been at the Supreme Court after Kagan was seated in 2010. Not so. Ginsburg reveals that during her confirmation hearing in 1993, she stared up at then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden. Sitting behind him was Kagan, who was serving as special counsel to Biden during the hearings.
Sandra Day O’Connor
In a 2015 speech, Ginsburg praised Sandra Day O’Connor as a “true cowgirl, resourceful, resilient, equipped to cope with whatever fortune brings her way.” She spoke of the time the “incomparable” O’Connor invited the Olympic women’s basketball team to the Supreme Court’s basketball court that is often referred to as the “highest court in the land.”
One of the players passed O’Connor the ball, and she missed the first shot, “but the second went right through the hoop.”
Early writings on faith
Ginsburg’s biographers reveal that while her immediate family was not “devoutly religious,” Jewish traditions were very much a part of her childhood even though at times she resented an adherence to “seemingly hypocritical rules and the inferior role assigned to women.”
She did, however, respect Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. In 1946, a 13-year-old Ruth Bader served on the editorial staff of the bulletin of the East Midwood Jewish Center, where she wrote in praise of Wise, calling him a “champion of every righteous cause,” adding that he was a “valiant fighter” for women’s suffrage.
Ginsburg the jock
She may appear frail, sitting on the bench in her robe and frilly lace collars. Not so. The book “My Own Words” includes a picture of her on the elliptical sporting a “Super Diva” sweatshirt. It seems she has slowed down a bit: A few years ago, she did 30 push-ups twice a week and now she is down to a mere 20. Still, that might be 20 more than some of her colleagues on the bench would be able to achieve. She told The New York Times in 2013 that she’s had to give up one passion: waterskiing.
Cultural rock star — and a fish
There’s an opera, a play, a documentary, a “Saturday Night Live” skit and an upcoming movie starring Felicity Jones.
But that’s just the beginning:
The preschool class at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, named their class fish “Ruth Beta Ginsburg.” And scientists named an entire species of praying mantis, Ilomantis ginsburgae, in honor of Ginsburg. (Apparently the species’ neck plate resembles the jabots Ginsburg wears in court.)
Asked when she thinks there will be enough women on the court, she answers: “when there are nine.”
Ginsburg mentions little about her own retirement in her book, but she has already hired law clerks for at least two more terms.
Ginsburg’s biographers, whom she worked with for “My Own Words,” say that the quality of her reasoning, her mental acuity, her stamina and her public engagement mean that “there is no question that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg continues to ‘do the job full steam.'”