With documentaries, books, bobble heads, calendars and even tattoos designed after her, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a pop-culture icon in today’s society. The exhibit “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” at the National Museum of American Jewish History is the first museum retrospective about RBG, decorated in quotations and graffiti that reflect her contemporary popularity and her impressive career in law.
RBG is best known for her advocacy work for anti-discrimination law, most notably for women’s rights. Her nickname “The Notorious RBG” was given to her after writing her 2013 dissent to the ruling “Shelby v. Holder,” which altered The Voting Rights Act by requiring states with a history of racial discrimination to get permission from the federal government to change their voting laws. Her nickname is a nod to the 1990s rapper Biggie Smalls, who was formally known as “The Notorious B.I.G.”
The exhibit begins with RBG’s childhood experience in Brooklyn, New York. She was born Joan Ruth Bader, known as “Kiki,” and had an older sister, Marylin, who died of meningitis at age six. Her mother also died before her high school graduation. The exhibit then moves on to RBG attending college at Cornell University and then Harvard Law School. RBG, who was married to Martin D. Ginsburg, then transferred to Columbia Law School to be closer to her husband, who was suffering from cancer. RBG was the first woman to be on two major law reviews and tied to be first in her class at Columbia.
While the exhibit specifies challenges RBG faced in law school, a male-dominated field at the time, her strife as a woman escalated when seeking employment. At her first position as Rutgers Law School professor, she earned less than her male counterparts, and at one point, had to hide her pregnancy to continue working. In her legal career, which focused on gender equality and women’s rights, RBG appeared multiple times in the U.S. Supreme Court as a lawyer arguing for women’s rights.
The exhibit gave short descriptions of standout cases RBG is associated with, such as Bush v. Gore in 2000 (where RBG expressed dissent against the court’s ruling), Struck v. Secretary of Defense in 1971 (which fought for women’s rights while pregnant) and many more. The short synopses of the cases were supplemented by listening aids that presented what the court in session would have sounded like. The exhibit ends with President Jimmy Carter appointing her judge and President Bill Clinton appointing her the second female Supreme Court Justice after Sandra Day O’Connor.
While presented in chronological order, a few themes persisted throughout the entire exhibit. Clearly women’s rights and discrimination were a theme but also love and support from Martin D. Ginsburg, who eventually became Dean of Harvard Law School. Their marriage was progressive for their time, splitting the caregiver role between them as opposed to solely relying on the woman. He was often asked how he felt about making such sacrifices and always responded, “it’s not a sacrifice; it’s family.” Love and encouragement between the couple was a constant theme throughout the special exhibit.
The National Jewish Museum is located on 5th and Market streets, just a subway ride away from Drexel University. The special exhibit is engaging and edgy, decorated in graffiti and inspiring quotes by RBG. The sensation that is RBG is celebrated and explained throughout the floor-wide exhibit which presents the lifework of a true inspiration. For just a $9 fee for the special exhibit, the museum executes a heartwarming and empowering story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.