HOW RUTH BADER GINSBURG BECAME AN ICON FOR MILLENNIALS AND GEN-Z

Portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The Notorious R.B.G., Kiki, was and forever will be an icon to so many people. The late Supreme Court Justice died on Friday evening, September 18, 2020, due to complications with metastatic pancreatic cancer. At 87 years young, she passed away in her Washington home to the deafeningly loud mourning of a nation. Ginsburg was a maypole figure for so many communities: women of any age, the LGBTQ+ community, the Jewish community, and for young people across the country. She may have joined the Supreme Court at age 60, but by the turn of the millennium RBG quickly became a surprise cultural ambassador to a generation less than half her age, and more recently to the large politically active Gen-Z community.

A fighter until her dying day, Ginsburg’s consistently progressive views and dissenting opinions among the male majority Supreme Court earned her the respect and admiration of millions of young people throughout her tenure in Washington. She often eschewed the more diplomatic and courteous traditions of conversation in the Supreme Court in order to assert both her dominance and authority, such as her infamous written declaration of “I dissent” during the 2000 case of Bush v. Gore (dissenting opinions at the time typically carried the word “respectfully” somewhere in their statements). Her break from court decorum did not earn her contempt, but praise and adoration, and she would go on to use that to her advantage over her many years in Washington.

Mourners gather around the Supreme Court following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Courtesy of Rosa Pineda/Wikimedia Commons.

But why was Ginsburg such a hit with young people? Cynics could say it was her fragile and for lack of a better word “cute” appearance. She was 100 pounds soaking wet and barely broke five feet tall (despite a much-covered intense daily workout routine), which to a young person online typically carries the innocent facade of wholesomeness and cluelessness.

But Ginsburg was anything but those descriptors. She was quick, cunning, opinionated and steadfast. The reason she is so lauded by young people is not only for her progressive opinions, but for the fearless manner in which she dissented upon her more conservative peers. Her most famous cases were those in which she stood up for women and the LGBTQ+ communities, even at times when they were not as widely accepted. The case of Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company of 2007 saw Ginsburg write a dissenting opinion declaring a woman’s suing of her employer for gender discrimination a just cause, further bringing to light the wage gap. Nine years later saw Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, in which Ginsburg tackled the Texas Omnibus Abortion Bill and fiercely stood behind a woman’s right to choose. RBG even officiated multiple same-sex weddings and advocated for LGBTQ+ rights before the landmark Obergefell v. Hodges case of 2015.

She also appealed to Gen-Z by embracing her youth icon status, wearing her Brooklyn-based nickname “The Notorious R.B.G” with pride. She adorns T-shirts, notebooks and mugs, is the subject of a successful Tumblr blog, and generally dominates internet culture in a positive way that no government official has before. 2018 saw two films, documentary RBG and scripted drama On the Basis of Sex, both of which celebrated her personal and political successes.

Theatrical posters for “On the Basis of Sex” and “RBG,” two films about Ginsburg’s life and accomplishments. Courtesy of Focus Features/Magnolia Pictures.

Ginsburg famously rejected the many voices that told her to retire in her 20th year on the bench while Barack Obama was in office in order for him to safely nominate another progressive justice. She vowed to continue her post “as long as I can do the job full steam,” reasoning that “there will be a president after this one, and I’m hopeful that that president will be a fine president.” As bitterly hard a pill as that statement is to swallow in the future year of 2020, just weeks away from one of the most divisive and history-shaping elections in decades, we cannot look back in anger. RBG’s decision was a bold one, though she would argue the natural and obvious one, and even retroactively it is hard to disagree. We will hope and fight for a suitable replacement, but it will be near impossible to find one of equal stature. Ginsburg was right to stay put when she did, and fought for progressive change until her dying day. She will rest in power an icon to us all for years to come.

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