US Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died today at age 87, was more than an intellectual giant who changed the way we understood the law and civil rights. She also shared lessons about how to live with integrity and style.
Ginsburg showed her admirers how to see victory in a loss, for instance, and made clear the importance of forging friendships with colleagues whose opinions or world views you don’t share.
Over the years, has collected the stories and quotes that capture what we see as RBG’s life advice.
Insist on your own survival
Last summer, Ginsburg talked to NPR about what it was like to hear constant rumors about her own death. “There was a senator, I think it was after my pancreatic cancer, who announced, with great glee, that I was going to be dead within six months,” she said. “That senator, whose name I have forgotten, is now dead himself, and I am very much alive.”
Ginsburg was hoping that her own eulogy wouldn’t be written for many years, and in the NPR interview referenced opera singer Marilyn Horne, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2005 and said “I will live.” As former senior reporter Ephrat Livni writes, “the justice points out to NPR that Horne didn’t just hope or desire survival but insisted upon it. And Ginsburg is doing the same.”
Cultivate a beginner’s mind
Earlier this year, Livni took note of one trait that kept Ginsburg “intellectually spry”: She was open to new information in a way that’s rare among public figures of her stature. During oral arguments in February, Ginsburg encountered a term that was unfamiliar to her and immediately asked about it. “Ginsburg’s question was unrelated to the dispute,” Livni wrote, “but her insistence on sating her curiosity is what made the moment such a fine demonstration of an expert remaining ever fresh.”
Gender equality must be lived…
Ginsburg was a feminist trailblazer, and not merely within the confines of her job. Her marriage to Martin Ginsburg, who died in 2010, was particularly modern for the times. In 1980, for instance, when she was named to US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, Martin left his Manhattan law office job and a tenured position teaching at Columbia University to move to Washington. People they met socially regularly assumed that she was commuting, however, because it was still unheard of for a man to follow his spouse to a new town for the sake of her career.
…and sometimes other people need to be reminded of that.
At one point in the 1970s, Ginsburg was leading the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, teaching at Columbia Law School, and litigating cases before the Supreme Court, while raising two children. “During this time, she’d often receive calls from her son James’s school,” past reporter Leah Fessler writes. “One of these calls came the morning after Ginsburg stayed up all night writing a brief. While working at her Columbia office, she picked up the phone and gave a pointed response: ‘This child has two parents. Please alternate calls. It’s his father’s turn.’”
Life-changing inspiration can come from anywhere
When Ginsburg was a girl, her family would occasionally visit a New York institution: Russ & Daughters, a deli on the Lower East Side. “Apart from appreciating the pickled herring, bagels, and lox, young Ruth could see something she’d never seen anywhere else—a business that proudly proclaimed in its name and its signage that it would be passed on to daughters and not sons,” Livni writes. “Before she ever heard the word ‘feminist,’ Russ & Daughters helped shape Ginsburg’s idea of what’s possible for women.”
Be a woman of action
In her feminist interpretation of the story of Passover, Ginsburg said that with “vision and action we can join hands with others of like mind, kindling lights along paths leading out of the terrifying darkness.” (May those lights guide us through the coming days.)
Don’t take yourself (or your ribs) too seriously
Ginsburg was not above appearing in mock trials for Shakespearean characters. But she did not put anything ahead of her work, including three broken ribs.
You’re never too old for fishnet