The Notorious RBG was in town Friday. That’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Yes, the Supreme Court justice, honored at Harvard University for her work as a pioneer in gender equality, is having a cultural moment. A rather elongated one, actually.
The Notorious RBG meme, complete with T-shirts and tote bags likening her to the late rapper Notorious B.I.G., dates back a couple of years now. This spring, she peered out from the cover of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People issue with a steely glare.
And in July, the comedic opera “Scalia/Ginsburg” will make its official debut, mining the liberal jurist’s famous friendship with the boisterous, conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
“Most important scene, and I’m eager to see this performed: Justice Scalia has been locked up in a dark room, imposed for excessive dissenting, and I come to his rescue, entering through a glass ceiling,” she told a crowd of 1,300 Harvard alumni and other guests.
Ginsburg, 82, took another honor Friday — winning the Radcliffe Medal, doled out annually to women who have had a “transformative impact” on society. Previous honorees include former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, novelist Toni Morrison, and women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem.
As a lawyer, Ginsburg emerged as a leading voice for women’s rights in the 1970s. In one case, she represented Sally Reed, an Idaho divorcee in a legal fight with her ex-husband over who would be the executor of their late son’s estate.
Idaho law, at the time, gave men preference as executors. But the Supreme Court rejected the statute, ruling for the first time that the Constitution’s equal protection clause prohibited discrimination against women.
Ginsburg, who cofounded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in 1972, won five of six cases before the Supreme Court, slowly ratcheting up the legal standard for gender equality.
In her last case before the high court, in 1978, Justice William H. Rehnquist asked at the end, “You won’t settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar, then?”
Ginsburg, on stage Friday, said she thought of the perfect retort only later: “No, Justice Rehnquist, tokens won’t do.”
Ginsburg arrived to a standing ovation Friday morning, at the start of a panel discussion on the first decade of John Roberts’s tenure as chief justice of the Supreme Court. The panelists sounded critical notes about the Roberts court, bringing applause from the mostly liberal crowd.
Michael Klarman, a Harvard Law School professor, told stories of Ginsburg’s long push for gender equity in her professional — and personal — life.
At one point during her time as a professor, Supreme Court litigator, and speaker in demand across the country, said Klarman, she received a series of calls about her son James acting up in class.
“Finally, exasperated at the repeated phone calls, Ginsburg responded to one of them as follows: ‘This child has two parents. I suggest from now on you alternate between them when you need to speak to someone about James,’ ” said Klarman, who once clerked for the justice. “Ginsburg reports that even though James’s behavior did not materially improve, the phone calls ceased because the school would not dream of bothering a busy male tax attorney.”
Later, retired Supreme Court justice David Souter warmly recalled Ginsburg’s first day on the bench, in 1993. He was seated next to Scalia and neither of them, he said, expected to hear much from the junior justice.
“We were in for a big surprise,” he said. “Justice Ginsburg was off the mark with the first question before Justice Scalia and I had our mouths open.”
Finally, after a couple of minutes, he said, “Justice Scalia leaned over to me and whispered, and he said: ‘You and I may have asked our last questions in this courtroom.’ ”
Souter said when he was preparing for the Harvard event, he pulled out his notes from Ginsburg’s first week on the bench and found something he had written at the time: “I can’t preserve caution,” he read, “in my delight with Ruth.”