The opposite of love isn't hate. It's apathy.

And there is probably not a single person in America who provokes less apathy than Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court.

On the left, she's a feminist icon, a true liberal stalwart, and a hero. On the other side of the divide, she inspires a negative reaction rivaling their animosity toward any other political figure.

In fact, if you set aside President Trump himself, it's hard to imagine anyone in government who causes such passionate reactions on both sides.

Ginsburg is in the hospital as I write this, after suffering a fall and breaking three ribs. Supporters are on Twitter offering to donate body parts, while opponents... well, let's just say they're not expressing the same sentiment. It's ugly out there.

Setting that aside, it's worth recapping just how incredibly unlikely it was that Ginsburg would emerge to assume this role. Here are some of the key milestones and lessons from her career so far. (You can read further about some of these here, here, and here.)

1. She learned to believe in herself.

Ginsburg's mother died literally the day before the future Supreme Court justice graduated from high school. She credits her mother had "counseled me constantly to 'be independent,' able to fend for myself, whatever fortune might have in store for me."

2.  She chose her own name.

She was born Joan Ruth Bader, but "Joan" was too common, so she went by Ruth. She was also nicknamed "Kiki" as a child, and of course much later in life, "the Notorious RBG." Also worth noting: She continued to use her maiden name, Bader, when she was married in 1954, which was a much less common choice at the time. 

3. She got married early.

Speaking of marriage, Ginsburg has long credited her late husband with being a driving force in her career. They were married when she was just 21. This might be a generational difference, but it let her focus on having a family and a career much earlier in life than many other people did.

4. She chose her friends and her battles.

Much has been made of Ginsburg's close friendship with her fellow justice, the late Antonin Scalia, with whom she agreed on barely anything in the legal realm. She seems to have known how to pick her battles, and shared her mother-in-law's advice on her wedding day: "In every good marriage, it helps sometimes to be a little deaf." 

5. She came to her convictions.

By this I mean that Ginsburg did not think of herself as a strong feminist when she was younger, but grew into the role. The New York Times described her as a "late-blooming feminist" when she was first nominated. But besides her professional evolution, she also described several personal experiences that shaped her (#6 to 12 below).

6. She revealed a #MeToo experience.

Last year, she said she'd been sexually harassed decades earlier at Cornell University when a professor gave her a practice exam that she later realized was intended to have strings attached. "The next day, the test is the practice exam, and I knew exactly what he wanted in return," she said.

7. She was demoted at work for being a mother.

Before law school, as a new wife and mother, she worked in a social security office in Oklahoma. (Her husband was stationed there in the army). When she became pregnant, she was demoted at work----which was legal at the time.

8. She made less money because she was a woman.

She was a law professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, from 1963 to 1972, but Ginsburg said she was later told they paid her less than her male colleagues, because it was assumed that a woman who was married didn't really need a salary as much.

9. A Harvard dean questioned her ability because she was a woman.

Another story: Ginsburg and her husband attended Harvard Law School together, him one year ahead of her. She was one of nine women in a class of 500, and the dean questioned in front of her class how she could justify taking a spot from "a qualified man."

10. Another law professor stood up for her.

Ginsburg was near the top class in law school (she later transferred to Columbia), but she had a hard time getting a job because she was a woman. A professor stepped in to help her get a clerkship, telling a judge that if it didn't work out, he'd find a replacement for her.

"That was the carrot. And the stick was, if you don't give her a chance, I'll never recommend another Columbia student," she said.

11. She speaks an unexpected language.

In her early 30s, as she became more interested in feminist topics, she traveled to Sweden to write a book. Why Sweden? "Between 20 and 25 percent of the law students in Sweden were women. And there were women on the bench," Ginsburg said later. But this meant she had to learn the language to be able to do research.

12. She has an idea about "having it all."

In short, she says she understands that people want to "have it all," meaning I suppose a family, a good career, other pursuits. Ginsburg says her conclusion is that it's possible--it's just hard to have all at the same time.

As a liberal on a court with a 5 to 4 conservative majority, Ginsburg is often in the minority now. But she keeps writing stinging dissents, a judicial tradition meant in part to provide an institutional framework and the potential for the law to change over time.

And she's very aware of the passage of time and trying to ward off frailty. As she said last year, the most important person in her life these days is her personal trainer.

Published on: Nov 9, 2018
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