Last Friday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg answered questions from commentators at Hill Auditorium during the University’s annual Tanner Lecture on Human Values. The auditorium was packed to capacity, with thousands of political nerds drooling in their seats simply for getting the chance to lay eyes on the “Notorious R.B.G.”

Aarica Marsh

R.B.G. has been celebrated across the country for the past few decades as a monumental leader in the women’s rights movement. Her popularity has been elevated to that of a classic cultural icon among America’s youth. Affectionately nicknamed Notorious R.B.G. (a moniker inspired by deceased rapper Notorious B.I.G.), Ginsburg has entered the minds and hearts of thousands of young nerds across the nation, becoming an iconic leader in the battle for equality among all human beings.

During the lecture, Ginsburg spoke about several topics including law, women’s rights, professionalism, famous SCOTUS cases and giving advice how to best help others.

With all eyes glued to her small, shockingly fashionable 81-year-old frame, Ginsburg noted, “If you think of yourself as a professional, well you’re not just going to get a job so you can turn over a buck … You’ve got a skill, and you can earn a living from it. But if you think of yourself as a true professional armed with a skill, you could help someone who is less fortunate.”

Even before Ginsburg began working in the public sphere, she embodied this sentiment. When she began law school in 1956, she was one of nine women in her class of over 500 students. She graduated at the top of her class in 1959 from Columbia Law School after attending Harvard Law for her first two years. However, gaining employment after excelling in law school was nearly impossible for our beloved idol. Ginsburg mentioned during her speech that there “weren’t many legal employers who were willing to take on a woman.”

R.B.G. was eventually offered a position as a law clerk. After her initial struggle in the workforce, Ginsburg steadily built an admirable career as a law professional and an advocate for human rights — specifically gender rights.

Her list of accomplishments is almost unnerving. She taught at the Rutgers University Law School. She became the director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project, winning five of the six cases she argued before the Supreme Court. She was the first tenured female professor at Columbia Law School. She was appointed to the District of Columbia’s U.S. Court of Appeals by President Jimmy Carter and wrote more than 300 opinions for the court. And in 1993 — the year I was born — President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to replace SCOTUS Justice Byron White. After her confirmation, she became the second female justice in our nation’s history.

R.B.G.’s popularity began to increase after her ferocious dissents in the affirmative action case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, and the voting rights case, Shelby County v. Holder. When alternatives to affirmative action were offered during oral arguments, Ginsburg famously responded in her dissent with, “only an ostrich could regard the supposedly race-neutral alternatives as race-unconscious.”

Shortly after the dissents were released in June 2014, New York University law student Shana Knizhnik created the “Notorious R.B.G.” tumblr, propelling Ginsburg to Internet immortality among America’s young, tech-savvy demographic.

The creation of this tumblr turned into something devoted R.B.G. fanatics have only dreamed about since 1993. A Jan. 6 post from the site summarizes this notion and Ginsburg’s year in two simple sentences (emphasis mine): “This year, the Notorious R.B.G. had heart surgery, celebrated her 81st birthday, and served her 21st year on the Supreme Court of the United States. But most of all, 2014 was the year that everyone realized that she is a total badass.”

In 2003, only nine percent of respondents in a poll by FindLaw.com were able to identify Ginsburg as a Supreme Court justice; in 2012, that number increased to 13 percent. It’s safe to say that in 2015, more Americans (especially more young Americans) are able to identify R.B.G. as a Supreme Court justice and a passionate advocate for human rights.

But is it really accurate to deem Ginsburg “notorious?”

According to Merriam-Webster online, the definition of notorious is “generally known and talked of; especially: widely and unfavorably known.”

Oxford dictionary online has a similar definition for notorious: “famous or well known, typically for some bad quality or deed.”

The nickname “Notorious R.B.G.” is funny, amusing and clever, yet, it’s not actually a good description of Ginsburg, her work or her ideology. While Ginsburg dissenters may deem her “notorious” for her liberal beliefs about human rights, in my book she is anything but.

Ginsburg is renowned, esteemed, illustrious, astounding, influential, preeminent — but she is never, ever notorious.

In everything she has done, Ginsburg has worked for the betterment of humankind. She is an incredible person, and I can only hope to accomplish a mere sliver of the good that she has done in the world.

For now, I will follow Ginsburg’s parting advice: “Pursue — whatever it is — your passion.”

Aarica Marsh is co-editorial page editor of The Michigan Daily. She can be reached at aaricama@umich.edu.

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