When Shana Knizhnik was in law school in summer 2013, she decided to create a blog dedicated to one of their inspirations: Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Ginsburg, 82, had been known as the Supreme Court’s liberal leader and feminist pioneer — and thanks to Knizhnik and an eager audience of young feminists on social media, Ginsburg has also become an Internet star. The “Notorious R.B.G.” Tumblr featured memes of Ginsburg as well as words of wisdom from the justice. The website went viral almost immediately.
Now, Knizhnik has teamed up with journalist Irin Carmon to write “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” a book inspired by the Tumblr. The duo researched and reported the book together, interviewing Ginsburg, her family members, friends and colleagues. They also included key passages from Ginsburg’s legal writing, annotated by different legal minds.
Chapter titles are appropriately inspired by Notorious B.I.G. lyrics, such as “Don’t let ‘em hold you down, reach for the stars.” And the appendix features “tributes to the Notorious RBG,” an accumulation of photos of people dressed up as the justice as well as popular images from the Tumblr.
The authors spoke by phone about their book, dedicated “to the women on whose shoulders we stand.”
Why do you think Ruth Bader Ginsburg resonates with people, especially the millennial generation?
Knizhnik: Ginsburg defies stereotypes. People expect this meek, grandmotherly type. She is a grandmother, but she shows so much strength and she is who she is without apology.
Carmon: She also allows women to imagine a different kind of power and to visualize a woman in power well past an age where she is usually invisible to society.
You both had a chance to meet her and interview her. What was it like?
Knizhnik: When I met Justice Ginsburg it was in December of 2014 … and I went with a couple of other people who were involved both with the Notorious R.B.G. meme and blog. We were invited to see oral arguments and we sat in on the two cases being argued and went to her chambers afterward.... It was amazing to see her in person after idolizing her. She was so warm and friendly.
One of the things we asked her, because she had just had heart surgery maybe a week or two before that, was what message she had for all the young people who admired her. She said “you can tell them I’ll be back doing push-ups next week.”
Carmon: We corresponded with her over the course of the book and she met with me one more time for fact-checking. One of the most meaningful moments happened toward the end [of the book writing process]. One of the things we wanted to do in the book was have a lot of original documents and primary sources. There’s this letter her husband wrote her just before he passed away. The text of this letter had been published before … and we wanted to get the original letter but we felt it was very intimate thing.
But toward the end, like a minute before the book was going to press, we got a letter from Justice Ginsburg that said, ‘My son said you could have this letter, here’s the original.’ We thought that was a very Justice Ginsburg moment. We felt so honored to receive that gift from her.
What was the biggest challenge of putting this book together?
Knizhnik: I think the challenge in some ways was just to make sure that we did her justice. No pun intended. She’s such an amazing person and has gone through so much and done so much both individually and for so many people in her career that we wanted to capture her spirit and celebrate her in a way that actually encapsulates what she has meant to so many people.
Talk me through the decision to make the chapter titles songs from Notorious B.I.G.?
Knizhnik: It worked perfectly with what we were trying to achieve. I think we did a good job of capturing what each chapter’s theme was through the chapter title.
Carmon: We wanted the book to be fun too. RBG has a sense of humor, she does appreciate a good laugh now and again.
What was your favorite thing you learned about RBG when researching her past?
Knizhnik: One thing I think is just hilarious and indicative of how awesome she is, is a story I learned from a professor at New York University who I interviewed for the book, who worked at the ACLU at the same time as Justice Ginsburg. He had a story about going white-water rafting with her, this was in the early ‘90s.
She wanted to sit in the front of the raft and the instructor and also this particular professor told her she should sit in the back. Because of how light she was, they were afraid she would fly off the raft. Her response was, “I don’t sit in the back.” There’s this amazing picture that we have in the book from that trip with her in front.
Carmon: I think … one of our favorite things that we learned is how ahead of her time she was in her feminism. We live in a time where the feminist debate is very active. She worked in a time where these debates were pretty new. It is incredible how a lot of her insights still hold up.