The late Supreme Court Justice left behind a superlative legacy of persistence and grit.
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As the nation mourned the loss of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg this week, many tributes turned their focus to what her legacy will ultimately mean for women and the country. That legacy is no doubt far-reaching, considering Ginsburg’s scholarly and judicial influence on rulings seeking equal protection under the law for all genders.
Many of those decisions (and often, her dissents) centered on equal treatment for women, notably in education and workplace. From her Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company arguments to the landmark United States v. Virginia case, Justice Ginsburg sought to level the playing field, famously saying, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
Ginsburg’s own challenges with gender discrimination in school and at work play a role in the origin story of the woman who became known as the “Notorious RBG.” And while she wasn’t a business owner herself, she approached her life’s work with an entrepreneurial spirit that speaks to how we frame the idea of modern work.
As entrepreneurs, we know that tenacity, dedication, and grit are components of our DNA, as is the ability to create community and build a brand. Here’s a look at how RBG’s path to the Supreme Court was an entrepreneurial journey.
Quitting wasn’t something Ginsburg did. Having entered Harvard Law School in 1959 as one of only nine women in her class, the Brooklyn native pulled triple duty as a student and parent while also attending her husband Marty’s classes during his first bout with cancer. Rarely logging more than three hours of sleep a night, Ginsburg excelled in her studies while making sure Marty didn’t fall behind in his. After graduating at the top of her class at Columbia, where she transferred when Marty got a job in New York, she still had a hard time finding work as a woman, but she persisted and landed a clerkship with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York and later served as a law professor at Rutgers and Columbia, where she was the first woman granted tenure.
Ginsburg went all in for women from the start of her career when she founded the Women’s Rights Law Reporter in 1970, one of the first journals to focus on the issues of women’s rights. Two years later, she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU and ultimately won five out of the six gender-discrimination cases she argued in front of the Supreme Court, where she would later sit from 1993 until her death.
When we think about grit as it pertains to entrepreneurship, we often equate it with a never-give-up attitude or the ability to persevere against all odds. Ginsburg’s personal history obviously points to this quality; her bona fides in the grit department speak for themselves. (If attending law school for two while parenting doesn’t give you grit, I don’t know what does.) But her true grit can also be found in her own words, most notably in the language of her famous dissents written while serving on the Supreme Court. Known as a meticulous researcher and writer, Ginsburg’s opinions were crafted in a way that laid out a case for thoughtful yet unapologetic dissent and speaking against majority rule. In other words, she wasn’t afraid to dig in and lay out firm evidence to support her stance on complex issues — even when she was outnumbered.
Entrepreneurs foster a sense of community. Businesses succeed not just because of hard work, but because of community engagement. Though she lived and worked in the often-divisive culture of Washington, Ginsburg found her community there in a most unlikely way as a patron of the arts, most notably opera. She approached her love of opera as she did her work — as a student and careful researcher. In turn, the opera community loved her back, even inviting her to appear on stage as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment at the Washington National Opera in 2016.
When an entrepreneur’s brand really takes off, it can rocket a business into everyday language and conversations. Often, that brand sticks in the vernacular as a shorthand reference, which is the case with Ginsburg’s now-famous moniker, the “Notorious RBG.” Coined by law student Shana Knizhnik in her Notorious RBG Tumblr, the name bestowed Ginsburg with badass status in response to her increasingly strong dissents in the Court as the only woman sitting on the bench after Sandra Day O’Conner’s retirement in 2005. The good-humored Justice, though small in stature and a stalwart of procedure and etiquette, leaned into her newly found rock-star status with grace and humor. While Ginsburg may be gone, her brand lives on in the zeitgeist.
Ginsburg’s uniquely entrepreneurial journey is reflective of the collective experience of many women who are on a similar road: managing families and work, pivoting when necessary, persisting to find that “yes” in the face of rejection and building a community in a time when connection is sorely needed. May we all be so notorious.