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‘Extraordinarily Self-centered’: RBG Admirers Struggle With Her Legacy B as a Roe Reversal Approaches

Swanee Hunt, a former United States ambassador, has long been a supporter of women’s rights, a funder of Democratic causes, and a fan of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

She, on the other hand, has recently found it difficult to gaze directly at photographs of Ginsburg’s face.

Hunt wasn’t familiar with the late Supreme Court justice, but she admired her and everything she stood for. Hunt entertained the new Supreme Court justice at her home during the Clinton administration, accompanying her to the opera and inviting residents to breakfast in her honour.

“I felt like I got a closer look,” recalls Hunt, who later became the founding director of Harvard’s Kennedy School’s Women in Public Policy Program. “Especially presenting her in another country as an example of an American hero.”

Hunt isn’t precisely the target demographic for the Notorious RBG apparel that became prevalent during Ginsburg’s late-life emergence as an improbable Millennial meme generator, aged 72 and having spent a career inside circles of power.

But she ended up getting a handful of mugs picturing the feminist icon, who died in 2020.

Hunt, on the other hand, recently decided that she didn’t want to see them. With the Supreme Court likely to overturn Roe v Wade, Ginsburg’s refusal to resign during the Obama administration looms big in the minds of some of her fans, who see it as allowing the destruction of huge portions of Ginsburg’s legacy.

The unintentional — but not unexpected — consequence was that Donald Trump was able to choose Ginsburg’s replacement, who may end up being the fifth vote needed to overturn the historic 1973 abortion-rights decision.

“I wanted to put it away.” “I thought to myself, ‘I don’t want to look at it,'” says Hunt. “I’d like to save it for my children and grandchildren.”

That was a labour of love. I’m 72 years old, and if there’s something that bothers me, I want to get rid of it. I didn’t want to be reminded of it. It was excruciating. “I had a sense of betrayal.”

Since POLITICO reported last month on a draught ruling overturning Roe, that combination of emotions has become increasingly typical. People who might have been the justice’s peers — people well established in law, politics, and public service, many of whom can empathise with the complicated feelings involved in calling it quits — feel much of the wistfulness, not disappointed idealist purchasers of lace-collar Halloween costumes or RBG refrigerator magnets.


“It’s difficult for me now to think of her work and of her — and not feel a pang of sadness and fury,” says Dorothy Samuels, who wrote legal editorials for The New York Times during her 30 years on the editorial board.

“This is complicated because she was so committed to creating equality for everybody.” She devised a strategy to include women in the constitution. And yet, what she has given us is a court that will reverse the equality judgements that she was a part of for a very long period.”

During his research for a book in the years leading up to Ginsburg’s death, Samuels heard the same thing from former clerks and other inner-circle members. “It was a really self-centred act.”

“She gambled,” argues outspoken Stanford law professor Michele Dauber of Ginsburg’s apparent calculation that Hillary Clinton would be in the White House to appoint her successor. “However, she didn’t only take a chance on herself.”

She took a chance on my granddaughter’s and daughter’s rights. Sadly, that is her legacy. It’s sad, in my opinion.”

Anyone attempting to hide from Ginsburg’s image will have a difficult time doing so. Murals in New York, San Antonio, Kansas City, Denver, Baltimore, San Jose, and others; a US Navy ship; a New York hospital; a new species of praying mantis abound nearly two years after her death.

The draft-ruling bombshell appears to have had no effect on sales of Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s Notorious RBG — the ur-text of Ginsburg’s transition from judge to the secular saint, according to data from Bookscan.

The ubiquitous RBG apparel is a good example of this. “We still have a lot of stuff with her image on it,” says Bradley Graham, owner of the Washington bookstore Politics & Prose. “A cup, a doll, and a candle,” she says.

This kind of sales ebb and flow, but we haven’t noticed any major dropoff. We still have some in stock and are selling some. Some people have recently expressed their displeasure with her.”

Ginsburg’s standing as a pop-culture icon and her retirement decisions have, in fact, been part of the posthumous finger-pointing. Was the RBG cult one of the elements that influenced her decision to stay instead of retiring at a politically safe time?

“I’ve heard the argument, both before and after her death, that, ‘Why have you people made her this demigod?'” says Debbie Levy, a Washington-based author of two mostly laudatory children’s books about Ginsburg.

“I say, maybe she was made a demigod by someone else; I didn’t make her a demigod.” I used to think of her as a fantastic person, and I still do. This notion that we have done her a disservice by raising her as an example. “Who are you doing a disservice to?” I’d ask.

The timeline is also off. The book by Carmon and Knizhnik was published in 2015, while Obama was still president, but after the Democrats had lost control of the Senate.

Tumblr, the platform on which it was built, was created in 2013. But, by the time the 2012 elections rolled around, Ginsburg had already battled colon and pancreatic cancer. Those early retirement calls were met with Ginsburg’s characteristically dogged reluctance to listen to those who advised her to leave.

Still, Justice Samuel Alito’s draught opinion, which highlights Ginsburg’s own publicly acknowledged problems with Roe v. Wade, has a certain potency due to Ginsburg’s unique cultural significance today (she had issues with aspects of the judicial and political approach, not the result).

The asides upset Ginsburg supporters, but they also highlight something that the justice’s feminist detractors have been pointing out in recent weeks: that the attention on RBG obscures a slew of other female colleagues, even those who may have outwitted her in some cases.

Linda Hirshman, a lawyer and the author of a dual biography of Ginsburg and Sandra Day O’Connor, says, “She was very smart, very intelligent, and very enthusiastic, but she wasn’t the only game in town.”

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The public’s adoration for Ginsburg has also made criticism of her decisions more difficult. Erwin Chemerinsky, currently the dean of the University of California law school, urged her to resign in a POLITICO column in 2014.

“I received a very angry response,” he said in an email, “including indirectly (via others) from Justice Ginsburg.” Dauber, meanwhile, blasted a series of venomous tweets about “RBG cult members” and the legacy of her decision to stay.

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