By Lisa Radla
A traveling exhibition originating at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has arrived at the New-York Historical Society on West 77th Street and Central Park West. It couldn’t be more timely, as the Supreme Court’s failure to block the restrictive Texas abortion law reverberates across the nation. Now, until January 23, 2022, museum-goers can revisit the struggles — and the successes — of an earlier era through the life and legacy of the late Supreme Court justice and civil rights pioneer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Just inside the gallery, the sound of Ginsburg’s Brooklyn accent greets you, a younger Ruth than most are familiar with. A video of Judge Ginsburg, then in her sixties, clad in a blue dress with her brown hair pulled back in a blue scrunchie, plays on a loop. She is fielding questions during her 1993 confirmation hearings from various United States senators who would ultimately and easily affirm her nomination with a 96 to 3 vote.
Visitors move through Ginsburg’s life, from the teenage girl who was named “camp rabbi” at Camp Che-Na-Wah in 1948, to a photo of her as the maid of honor at a friend’s wedding in 1951, and a 3D rendering of a room in her childhood Brooklyn home. Just around the corner from this part of the show is a striking placard listing “Some of the Things Women Couldn’t Do in the 1930s and 1940s.”
During that time, women could not practice law, receive equal pay for equal work, attend a military academy or an Ivy League school, sit on a jury, wear pants on the U.S. Senate floor, own property without a man in control of it, or open a bank account without a man’s permission. The striking part is not just how antediluvian those things were, but how this tiny woman became the larger-than-life icon who would go on to obliterate them.
Ginsburg’s life’s mission, as the exhibit notes, was to secure the promise of the Constitution’s “We the People” for all people. To do that, she first went to Cornell, where she graduated at the top of her class. At Harvard Law School, she became the first female member of the school’s Law Review before graduating first in her class from Columbia Law School (while residing at 404 West 116th Street).
Soon after, the woman’s right’s champion was arguing cases on the federal circuit and before the Supreme Court of the United States. The retrospective devotes larger signage to some of those cases. But there is a smaller section that is equally important. Titled “Litigating Equality,” it details RBG’s role in a number of other cases, including the legal battle against the forced sterilization of black women and the fight to ensure equal rights for pregnant women and for men who were denied survivor benefits on gender-based distinctions.
Museum staff advise at the start of the show that photography is allowed in only two places: one is the giant red collage when you first enter, and the other, fortunately, is at the very end. In an exhibit containing true gems of information and artifact, where visitors were multigenerational, cross cultural, and included slightly more women than men, the end might be the crown jewel.
Next to the 3D rendering of the nation’s highest court is a glass enclosure. In it, is Ginsburg’s robe and dissenting collar, her blue scrunchie, and a pair of her white gloves that she initially wore at the suggestion of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to keep herself safe while she was going though chemotherapy for colon cancer.
There is a very real portrayal of an icon’s accomplishments detailed throughout. Palpable is the sense of loss and pride, made tangible by the sniffles, deep sighs, and tears of many who silently read and learned about the struggles fought for them by RBG.
Across from her personal items are photographs of the citywide remembrances, mementos, and signs mourners left after Justice Ginsburg passed away on September 18, 2020. “This wasn’t her court but she told me it could be mine,” read one sign. “Thank you RBG. Rest in peace. We’ll win this thing for you,” notes another.
The final sign of the exhibit reads “Not Done Yet” – a hopeful promise of the legacy of the Notorious RBG passing the torch to the next generation.
The New-York Historical Society is located on Central Park West between 76th and 77th Streets. Hours: Wednesday – Thursday: 11 am –5 pm; Friday: 11 am – 8 pm; Saturday – Sunday: 11 am – 5 pm. Call (212) 873-3400 for information about admission or click here.