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Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s robe, briefcase, Lego likeness head to Smithsonian

Dozens of objects are joining the permanent collection as the American History Museum posthumously honors the Supreme Court justice with a Great Americans Medal

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2013. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)
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Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s black robe, her brightly beaded “majority” collar and her darker “dissent” collar have become part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection — along with an RBG bobblehead and a framed photo of her likeness tattooed on someone’s arm.

About three dozen objects, donated by the late Supreme Court justice’s children, James and Jane Ginsburg, capture the range of her impact as a legal trailblazer, Supreme Court icon and pop-culture phenomenon affectionately known as “the Notorious RBG.”

The objects are being collected by the National Museum of American History as it honors Ginsburg, who died in September 2020, with its annual Great Americans Medal for her groundbreaking judicial career and lifelong commitment to gender equality and human rights.

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“The loss is both personal and also very public,” said James Ginsburg, who with his sister will accept the medal at Wednesday’s virtual celebration. “The outpouring for mother was so overwhelming and long-lived. And this is a good example. The legacy lives on, which is really wonderful.”

“I’m far enough removed from the immediate shock of her passing to reflect,” he said. “It was fun going through some of these items and having a chance to talk about them. There was a certain cathartic nature to it.”

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The ceremony Wednesday evening will feature a biographical film narrated by Gloria Steinem, testimonials from former president Jimmy Carter, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., Barbra Streisand, Oprah Winfrey and Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, and a conversation between the museum’s director, Anthea M. Hartig, and James and Jane Ginsburg about their mother’s legacy and their donation. (Register here to live-stream the 6:30 p.m. event, which will be available later at greatamericans.si.edu and s.si.edu/GreatAmericans.)

First given in 2016, the Great Americans Medal has been presented annually to up to two recipients, including Madeleine K. Albright, Colin Powell, Tom Brokaw, Cal Ripken Jr., Billie Jean King, Paul Simon and Anthony S. Fauci.

Ginsburg graduated first in her law school class in 1959 but struggled to land a job because she was a woman. She taught at Rutgers University Law School in New Jersey before joining Columbia University Law School, where she was the first woman to become a tenured professor. In the 1970s, working with the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, she argued landmark gender-equality cases before the Supreme Court. Carter appointed her to the federal bench in 1980, and in 1993, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the Supreme Court.

She served 27 years.

“She was more than your typical Supreme Court justice,” curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy said. “There are justices who are revered, justices who are admired, justices that people can name and discuss. And then there’s Ginsburg, who caught the public’s attention and the public’s imagination in a way I can’t remember anyone [doing].”

Ginsburg’s fame took a pop-culture turn in 2013, when a law student dubbed her “Notorious RBG.” She was the subject of a 2018 documentary, “RBG,” and movie, “On the Basis of Sex,” written by her nephew Daniel Stiepleman. Kate McKinnon portrayed her on “Saturday Night Live.”

“At first she was quite surprised by all of it, taken aback. But I think she really, with time, grew to enjoy and appreciate the opportunities it afforded, especially at a time when the court was changing so much,” James Ginsburg said. “She was looking to reach a different and, in some cases, a future audience. The notoriety was a way to reach people beyond the court and legal circles, to reach a wider audience about what true equality means.”

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Ginsburg’s family invited Smithsonian curators to visit Ginsburg’s chambers a few weeks after she died, Graddy said. Afterward, the curators made a list of the items they wanted to collect.

“There was always an understanding there, that the Smithsonian would be a big part of where some of the more significant items would go,” James Ginsburg said. “That Mom kept all of this stuff does not surprise me. That was in her nature. She was someone who preserved things.”

In addition to the robe and a sample of the many collars she wore with it, the Smithsonian collected 12 briefs representing cases Ginsburg argued as a lawyer, a leather briefcase monogrammed with her initials and a framed copy of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2009. It includes a photo of Obama signing the bill, autographed with birthday wishes for Ginsburg.

Ginsburg’s dissent in the 2007 case Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. directly called on Congress to act against pay discrimination.

“It’s one of the cases we associate most strongly with Ginsburg,” Graddy said of the dissenting opinion. “She actively encouraged Lilly Ledbetter to not accept that this was the end but to keep fighting.”

“It’s a wonderful way to talk about the impact of a dissent,” she added. “Even when you are not on the winning side, you still have an impact on things, you can still change things.”

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Other items show how Ginsburg’s influence grew outside the law. There’s a signed movie poster for “On the Basis of Sex,” a framed set of Lego “Figures of the Women of the Supreme Court,” featuring Ginsburg, Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and a kitschy MTV Award honoring her as “Best Real-Life Hero.”

Then there’s that photo of the tattoo, sent by a fan from Los Angeles in 2015. Ginsburg hung it in her chamber’s bathroom.

“On the one hand, Mom was never a fan of tattoos,” James Ginsburg said. “On the other hand, it would be hard not to admire that particular artwork and the fact that someone was willing to put that permanently on their body.”

Ginsburg mostly embraced her surprising celebrity, her son said.

“It came about so organically. It’s not like Mom hired a publicist,” he said. “When she was younger, she was known for a more staid disposition. My father [Martin Ginsburg] was the life of the party. But over time, and especially after my father passed away, my mother sort of picked up that mantle and genuinely enjoyed some of the ways she was depicted.”

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