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A friend's tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg

While presenting the justice with an award, NPR's Nina Totenberg recalled all the times the Notorious R.B.G. had her back over their years of friendship.
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg poses in her Supreme Court chambers in Washington, July 31, 2014. (Photo by Cliff Owen/AP)
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg poses in her Supreme Court chambers in Washington, July 31, 2014.

WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is fluent in Swedish, her early feminism shaped by years she spent in that paragon of gender-equal policy in the 1960s. But on Thursday night, it was the neighboring Danish territory (also very feminist) that welcomed the justice to honor her with an award.

There was impeccable, authentic Danish modern furniture, and two Danish men, including the ambassador, professed their personal and national commitment to gender equality. But it was Ginsburg’s friend Nina Totenberg, the NPR correspondent presenting her with the award from the International Center for Research on Women, who made things merry. 

Just hours earlier, Simon & Schuster had announced to great fanfare that Ginsburg would publish “My Own Words” in January, a collection of her writing and speeches. As Ginsburg grinned gamely, Totenberg teased the justice for falling asleep at the State of the Union last year and talked up her bestselling fame (including a recent biography by this reporter). 

"Anyone who went parasailing in her seventies and who at the age of 82 still does pushups — what can I say, of course she’s become something of a rock star for women of all ages,” said Totenberg. She called Ginsburg “a demure firebrand. Architect of the battle for women’s rights. Brilliant jurist and respectful but fierce occasional dissenter.” 

All of this, Totenberg said, was commensurate with Ginsburg’s contribution to social progress. "Ruth Bader Ginsburg quite simply changed the way the world is for American women,” Totenberg said. "And she did it before she became a Supreme Court justice.” 

Her account of their friendship was the most moving. “When my late husband was terribly ill for a very long time, periodically she would just scoop me up and take me somewhere to cheer me up,” Totenberg said. 

"There was a time many years ago when I was blackballed from one of Washington’s previously all-male clubs,” she said. "It was particularly galling to me because they’d asked me to apply." 

About a year later, Totenberg said, Ginsburg was invited to join the club. “Always polite, she dutifully allowed herself to be escorted on a tour of the club,” Totenberg said. An invitation to join the club on the spot followed. “It was reported to me later that what she said in that quiet voice was, 'Well, any club that’s too good for Nina Totenberg is too good for me.’”

As for the justice, she spoke briefly in praise of the organization and said nothing about the death of her colleague and friend Antonin Scalia, nor about the prospect of the president being unable to confirm his successor. She smiled and said, "Nina and I have been dear friends for longer than many of you in this room have even been alive.”