Thank You, Justice Ginsburg

The film “RBG” paints a portrait of a tireless fighter for women’s rights.

Posted Jun 22, 2018

Illustration for "RBG" courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Source: Illustration for "RBG" courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In a scene from the inspiring documentary “RBG,” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is walking through the sculpture garden of a museum in Santa Fe, NM, when she sees a statue of a Native American woman.

A guide tells her the statue, created by a Creek artist, is “a woman warrior.”

“Any kind of battle you bring to her, she’s ready for,” the guide says.  

“RBG” shows that those words apply perfectly to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, too.

I have admired Justice Ginsburg since she joined the Supreme Court in 1993. But before I saw this film, by directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen, I had not understood the fundamental role Ginsburg has played throughout her life in securing equal rights for women.

As NPR Supreme Court reporter Nina Totenberg says in the film, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg quite literally changed the world for American women.”     

Ginsburg was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, the daughter of devoted parents who “taught me to love learning, to care about other people and to work hard for whatever I believed in,” she says in a video from the Senate hearing on her Supreme Court nomination.

Ruth Bader’s mother died of cancer in 1950 when Ruth was 17, but the daughter never forgot her mother’s teachings. “She had two lessons that she repeated over and over: ‘Be a lady and be independent,’” Ginsburg says in the film.

Ginsburg explains that the “be a lady” advice meant “Don’t let yourself be overcome by useless emotions, like anger.” The “be independent” advice meant that, as a woman, Ruth should always be able to “fend for yourself”—even if she fell in love with “Prince Charming.”  

“RBG” suggests Ginsburg followed her mother’s advice to the letter. An excellent student, she attended Cornell University, where she took advantage of the ratio of four men to every woman in her first-year class to have “no repeat dates” in her first semester. Her whirlwind dating spree ended when she met fellow Cornell undergraduate Martin Ginsburg.

“He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain,” she says. “Marty was so comfortable with himself that he never regarded me as a threat.”

The two married in 1954, shortly after Ruth graduated from Cornell. They began a loving 56-year partnership in which Martin Ginsburg, a lawyer himself, championed his wife’s legal career.

Martin Ginsburg believed “women’s work, whether at home or on the job, was as important as a man’s work,” Justice Ginsburg says in the film. “Meeting Marty was by far the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me.”

Ginsburg was in college when the country was gripped by Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s incendiary campaign against alleged communists in the federal government and the arts. A professor praised the lawyers defending the rights of those targeted “to think, to write and to speak freely.” Those words inspired Ginsburg to become a lawyer. “I got the idea that you could do something to make your society a little better,” she said.

Ginsburg encountered gender discrimination while still in law school. One of nine women in her Harvard Law School class of more than 500 students, she went to the law library to do research and was told she couldn’t enter because she was a woman. The law school dean held a dinner for the nine women students—and asked each to stand and say, as Ginsburg explained, “What were we doing taking a seat that could be occupied by a man.”

Ginsburg did so well at Harvard that she was invited to join the Law Review in her second year. She did equally well when she transferred to Columbia Law School after her husband accepted a job in New York. Yet the discrimination she encountered in school continued after she received her law degree.

“When I graduated from Columbia Law School in 1959, not a single law firm in New York would hire me,” Ginsburg says. Describing the climate for women in those years, Totenberg says, “There was no aspect of American life in which you were not treated differently.”

The trouble the immensely qualified Ginsburg had finding a job helped shape her life’s work: fighting discrimination against women and, more broadly, gender discrimination of all kinds. In 1963 she began teaching a course in Gender and the Law at Rutgers University. She also began work on sex discrimination cases, partnering with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project.

The first sex discrimination case Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court, Frontiero v. Richardson, concerned Air Force Lieutenant Sharron Frontiero, who was denied a housing allowance and benefits for her husband because she was female.

Recalling that day in 1973, Ginsburg says she was “terribly nervous” until she looked at the nine male justices and realized, “I had a captive audience. I was speaking to men who didn’t think there was gender discrimination, and my job was to tell them that there was.”

Ginsburg’s groundbreaking work caught the eye of President Jimmy Carter; in 1980 he appointed her to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In 1993 President Bill Clinton nominated Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. She was confirmed by a 97-3 Senate vote, becoming only the second woman on the Court.

In 1996, the justices heard arguments in a landmark gender discrimination case involving the Virginia Military Institute—the country’s last all-male, state-supported school. A female high school student had sued the Commonwealth of Virginia to be admitted. Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion, arguing that Virginia had violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and requiring VMI to admit women.

In recent years, Ginsburg has been a dissenting voice in well-publicized Supreme Court cases decided by the court’s conservative majority, including the 2007 equal pay case Ledbetter v. Goodyear and the 2013 voting rights case Shelby County v. Holder.

Of her dissent in the Ledbetter case—in which the majority ruled against a female Goodyear manager who learned her pay for years had been 40 percent less than her male colleagues, Ginsburg later wrote, “The Court does not comprehend or is indifferent to the insidious way in which women are the victims of pay discrimination.” In her dissent she exhorted Congress to act; in January 2009 Congress passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.

Summarizing Ginsburg’s long career, Totenberg says the justice has been “a ferocious defender of minorities and women and certain types of ideals.”

In one of the most moving sections of the film, the 85-year-old Ginsburg meets with a group of high school students visiting the Supreme Court. Holding up a pocket copy of the Constitution, she refers to the 14th Amendment, with its crucial phrase “nor shall any state . . . deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The students—female and male, African American and Caucasian—look at her with awe.

Ginsburg’s second scene with the students is toward the end of the film. Her words to them may reassure all who despair about the current state of the country.

“Looking back over my long life,” she says, “yes, we may be in trying times. But look how it was.”

Copyright © 2018 by Susan Hooper

Illustration for “RBG” courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.