Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a Supreme Court Justice and an advocate for civil rights, especially the rights of women. She was the second woman ever appointed to the Court. She’s 85 years old, and has in recent times been often on the dissenting side of Court opinion.
This is pretty much all I knew about her until I watched RBG, the new documentary film from Betsy West and Julie Cohen. I keep up on public matters, and generally try to stay well informed, but I was unaware of the life story of this remarkable woman. This may be partly due to her soft-spoken and retiring nature. Self-promotion has never been part of her style. All her life she has worked in the background, so to speak, helping to craft an American legacy of progress in the recognition of women’s equal rights. Only recently has she been made into a kind of cultural icon, with people affectionately calling her “the notorious RBG,” and putting her name and face on t-shirts and mugs, all because of her passionate, continued resistance to conservative backlash against the progress made by feminism and other progressive movements.
The film is most engaging when it documents her pre-Supreme Court life, including her advancement in the Harvard and Columbia law schools, as one of the few, and often the only women in her classes. This was in the early 1950s, when women were still expected to just be housewives, and not professionals. Later, while teaching at Rutgers and Columbia, she began practicing what would become her specialty and mission: legal challenges to discrimination based on gender.
One of the most interesting sequences in the film takes us through a 1973 case in which a female Air Force officer was denied the housing allowance that male service members were given. Ginsburg argued it before the Supreme Court and won the case. Two years later she represented a widower who was denied Social Security survivor benefits that were normally given to widows. This was a very smart move, because she demonstrated how gender inequity sometimes cuts both ways, and she won that case too.
During the parts of the movie where we learn about her arguments before the Court, and later in her career as a Justice on the Supreme Court, the film plays actual recordings of her arguments and opinions from the bench, often finished off by her reading excerpts herself in current interviews. We see pictures, interviews, and other footage from throughout her life, including her remarkable confirmation hearings in 1993. The Senate voted her in, 96 to 3. It was a different time then.
She was considered a moderate back in ’93, and by most objective standards she was, judging according to principle and not for political reasons. It seems that the times have changed more than her, because now she’s arguably the most liberal Justice on the Court. To demonstrate her non-partisan personality, the movie highlights her friendship with the extremely conservative Justice Antonin Scalia. We see them laughing and joking together, and sharing their love of opera. Republican Senator Orrin Hatch is also on screen praising her, although his views are fairly opposite to hers. In contrast, we briefly hear a litany of right wing radio hosts and Fox News people angrily attacking her.
The picture also provides a few glimpses into her private life, including interviews with her daughter, son, and granddaughter. We see her at her regular exercise workouts, going on trips, and appearing at various events. I might have preferred a little less of this, and more about her legal thinking, but you can’t have everything. One quite remarkable aspect of the private Ginsburg is the story of her husband, prominent tax lawyer Martin Ginsburg. They were married right out of college and stayed married for 56 years until his death in 2010. Marty comes across as almost the perfect model of a supportive husband. He believed fervently in his wife’s brilliance, pushed hard for her to be appointed to the Supreme Court, and had no qualms about her being more powerful and famous than he.
RBG is a much needed portrait of one of the most important and influential women in our history.