When Ruth Bader Ginsburg was growing up in Brooklyn, New York in the 1930’s and 40’s, as the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, girls didn’t have ‘careers.’ No, few girls even went to college and even fewer went into graduate programs. Women instead were expected to be ‘a lady’ and to land husbands, raise children and keep house. And when it came to legal rights – they also didn’t have many of those. They couldn’t get a bank loan or buy a house without their husband’s signature and weren’t allowed to ever charge their husbands with rape – no matter how terrible the situation. But young Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not ‘most girls.’ While her devoted mother did her duty and advised her only surviving daughter to be ladylike (an older sister had died in childhood), she also encouraged her to ‘be independent’ – something highly unusual for women at that time. Ruth Bader, now 85, and a renowned member of the nine Supremes, was so bright that she graduated from high school early and was just 17 when she went to Cornell University where she met her future husband, Marty Ginsburg. He was captivated by both her beauty – and yes, photos reveal that the 5’1″ Ruth was a stunner – and more importantly, he loved, her brain. Ginsburg reveals in the film that she fell for her charming classmate because he was the first boy she ever dated who cared that she did in fact, have a brain.
The RBG doc makes very clear points – Ruth’s incredible hard work and determination in the face of plenty of adversity, led her to groundbreaking successes – and that she had a rare marriage, that was truly a lifelong partnership of mutual respect and support. Ruth could never had made it to being the second woman in history, after Sandra Day O’Connor, to be sworn onto the Supreme Court, without her own brilliance and dedication to creating new law, but also without her husband’s efforts to champion her worth. Think about this: Ginsburg was just one of 9 women in Harvard Law School, in a class of 500 men, including her husband. She had to face the question from the Dean of the Law School – why was she taking a place away from a man? Nevertheless, she landed a spot on the revered Harvard Law Review.
But adversity didn’t end there. When she entered law school, she already was the mother of a toddler daughter AND her husband, Marty, was struck by testicular cancer – at a time before chemotherapy. While he underwent radiation and battled for his life, she went to school, came home and typed notes from his classmates, so he could keep up with his studies. She cared for their daughter, and then after little Jane went to bed, she went back to her own school work. Thankfully, Marty recovered but when she later graduated for Columbia Law School, her professors had to twist arms to get a judge to hire her as a law clerk, and then after that no law firm in New York City would hire her or any woman.
Well, NYC’s law firms lost out, because the notorious RBG pushed on in her career and became a professor at Rutgers Law School, founded a law journal which focused on women’s rights and later co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). That’s where Ruth began to really make history – arguing groundbreaking cases against gender discrimination in front of the Supreme Court. She argued for equal rights and equal protection under the law for women as well as men. She was responsible for obtaining the ruling that the all-male Virginia Military Institute had to admit female cadets. Finally in 1980 she landed on the United States Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, and then in 1933 after a robust behind-the-scenes campaign led by her admiring husband, Marty, she was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton.
Now, at 85, she is going strong, though often writing the lead minority opinions on an increasingly conservative court. She had vowed to stay on as long as she can continue to perform her job to the best of her ability. She works out with a trainer several times a week – and the documentary shows her hard at work in the gym. Not shockingly, President Donald Trump has called on her to resign: “Her mind is shot.” However, her fans – and no doubt you’ll be one of those – are praying for her to live forever. How terrible would it be for this champion of women’s rights, who has spent a lifetime breaking female stereotypes and fighting for equality – to be replaced by a far right extremist on the Supreme Court? She is well aware of that prospect at this moment, and her response is to stay healthy and keep working harder.
Since her husband, passed away 10 years ago, the Supreme Court, her children and grandchildren, including a granddaughter at Harvard Law School, are her only priorities. She wasn’t even aware that she was affectionately parodied on Saturday Night Live by Kate McKinnon until documentary filmmakers, Betsy West and Julie Cohen, showed her. Of course, she loved Kate’s performances. So don’t walk – run – to see RBG, which opens in theaters today May 3rd, and thank the Lord that Ruth Ginsburg has been there for you. Then say a prayer that she serves on the Supreme Court until she’s at least 100!