When Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated first of her class from Columbia Law School in 1959, not one law firm in NYC would hire a woman. A documentary shows how that sexism propelled her all the way to the Supreme Court.
If you have ever felt unrecognized and discriminated against in your career because you are a woman, consider Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Ginsburg, now 85 years old, is the subject of a must-see documentary, RBG, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, who point out that if Ginsburg hadn’t faced unyielding discrimination at the start of her career, she would now be comfortably retired after a career at a big law firm, instead of sitting on the U.S. Supreme Court and making history.
“She would have made more money, but she wouldn’t have had the meaningful, America-changing career that she’s had,” points out Julie Cohen in an EXCLUSIVE interview with Hollywoodlife.com. Adversity propelled Ginsburg, who grew up in Brooklyn, as the daughter of an immigrant dad and a mom who strongly encouraged her education and saved money to send her daughter to Cornell University. When she later enrolled in Harvard Law School, she was one of just nine women in a class of 500 men. She completed her degree at Columbia Law School.
Imagine how Ginsburg must have felt upon graduation when she was turned down by every big law firm in New York City because they wouldn’t hire a woman, nor could she get a position as a clerk with a Supreme Court justice even though she was highly recommended by one of her law school professors.
She was “practical”, not infuriated when facing roadblocks, according to co-director Betsy West. “The advice came from her mother. Her mother said, ‘don’t get consumed by your anger. It’s a waste of time and can be counter productive’. When Ginsburg faced the many challenges she encountered in her life, she thought very strategically, okay, I can’t be a lawyer, I’m going to become a professor and teach about law. And the next thing you know, she discovers this whole area of women’s law, which was completely unexplored… and pretty soon she’s taking cases to the Supreme Court to change the laws… she thought about the long game.”
Cohen and West’s engrossing documentary, which deserves to be an Oscar contender, follows the notorious Supreme Court justice from her school days in Brooklyn, through her years at Cornell, where she was a beauty with plenty of suitors, who met classmate Martin Ginsburg when she was just 17. They married just a month after she graduated as the highest-ranking female in her class. From there, we see Ruth go on to Harvard Law School, along with her husband, even though she was already the mother of a baby daughter.
It’s clear in the doc that Martin, the highly supportive love of her life, was no typical man of his generation. “It was a great feminist romance at a time when it was so unusual,” points out Betsy. Marty loved that she was smart. Ruth says in the film that he was the first man she met, who loved her for her brain.
So where did Martin get this modern attitude in the sexist world of 1950’s America? He had a “friggin’ amazing’ father, explains Julie. She “thought I’m not gonna go to (Harvard Law School) with a baby, like that’s just nuts. And then her father-in-law said to her, you know,… if you really want this, you’ll find a way to work it out.”
And she and Marty did.
For those of you, who can’t even conceive of the discrimination women faced in 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s America, the documentary is a huge eye-opener. As is the critical role that RBG played in giving women the right to equality under the law, that we take for granted today.
Directors West and Cohen admit that as journalists in the 70’s through the 90’s, they themselves didn’t realize Ginsburg’s huge role in securing equality for American women. “In the 1960’s you could be fired for being pregnant and you had to get your husband’s permission to get a bank loan,” recalls West.
“Women who are now in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s have come out of our screenings (of RBG) today telling stories of opportunities that were just closed to them as women when they were young,” shares Julie. “These are women who went to college — one woman had a masters degree in economics and couldn’t get a job as an economist because that field wasn’t open to women — or who had in-laws who told them,… now you’re having babies, no more of this work stuff.”
Ginsburg, who was blocked back then from practicing law in a firm, joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as their general counsel and argued gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, winning five, arguing that women needed to be treated equally to men under the law. Now in 2018, as Ginsburg finds herself sitting in dissent on Donald Trump‘s highly conservative court, is she discouraged?
No, according to Cohen and West. “She sees the arc of history, and she understands how bad it was for her… and that there’s been tremendous progress,” says Betsy. “She has the perspective that yes, these are trying times, but look what we’ve overcome and that… slow and steady progress with little blips backward, has been made over decades. Pushing to continue that, is the thing to do,” says Julie. “She’s 85, she’s frequently writing in dissent and she said to us, I’d prefer to be writing in the majority but she has to be hoping that she’s laying down a marker for somewhere in the future that her dissent will form the basis of change in a Supreme Court ruling. It’s happened before. She’s a determined optimist,” says Betsy.
Speaking optimistically, the directors say they hear that Ginsburg is recovering well from her three broken ribs and that she hopes not to retire until she’s at least, 90 — phew!
Maybe she’d even be up for a trip to the Oscars if RBG is nominated. In the meantime, you can stream the must watch documentary on iTunes, Amazon and more!