You won’t understand the full import of the scenes we see or the music we hear at the beginning of Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s intelligent, intimate documentary “RBG,” and I’m not just talking about the male statues around Washington, DC. By West and Cohen’s estimation, she’s a hero, an icon and a dissenter, but she has also been called “this witch, this evildoer, this monster” and “an absolute disgrace to the Supreme Court” and even, without the cool comic-con cosplay connotation, a “zombie.”
You’ve probably heard of Notorious BIG. If you haven’t heard of Notorious RBG, then you’re missing a person who changed the legal landscape for women in the US. In 2015, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik published a New York Times best-selling book about Ginsburg and her spirited dissents, “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” and, at 85, RBG has a song by Jennifer Hudson released about her, “I’ll Fight.” RBG has been fighting for women before most of the women living today were born.
Her BFFs from girlhood clearly state, RBG didn’t do “girl chat” and she didn’t “do small talk.” She was also a quiet girl who was close to her mother, who died when RBG was 17, just before her high school graduation and left her with two important lessons: “Be a lady” and “Be independent.”
In her day, she was an attractive brunette at Harvard who dated extensively. When she was at Harvard Law School, she was one of nine women in a class of over 500 men, feeling that “you were constantly on display” and if you failed, you were failing not as an individual but for all of your gender. University employees barred her from going into certain rooms and she was asked what she was doing, taking a seat away from a man. She was good; she was quiet and she met the right man.
“RBG” is also a love story. Martin Ginsburg, who would become a top tax lawyer, was “the first boy I ever knew who cared I had a brain.” By law school, she was already a mother of a 14-month-old child and had a law student husband. And if that wasn’t enough, not only did she make the Harvard Law Review during her second year, but she also had to care for her husband who was being treated for cancer during his third year of law school.
She helped her husband finish his classes, getting notes from his classmates and typing them up, caring for him and her young son James (she would later have a daughter, Jane) and doing her own work. But the Brooklyn-born RBG moved with her husband to New York to finish her law degree at Columbia.
Yet when she couldn’t find a job at a law firm, she turned to academia. She taught about gender and the law and joined the ACLU to take cases on gender equity to court, including the Supreme Court. The first one was about getting a housing allowance, in which Air Force Lt. Sharron A. Frontiero was told, “You’re lucky we let you in here at all.” Frontiero v. Richardson in 1973 was argued by Joseph J. Levin of the Southern Poverty Law Center, who started the case, and RBG.
Gender-based discrimination also affected men, and that’s something that RBG made clear in the 1975 case Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, which argued that widowers should also get survivor’s benefits while caring for minor children. Frontiero and Stephen Wiesenfeld both comment about the merit and emotional impact of their Supreme Court cases.
In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and her husband followed, becoming a law professor. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court. She would be the first Jewish justice since the resignation of Abe Fortas and the second female justice. Serving with the first woman justice, Sandra Day O’Connor (appointed by Ronald Reagan 1981 and retired in 2006), she began a style (wearing a jabot) that provided a feminine touch with a sense of tradition.
Her husband was fine taking a backseat to his wife, and we hear him joking that he was the cook at the behest of their children. According to this documentary, in her 60s, she was still too shy to put herself forward.
Clinton says that “It was her mind that did it.” Ginsburg’s husband died in 2010 of cancer and RBG would have two battles of her own with the disease.
In the current conservative court, she has become the great dissenter. In her 80s, she seems to enjoy her notoriety. As Gloria Steinem attests, “She is really, when you come right down to it, the closest thing to a superhero I know.” You should get to know her, too.
“RBG” GRADE: A