Film "RBG" about Ruth Bader Ginsburg unpacks the justice behind the fame

The new film documents the justice's life, but highlights her early work as a litigator on behalf of women

Published May 5, 2018 10:30AM (EDT)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg mid workout in "RBG" (Magnolia Pictures)
Ruth Bader Ginsburg mid workout in "RBG" (Magnolia Pictures)

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a pop culture icon and liberal hero, known in some circles as "the Great Dissenter" for her sharp dissents on the Supreme Court, and in others as the "Notorious RBG," after another Brooklyn legend.

Ginsburg was the second woman appointed to this country's highest court and at 85, her soft-spoken tone continues to be balanced by her unrelenting determination regarding her work — the bulk of which has been dedicated to advocating for equal rights for women.

These facts are largely known. But a new documentary feature about Ginsburg's life, "RBG," directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, aims to tell a more in-depth, colored story of the celebrated justice. At the center of the film, in select theaters May 4, is Ginsburg's work and victories as a litigator and the radical, feminist partner she found in her late husband, Marty.

"There’s so much more to Justice Ginsburg beyond her dissents," West told Salon on a recent episode of Salon Talks. Cohen added, "We wanted to give a full picture of the justice, not just what she’s accomplished in the law, both as a lawyer and then as a judge and a justice, but also who she is as a human being. An important part of that is some of the relationships in her life."

Ginsburg's pre-professional life was invigorated and marred by entering spaces where few women had been before. She attended Harvard Law School in 1956 in a class of nine women and about 500 men. Her position there and her credibility were constantly questioned. Ginsburg recalled the dean asking the female students there: "How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?"

During this time, Ginsburg was a law student, mother and caretaker of her husband, who was suffering from testicular cancer, a dynamic that would flip in later years, where Marty would, without hesitation, adjust, support and prioritize Ginsburg's career over and over again. "He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain," Ginsburg said lovingly in the film.

Firsts continued for Ginsburg. During her time at Harvard, she became the first woman to join the prestigious Harvard Law Review. She tied for first in her class in 1959 when she graduated from Columbia Law School. But it was Ginsburg's work as co-founder of the ACLU's Women's Rights Project that West and Cohn argue dramatically shifted the landscape for American women.

"She had a very radical idea back then; it was that the U.S. Constitution should apply equally to men and women," West said. "There were just hundreds of laws that discriminated against women: They couldn’t get credit without their husband’s permission; they could be fired if they were pregnant; men were never prosecuted for raping their wives. She set out a legal path to attack those laws and practices in the Supreme Court and by the time she got done, she changed the world for American women."

Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court six times, five of which were victorious. In a groundbreaking case, Frontiero v. Richardson, she fought for a woman in the Air Force to be granted the same housing allowance benefit as men. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, Ginsburg argued on behalf of Stephan Wiesenfeld, whose wife died in childbirth, for the right of male widowers to collect the same Social Security survivor benefits as women. In this case and in a wildly progressive perspective for this time, Ginsburg put forth the idea that sex discrimination hurts us all. 

It was a "really a forward-thinking motion on her part and one that I wish people could understand," Cohen said. "Rather than just advocating for your own group, let’s advocate for a better society. Sexism hurts men as well as women. Racism hurts whites as well as blacks. We should all be pushing for a just society for all of us."

In the 1970s, when Ginsburg was arguing in front of an all-male Supreme Court, she said she saw herself "as a kind of kindergarten teacher," trying to convince the justices that gender-based discrimination even existed. West said the justices would combat Ginsburg's logic with the notion that there can't be discrimination, because "We put women on a pedestal." She explained to them, "no, that pedestal is a cage."

In addition to being inspiring,"RBG" is profoundly romantic. While Ginsburg is known for her stoicism and reserve, her kids kept a "Mommy Laughed" journal — Marty was her opposite, constantly telling jokes, jovial, visibly loving. He cooked all the food in their home (Ginsburg was notoriously terrible in the kitchen), took care of their children and pushed her career forward. Marty was especially instrumental in her Supreme Court nomination in 1993, via his relentless campaigning to then President Bill Clinton.

"He knew she was a legal genius, he wanted to see her get her due," Cohen said. "That’d be great for a husband even by today’s standards; imagine it in the 1950s." Marty Ginsburg was a feminist long before men began referring to themselves as such.

"The feminist love story" between Ruth and Marty Ginsburg, as the directors describe it, is developed and sustained. However, Ginsburg's close relationship with hyper-conservative colleague Antonin Scalia barely scrapes the surface. We get little information for this seemingly oppositional friendship, other than Ginsburg proclaiming "he made me laugh" and their shared love of opera.

Perhaps her story signals a generational shift in feminists of Ginsburg's time versus today. Many contemporary women activists or advocates in various industries are uninterested in engaging with the very people whose politics are rooted in their oppression, especially not for the sake of niceness. Similarly, feminists today are tired of playing kindergarten teachers to men in power, fatigued by the seemingly never-ending process of having to prove their humanity and agency over their minds and bodies.

"A generation of young women who are sick to death of performing empathy and centering powerful men may resist being told to accept incremental progress," Dahlia Lithwick wrote for Slate. "We no longer believe that men who only see sexism when it affects their wives and daughters are genuinely fighting for equality."

This doesn't take away from Ginsburg's legacy. In fact, her work combating gender discrimination, including pay disparity and promoting representation, are still front and center of the national dialogue regarding needed progress for women and people of color. In the era of #MeToo, where at least some women are being listened to and powerful men are forced to face consequences for perpetuating a culture of misogyny, it is clear that Justice Ginsburg laid some of this groundwork on a legal basis.

Ginsburg is revealed as a Notorious B.I.G. fan in the film, but she certainly didn't seek the sort of pop culture attention or recognition she garners today. Because it's her unparalleled determination that pushes her forward, where an 85-year-old trains hard to stay in fighting shape, with 20 push-ups and minute-long planks to prove it.

Ginsburg's determination is how she will be remembered, Cohen says, as well as "taking a slow, strategic and ultimately effective course to secure equal rights for men and women under the law."

Ginsburg quotes abolitionist and feminist Sarah Grimké in "RBG": "I ask no favors for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks." With threats from the Trump administration and efforts to roll back rights for women, the fight Ginsburg waged in the '70s is ongoing. But Ginsburg is showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. She's hired law clerks through June 2020. And, in a way, it sends a message to Trump, who she openly criticized, to the Republicans looking to fill her seat and to the many people who celebrate her: Ruth Bader Ginsburg's not finished yet.

By Rachel Leah

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