Directors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West
Last week I saw A Star Is Born, and I was told by many people to bring tissues. But I didn’t shed a tear watching that movie. Instead, it was a documentary about an 85-year-old Supreme Court Justice that brought the tears on. There were so many things I found moving, starting from Bader Ginsburg’s close relationship with her mother, who died when Ruth was 17, to her long marriage to Marty Ginsburg, a man who realized, from pretty much the first date, that he had met a person of unusual intelligence and strength.
She would need her strength in the early years of her marriage, when she was one of five women at Harvard Law. Her presence in class was suspicious, especially since she was married to a fellow classmate — why did she need to be a lawyer, too? The Dean hosted the female students for a special welcoming dinner, asking them: why did they think they deserved to take the spot of a man who was just as qualified? Ruth put her head down and made the Law Review. She also had a baby in her first year of law school. Oh, and Marty got cancer. Yes. He got cancer. Guess who cared for him, the baby, and graduated at the top of her class?
But this was before she was Notorious. Then, she was just a really good lawyer who no one in Manhattan would hire. Because none of the big firms hired women.
(At this point, the plot line of A Star Is Born doesn’t even compare. And we’re not even a third of the way through RBG.)
Ginsburg’s early experiences with gender discrimination were formative and she devoted her career as a lawyer to shining a light on the problem. She realized a couple of things: 1) a lot of men were not aware of gender discrimination and therefore did not believe it existed 2) it would be easier to convince men that gender discrimination existed if she could find cases in which men were being discriminated against because of their gender. Using strategies developed by Civil Rights-era lawyers like Thurgood Marshall, she argued for women’s liberation incrementally on a case-by-case basis. She said she saw her job as a teaching position, and that her role was to educate the male judiciary about gender-based discrimination.
In the first case Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court, she was representing a female army pilot, Sharron Frontiero, who was denied the housing allowance that male pilots received. Initially, Frontiero thought it was an administrative error and sought to correct it. But she was told that she hadn’t received it because she was a woman, and that the housing benefit was for men who had to support their families. I guess the logic was, a working woman doesn’t have a family? Actually, there was no logic, and Ginsburg successfully made that point and Frontiero received the benefits. After the case was over, Frontiero said people asked her if she was happy and she was like, why would I be happy that I had to go all the way to the Supreme Court to get paid fairly?
I liked Frontiero. She had a certain naivety that I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg also had as a young woman. Neither expected to be discriminated against, and when they were, their reaction was to correct the mistake. The causes and structures of gender-based discrimination are far from simple, of course, but both women were wise to stay calm and focus on the task in front of them. Ginsburg explicitly says that she learned from her mother not to show anger, because it wouldn’t help her get what she wanted.
RBG is also a portrait of Marty Ginsburg, who did something that men rarely do, which is to make a career sacrifice in order to help a wife’s career. The biggest on-paper sacrifice Marty made was the abandon his high-status law career in New York City in order to follow Ruth to Washington, D.C. But throughout the movie you see that it was the daily sacrifices that mattered most. He made dinner every night, allowing Ruth to work late on weeknights. On the weekends, he let her sleep. Ruth was a loving mother — and now grandmother — but she spent most of her time at home working, staying up until 2 a.m. at the kitchen table. Marty was the involved parent, the jokester, the one who got their mother to come home from the office. He did it, it seems, because he recognized her gifts, and would do what he needed to do to support her. It was also an opposites attract situation, where he was the gregarious, light-hearted one, while she was serious, reserved, and ambitious. It was Marty, everyone said, who got Ruth’s name on the short list for the Supreme Court. She was too busy working to put herself out there in that way.
At the end of this movie, I turned to my husband and was like, “What am I even doing with my life?” Which is the typical reaction of a self-involved writer, I guess. But I also felt grateful to Ruth for all the work she has done to break down gender barriers. And in the current political climate, in which the rights of women and minorities are being rolled back on what seems like a daily basis, it was helpful to be reminded of just what a struggle it’s been, and the strength that will be required to carry on.