I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks. ~ RBG
What surprised me most about Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary RBG was how much I didn’t know about the iconic Supreme Court Justice—and what I didn’t know made me respect her even more.
For instance, I didn’t know that her mother lost her battle with cancer the day before Ruth’s high school graduation. I didn’t know she finished first in her class when she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in government from Cornell University. I didn’t know that while she was a young mother, caring for a small child while attending law school, her husband, Martin, was diagnosed with testicular cancer. As he endured painful and invasive treatments, she copied notes from his classmates so that he could keep up with his courses at Harvard Law. In addition, she somehow completed her own coursework and cared for their daughter. As one of only nine women in a class of over 500 at Harvard Law School, she also battled extreme discrimination; the law school’s dean accused the women of taking the places of better qualified men. She proved him wrong by becoming the first female member of the Harvard Law Review (RBG).
I didn’t know that Ruth finished law school at Columbia after Martin received his degree and accepted a job in New York City. Not only did she become a member of Columbia’s Law Review, but she also graduated first in her class. Yet all of her academic accomplishments meant little to New York law firms. Not one of them would hire her. Not one would even consider hiring a female lawyer: “I became a lawyer when women were not wanted by the legal profession. Thousands of state and federal laws discriminated on the basis of gender” (RBG). She started out clerking, then teaching—first at Rutgers and later at Columbia—and in the 1970s, she also directed the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Project. It was in this position that she made her mark, arguing six cases dealing with gender equality before the Supreme Court. She won five. With each case she presented, she pried open the eyes of the all-male members of the Supreme Court: “I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days, because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed” (RBG).
I also didn’t know that one of those cases was argued on behalf of a man whose wife had died in childbirth. He was denied social security benefits that would have been provided to a woman if her husband had died. Ruth realized early on that gender based laws hurt everyone. She felt that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment should apply to all, including the married woman in the Air Force who was denied a housing allowance that was given to all of the married men in the Air Force: “Men and women are persons of equal dignity and they should count equally before the law” (RBG).
While I knew she was nominated to serve on the Supreme Court by President Clinton, I didn’t know that her husband was responsible for the all-out marketing campaign to get her name in front of the president for his consideration. In fact, one of the most poignant aspects of this film is the love story of Ruth and Martin, two people whose opposite personalities complemented and supported one another. She helped to keep him grounded while he encouraged her to soar: “He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain” (RBG).
The 84-year-old Notorious RBG, a grandmother who works out with a personal trainer and enjoys a glass or two of wine with dinner before the State of the Union address, has become a cultural icon as the voice of liberal dissent on an increasingly conservative bench. Some on the right have called her a monster, a witch, a zombie, an evil-doer, and a vile human being (RBG). I call her my hero. If it were not for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I wouldn’t enjoy many of the rights I take for granted today. And I trust that she will keep fighting to ensure that we don’t lose the rights she helped us secure. She has indeed made life significantly better for American women. As Gloria Steinem notes in the film, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is the closest thing to a superhero that we have. And right now, we need her more than ever.
Photos courtesy of Wikipedia.