Thursday, September 13, 2018


Ruth Bader Ginsburg with Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman selected to the Supreme Court
The 4 women who have served on the Supreme Court (left to right), Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Elena Kagan

Ruth Bader Ginsburg sharing a moment with her husband Marty

RBG            B            
USA  (98 mi)  2018  d:  Julie Cohen and Betsy West

I ask no favors for my sex.  I surrender not our claim to equality.  All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks.
―Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoting Sarah Moore Grimké, 19th century abolitionist, women’s rights actvist and attorney, 1837

Every new generation is imprinted with some notorious catastrophic event that defines their era, like the Great Depression, WWII, or the Vietnam War, for instance, but for Ruth Bader Ginsburg growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s, it was McCarthyism, where an overzealous Senate investigative committee sought to unearth communists hiding under every rock, believing they were doing the country a great service, but it was more like a travesty of justice, turning into a rabid witch hunt excoriating the innocent.  How people respond to these life-defining events is telling, as in Ginsberg’s case she decided to become a lawyer, enrolling at Harvard Law School in 1956, one of only nine women in a class of 500 men, where the response from the Dean of Harvard Law was outright contempt, “How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?”  As her husband Marty graduated from law school two years before her, he obtained employment as a prominent tax attorney in New York City, so she transferred to Columbia Law School, becoming the first woman to be on two major law reviews, The Harvard and Columbia Law Reviews, graduating first in her class in 1959, but no law firm in all of New York City would hire her due to her gender.  Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter rejected her as well when applying for a clerkship position, resolutely refusing to hire a woman despite impeccable recommendations.  This was reflective of the era, as women were viewed as homemakers and mothers, routinely fired for becoming pregnant, where men were expected to be breadwinners and make all the family decisions, viewing women as subservient to men, where there were laws on the books prohibiting women from opening bank accounts or obtaining loans unless co-signed by their husbands, and men could not be charged for raping their wives.  Women were routinely omitted from serving jury duty, claiming they were needed in the home, so the jury pool for women initiating court proceedings had few if any women serving in a jury of her peers.  While there was a women’s rights movement in the 1960’s that started to change prevailing attitudes, more than a decade after she graduated from law school, the laws remained the same, thoroughly entrenched with a male-only view.  Of the 113 Supreme Court justices in U.S. history, all but 6 have been white men.

While Ginsburg is a frail, unimposing figure, probably weighing less than 100 pounds soaking wet, she became a daunting advocate for women’s rights in the 1970’s, among the first women to argue cases before the Supreme Court, where she saw her job there much like that of a kindergarten teacher, where she had to enlighten and educate the court about conditions they spent no time whatsoever thinking about, as gender bias did not affect them.  As the lead litigator for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, her job was to convince them that not only did bias exist, but that its ramifications were injurious to all, not just women, carefully selecting precedent cases to bring to the court (we hear her read snippets of her oral arguments), winning five of six Supreme Court cases in the 70’s, which became landmark events in our nation’s history, for the first time drawing attention to the idea of sex discrimination and equality of the sexes.  Rights that women routinely take for granted today were obtained through these fundamental court decisions, where Ginsburg views the Constitution as ever evolving, a framework for developing a more perfect union.  Yet conservative fundamentalists who insist upon original intent by the framers of the Constitution do not easily budge from their positions, particularly when it comes to minority rights or the rights of women, who supposedly have equal protection under the law from the 14th Amendment, yet their views were totally excluded by the original 18th century framers of the Constitution.  This seems to be the legal divide that prevents more breakthroughs, as people are still hung up on concepts that existed when a budding nation initially ratified the Constitution, when at the time allowing slavery to exist and refusing women the right to vote was considered constitutional.  This kind of age-old bigotry is hard to penetrate, as it’s so thoroughly entrenched in traditional circles, including schools, institutions and places of employment (where on average women of today earn 80% of what a man earns for the exact same job).  Feminism is a relatively modern era ideal that is espoused by some, but certainly not all levels of society, yet Ginsburg was the visionary who championed these views, appointed to the Supreme Court in 1993, the second female justice to serve on the court, becoming something of a rock star to many young women of today.

What this film does do is expose and humanize an otherwise secluded Supreme Court justice, offering personal insights from her husband and two children, where we discover the law student Ginsburg heroically transcribed her husband’s law school notes on his behalf while he was bedridden, undergoing successful cancer radiation therapy, in addition to raising a 14-month child and doing her own classwork, often working until 4 or 5 am before starting the next day in class at 9 am.  Her character was defined in those early years by hard work and perseverance, where preparation was the key to her success.  Her more outgoing husband Marty with his gregarious personality (one of the marvels of the film) seemed like a perfect match to her more introverted, studious style, where he sacrificed his own career advancement to allow her to pursue her own, moving from his lucrative New York City practice to the Capitol when she was selected in 1980 by President Carter to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she served until her appointment to the Supreme Court.  The legend of her accomplishments may never have reached such exalted status had she not first been recognized by Presidents Carter and Clinton, who had the foresight and wisdom to select her.  She became somewhat infamous by making friends with the most staunchly conservative member of the Court in Justice Anton Scalia, both sharing a love for opera, but also in hearing a good argument, even if they were not swayed by it.  Scalia, apparently, made her laugh, demonstrating a raucous sense of humor, which was a welcome change to the rigid decorum followed while serving on the court.  At the age of 85, Ginsburg is also an exercise fanatic, working out for one hour twice a week with a personal trainer, overcoming two bouts with cancer herself, still able to maintain a difficult workload, and though the court has turned more conservative in their decisions, she has become the standard bearer writing dissenting opinions, still using her voice to make powerful arguments.  Like a popular novelist with a fan base eagerly awaiting every new printed page, Ginsburg has legions of young followers who await every written decision, dissecting her analysis as if it was poetry, often going viral when sharing it on social media.  This glamorizing of such a shy and retiring figure is ironic, as is her portrayal on Saturday Night Live TV sketches, which we see her watch with obvious glee, easily amused by the comic absurdity of it all, offering a glimpse of how she loves simple distractions, allowing all of us to share in her delight.  Something of a love letter to the justice celebrating 25 years of serving on the court, the film is humorous and emotionally uplifting, at times reaching elegiac heights, with Ginsburg herself acknowledging that the unlikelihood of her amazing success could only happen in America.  Seeming to enjoy revisiting her life before a camera, this becomes the perfect eulogy for such a historical trailblazer who is still very much alive and with us today.  A fitting tribute, where it’s nice to be recognized during one’s lifetime.   

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