Monica Welker (’19)
I ask no favors for my sex. . . All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks. – Sarah Moore Grimké, American abolitionist and suffragette.
At the beginning of RBG, a documentary of the life and work of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, she recounts the time that she famously used this quote during an oral argument before the Supreme Court of the United States. As Justice Ginsburg reflects on her use of the words, and repeats them, she reveals a sly, satisfied smile.
I am a fan of documentaries and Ginsburg, so seeing RBG was high on my summer to-do list. I took an afternoon and headed over to the Esquire to watch it.
If one has made a point of drinking in every interview and piece on Ginsburg that one can, as I have, one notices that about half of the documentary is made up of these already published interviews. There is the footage of her being interviewed by Nina Totenberg, footage of her workout routine, and interviews of her talking about the time she famously dozed off during the State of the Union.
The documentary brings fans of her work new insights into her younger years. Her devotion to logic, studying, and problem solving was apparent at a young age. She is, admittedly, not someone prone to show much emotion. She comes across as a tiny, quiet young woman with a spine of steel and a strong will to succeed.
After law school, Ginsburg soon developed a niche as a women’s rights attorney, and taught classes on gender and the law. The documentary focuses on this part of her career the most, showing how Ginsburg carefully crafted her arguments to build upon each other.
Her ultimate goal was to show that gender discrimination deserved to be analyzed under strict scrutiny. Strict scrutiny analysis would mean that the government could only discriminate against someone because of the person’s gender if it was for a compelling government interest, and the discrimination was narrowly tailored to meet that government interest.
As a litigator, Ginsburg chipped away at the institutional sexism that was rampant in American society in the twentieth century bit by bit. Rather than begin by demanding everything all at once, she chose her cases carefully to get the Court used to the idea of applying Equal Protection to women. It reminds one of the old adage of how a frog will leap from a boiling pot of water if placed directly into it, but if placed into it and then the water is gradually heated to boiling, he won’t notice the change and be cooked. She founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, and through that, she litigated incremental changes in the common law.
The documentary focuses specifically on Frontiero v. Richardson, 411 U.S. 677 (1973), and Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975). In Frontiero, a female military member successfully sued to be granted the same housing allowance for her family that a male military member would receive. Weinberger was an example of Ginsburg’s strategic case selection, where she argued that a widower with a child should have the same right to Social Security Benefits that a widow would have. By arguing that discriminating against a man was a violation of the Equal Protection Clause, Ginsburg was able to prop up the idea that gender discrimination in general was unconstitutional.
Most striking about Ginsburg’s life is her devotion to the law and study. She famously had to be dragged home most nights from work by her husband Marty in order to make sure that she ate something. She reportedly sleeps very little during the week, working late into the night. Those who worked with her during her time as a jurist report that she is always the most prepared, has the most in depth understanding of cases, and has the most persuasive arguments in judicial conferences.
Her children and one of her granddaughters appear in the film. They reveal that her devotion to the law made her a quiet, serious, sometimes absent parent. They joke that it was rare to hear her laugh or smile, and it is widely accepted among those who know her that she has no talent for cooking.
Her granddaughter, a recent graduate from Harvard Law School, appears to be in awe of her. Ginsburg’s cool demeanor is caught on camera when her granddaughter is going through a scrapbook with Ginsburg, her “Bubbe”, and she comes across a letter Marty, now deceased, wrote about his love for Ginsburg. Ginsburg smiles reading it, and her granddaughter asks her how often she reads it. “Never,” Ginsburg says, seemingly perplexed by the question.
The documentary makes Ginsburg a real person beyond the Notorious R.B.G. It shows how much she sacrificed to fight for civil rights for women. She is tough, obsessed with the law, and a pure logical machine.
But she is human. Her love for her family and for Marty is apparent, as is their love for her. Her devotion to opera is the most human thing about her, as she loves it because it allows her to put the law aside for just a moment.
One telling moment shows that while Gloria Steinem was marching in the streets for women’s equality, Ginsburg was making that case in courts. What Steinem fought for, Ginsburg brought about.
Ginsburg in her own words is without a doubt the greatest part of the documentary. She leaves us with no lingering questions regarding her outlook on the life. She loves her work, and is devoted to it almost to a fault. It gives her meaning, and she makes me evaluate my goals and aspirations and how hard I work to achieve them.
Her self-confidence is refreshing and instructive. While shy, Ginsburg has no doubts about her abilities or her knowledge of the law. It hits my ear, at first, as a little jarring, but then the feminist within me realizes that it is because she is a small, older woman expressing confidence in herself. Confidence implies a deeper, louder voice in our society, and for a quiet, soft-spoken woman to express it goes against our society’s perceptions, at least the society in which I grew up.
Seeing Ginsburg’s dead pan humor in juxtaposition with her somewhat emotionless outlook on life was eye opening for me. She is never unkind, but does appear dismissive of other’s emotions if they cloud the person’s judgment. Her children mention how rare it was to see her laugh, and it reminds me that at the heart of every person’s relationship with their career, there is a choice to make between the greater good, or one’s family. How we choose to answer that question is highly individual, and Ginsburg’s choice to focus on her career would go unnoticed if she were male.
I believe that the key to equality among genders is to simply act as if it already exists for you, and to act taken aback when it is denied you, then show the oppressor the ridiculousness of his position. After watching her life story, I realized Ginsburg has the same philosophy. She experienced prejudice at Harvard, but she responded by making the Law Review. She was denied employment at the big New York firms, and she became an iconic Supreme Court Justice.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a living legend, and we are all benefitting from her single minded determination to make the law more equitable for everyone, regardless of gender.