“I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.” These words belong to feminist Sarah Grimke but in Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary RBG they’re spoken through the mouth of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Grimke and Ginsburg lived in vastly different eras, but their message is the same: they want the world to treat women equally. Ginsburg has become an icon for feminism, her face plastered on mugs and T-shirts as the “notorious RGB,” but Cohen and West never deify the Supreme Court Justice. Instead, they lay out a loving 98-minute tribute to a woman who never set out to light the world on fire, but now that she has, she’s loving it!
Ruth Bader Ginsburg isn’t just a feminist, nor is she just a Supreme Court Judge. She’s been a daughter, a mother, a wife, and a, now, a grandmother, and it’s all those facets that are beautifully blended into RBG. The documentary lays out Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s history, raised in New York with a strict, yet doting mother who sought to remind her that anger solves nothing. Ginsburg had aspirations of being a lawyer and went to Cornell University, where many women purely went to find a husband. Ginsburg cheekily jokes that if you couldn’t find a husband there “you were hopeless.” But find a husband she did in the ebullient Martin Ginsburg.
I know many people want to see RBG because Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a badass who has created some landmark legislation and has infamously written some harsh dissents, but I wanted to see this to learn more about her marriage. In all my research on RBG nothing stands out more to me than her relationship with the husband she knew as Marty. Maybe it’s because their relationship was truly built on equality. He said he moved to Washington D.C. because “my wife got a better job.” Or maybe it’s because when Ruth wanted to study in Switzerland he agreed to watch their child while she did it. I mean, this is a relationship any woman should want! And the fact that they remained as happy as they did, right up until Martin Ginsburg death is the only successful marriage I need to know about.
The documentary doesn’t give too much time to it, and that’s fine, but what’s presented is utterly romantic in just how average it was. Ginsburg’s granddaughter, who calls RBG “Bubbe,” discusses how Martin would often have to drag her home from the office. When Marty got sick, Ruth managed to juggle helping him pass school, while doing her own schoolwork AND raising their child. Talk about a Wonder Woman! Stray moments captured on-camera capture the utter love between them, like when Ginsburg is confirmed to the Supreme Court. In a moment of repose with her husband, Martin touches her cheek, possibly to swipe away a tear. During one moment, Ruth is reading old letters written by her husband with her granddaughter, something she says she never does, but keeps the reason to herself. When Martin Ginsburg dies, Ruth reads his farewell letter to her, her voice cracking at one point that will break your heart.
RBG’s life is filled with emotions she keeps to herself, and while you can see it with her marriage, her true fervor and passion comes through in the law. It’s amazing to hear that Ginsburg, one of the only women in her first year at Harvard, actually made the Harvard Law Review her SECOND YEAR! Yes, in just a year she’d already situated herself as one of the top 25% in her entire class! This undaunted intelligence followed her through to her first several cases at the ACLU. Since cameras aren’t allowed in the Supreme Court, the film does a great job of captioning GInsburg’s arguments, letting the words speak for themselves. Several of her cases could be worthy of movies themselves, from Sharron Frontero’s desire to get the same housing benefits as her male military comrades, to Lily Ledbetter’s fight for equal pay. These cases have had long-standing ramifications for women (and, yes, men) everywhere, giving parents of both genders access to grief benefits all the way to integrating Virginia Military Academy.
As an individual, the documentary shows Ginsburg as not being fully consumed by work. She enjoys going to the opera – one of the main things she shared with the late Justice, Antonin Scalia – and she has a workout regime that will make you sweat just watching it. Her children describe her as a terrible cook who they aren’t sure knows how to turn on the television at home. West and Cohen give a full-bodied account of just who Ruth Bader Ginsburg is and, by extension, how complex women are.
RBG is a great foundation in preparation for Mimi Leder’s narrative account of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex in October. In fact, watch this and then read the wonderful book Notorious R.B.G. by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik!
RBG is in theaters now.