It may not be playing at your neighborhood theaters at the moment, but you can be sure the film “RBG” will hit the screens at least one more time. So while she battles the disastrous disease that continues to stalk her, it behooves us to explore and celebrate, once again, the remarkable life and spirit of this much-loved woman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
She was born in Brooklyn in 1933 to Nathan Bader, a Jewish man from Odessa, and Celia, who was born in New York to parents who had immigrated from Austria. Celia, who herself had struggled with cancer for many years, died the night before Ruth’s graduation from high school, but she left her daughter with three mantras of advice: “Be a lady”, “Be independent” and “To win an argument, don’t yell!”
Ruth went on to study at Cornell University at 17 and met a young man who was a year older than she. They were very different in temperament, according to their friends. Ruth was sober and shy and not one who ever engaged in small talk, and Marty Ginsburg was funny, outgoing, and “the life of the party.” Nevertheless, they married after she graduated and they embarked on an idyllic, loving, immensely supportive relationship that lasted for more than 50 years.
She graduated from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in government, a membership in Phi Beta Kappa, and as the highest-ranking female student in her graduating class.
She then entered Harvard Law School, where she was one of nine women in a class of 500 men. But her work was so extraordinary that in her second year she was invited to write for the prestigious Harvard Law Review.
It’s also interesting to note that pictures of her as a young woman show that she was also extraordinarily beautiful.
When Marty was offered a job in New York, however, they moved back with their 14 month-old daughter and Ruth enrolled at Columbia Law School, where in 1959 she earned her law degree and tied for first in her class.
When she began her professional career she focused on gender issues — the disparity between men and women at work and the discrimination women endured in the world at large. She continued her lifelong fight for equal rights for both men and women, and the rest is history.
She had learned that “being a woman was an impediment,” and agreed with Gloria Steinem that “women were not crazy, the system was.” And so during the ‘70s she concentrated on legal issues that fought for equal rights for women. Nevertheless, in one of her earliest cases she represented a widower denied survivor benefits under Social Security, which permitted widows but not widowers to collect special benefits while caring for minor children. If the issue had been reversed, a widow would automatically be given access to this benefit. RBG presented an argument that was so impeccably cogent that the case, and her winning of it, made national news and confirmed her as a force to be reckoned with.
She also ended a long-established rule at the Virginia Military Institute by fighting for the right of a young woman to enroll as a cadet in this heretofore rigidly all-male school.
She went on to win five of the six cases that she presented before the Supreme Court, and in 1980 President Jimmy Carter nominated her to a seat on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where she served until 1993, at which time President Bill Clinton nominated her as
an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Clinton admitted later that he had had no specific intentions in mind when he met her, but after talking with her for 15 minutes he knew she was the right person for the job. She was confirmed by the Senate with a vote of 96-3.
President Barack Obama was the third president who acknowledged her passion by signing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act on his first day in office. “Law is a consuming love for me,” Ginsburg declared. And despite the current president declaring her “an absolute disgrace to the Supreme Court,” she serves to this day, even as she fights her third battle with cancer. And as The Great Dissenter, fighting her battles for civil rights, she still claims that men historically “put women on a pedestal, but it wasn’t on a pedestal, it was in a cage.”
Ironically, however, Ginsburg became a close friend of Justice Antonin Scalia, whose opinions were so different from hers. They shared a love of opera, attending together at every opportunity, and enjoying each other’s frequent bouts of humor. They even appeared together onstage in the opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” and she appeared in “The Daughter of the Regiment” to read lines she had written herself. Each time she appeared at the theater she received a standing ovation from the rest of the audience.
It is a heartening tribute to note that this documentary film was directed and produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen, and that nearly everyone else who worked on it was a woman. It premiered at Sundance in 2018 and opened everywhere else later that year.
As a Special P.S. I’d like you to know that a new play called “Sisters In Law”, celebrating the friendship and conflict between Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, will open on September 18th at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, at 9390 Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills. Tickets can be purchased by calling (310) 246-3800.