Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Icon, Fighter and Film Subject

by Elisabeth Sereda September 24, 2020
Ruth Bader Ginsburg

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If you are a woman in America you owe her your right to have a credit card in your own name, your consent for your medical treatments, the ability to lease or buy a home without a father, brother, or husband co-signing. You owe her playing the same sports in school as the boys. If you are gay, add to that the right to marry. Ruth Bader Ginsburg spent her entire life fighting for equal justice, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, voting rights and so much more that makes a country a true democracy. Her friend and partner in fight Gloria Steinem told the HFPA that she was “a movement before there was a movement. She was always at least a decade in advance of everybody else. She was always, always, always in advance, every step of the way. That's a miracle.”

Joan Ruth Bader was born in the multi-cultural neighborhood of Flatbush in Brooklyn to Celia and Nathan Bader. Her father was an immigrant from Odesa, Ukraine her mother a first-generation American whose family had emigrated Krakow, Poland. She had an older sister who died at six years old, and her mother passed away from cancer when Ruth was 17. She attended Cornell University and then Harvard Law School where she was one of only nine women in a class of more than 500 men. A question posed to her by the dean – "Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” – spurred her to a lifelong commitment to gender rights. She met the love of her life, Martin Ginsburg (Marty), a fellow student at Cornell when she was 18 and married him after graduation. In the documentary RBG, she credits him for being the only man she met in her youth who was not afraid of a smart woman. She went on to say that it was his support that made her studies possible. She got a chance to reciprocate when he developed testicular cancer after the birth of their daughter, by attending classes and taking notes for both of them, while at the same time caring for a baby and editing the Harvard Law Review.

She co-founded the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project and in Moritz vs. Commissioner famously turned a case about gender inequality on its head when she argued for a man who had been denied a caregiver deduction because of being a man, not a woman. This case was the central story of the film On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder with Felicity Jones starring as RBG. The movie as well as the documentary are being re-released now. Like so many others, Jones paid tribute: “Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave us hope, a public figure who stood for integrity and justice – a responsibility she did not wear lightly. She will be missed not only as a beacon of light in these difficult times but for her razor-sharp wit and extraordinary humanity. She taught us all so much. I will miss her deeply.”

President Jimmy Carter appointed her to the US Court of Appeals in 1980 where she served for 13 years until her nomination to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton who described this as his fastest decision: “I met with her and we talked, and I knew after 15 minutes that she was my pick.” She was confirmed by a vote of 96:3. She was only the second woman appointed as Supreme Court Justice – after Sandra Day O’Connor – and the first Jewish member of the court. She was even liked by Republicans and was considered moderate until the last decade when she became more liberal and wrote the most quoted dissents of all the judges. She stayed the course that defined her career when, after being on the losing side of the Ledbetter vs. Goodyear gender-based pay discrimination case, she called on Congress to amend the law, and President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act as his first big piece of legislation after being elected in 2008.

At only 5’1”, the tiny Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a force of nature who became a pop culture icon after young law students created cartoons that showed her as superwoman and gave her the nickname “Notorious RBG”. In the documentary, she often giggles about that as well as Kate McKinnon’s portrayal of her on Saturday Night Live. She had a deep appreciation of art and a lifelong love for opera, a passion she shared with conservative justice Antonin Scalia. That Donald Trump called her “a disgrace to the Supreme Court” after she criticized him, made her even more popular with young liberals. With Sandra Day O’Connor, she invented the now-famous lace jabot since the justice robes were only made for males. She had a collection of jabots from around the world, most of them white, but one black with gold embroidery which she only wore when issuing a dissent, another crocheted yellow and cream one adorned with crystals, that she put on when hers was part of a majority opinion.

Unfortunately, cancer was a big part of her life. After losing her mother to it, her beloved husband Marty succumbed to it in 2010, and she herself was first diagnosed in 1999 and then again ten years later, never once missing a day in court during her treatments. She died of pancreatic cancer at 87, leaving two children and four grandchildren. Her daughter Jane Ginsburg and her granddaughter Clara Spera both became lawyers, following in her footsteps.

Many came to mourn and pay tribute to her at the steps of the Supreme Court where her casket lay in wait. Chief Justice John Roberts described her as “tough, brave, a fighter, a winner” but also “thoughtful, careful, compassionate, honest. Her voice in court and in our conference room was soft, but when she spoke people listened.”

Her old friend Gloria Steinem told us: “I somehow had convinced myself that she was immortal.” A sentiment that many share.