This piece was originally published in January 2019
Don’t be fooled by her diminutive stature, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a towering force to be reckoned with. Since becoming the second woman to ascend to the US Supreme Court in 1993, the Justice has fought tirelessly to give voice to the voiceless, protecting the marginalised with her liberal-leaning rulings. Ginsburg's inspiring work on the bench – speaking up for women, minorities and the LGBTQ community – has made her a pop-culture sensation.
Notorious RBG, as she is known to her growing millennial fanbase, has become the face of Democratic feminism at 85, her bespectacled face peering out from Tumblr, T-shirts and tote bags. This year, her legacy is immortalised in two films: the smash-hit documentary RBG and the rousing biopic On the Basis of Sex, starring Felicity Jones as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer as her devoted husband. Since Hollywood has penned its love letters to the freedom-fighting icon, I decided to follow suit.
What I admire about Justice Ginsburg is how she courageously stands her ground in the face of sexism, battling aggressions both micro and macro. When studying at Harvard Law School in 1957, she was one of just nine female undergraduates in a year group of 500 men, and suffered countless indignities. The women were refused access to the library (the same fate that befell Virginia Woolf at Cambridge decades earlier); they were not called upon in class; and were asked by the dean to explain, one by one, why they had enrolled at the university and taken a place from a man. Confronted with this onslaught of injustices, Ginsburg knew how to play the game, sheathing her ambition in order to progress – to the latter insult she speciously explained that she was getting a degree to be a more empathetic wife to her husband Marty, a second-year student at Harvard Law.
Although she was a full-time caregiver to her one-year-old daughter and cancer-patient spouse, Ginsburg graduated valedictorian when she transferred to Columbia. Her appointment as a Supreme Court Justice is an indirect result of sexism. Her outstanding grades were not sufficient to overcome the prejudices of New York law firms, meaning she didn’t get a job and instead pursued a different career path that led her to the highest court in America. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is indomitable: she persevered when men tried to hold her back and went on to change the world for the better.
As evidenced by her early cases – which sought access to reproductive healthcare, pregnancy benefits and equal pay – Ginsburg is determined to secure women’s rights. Having said that, she is not solely concerned with the advancement of her own sex. Another of Ginsburg’s laudable qualities is that she has always strived to overturn civil-rights violations, no matter who they affect. For example, the Justice used her platform to grant the disabled state-funded support in their communities (1999) and legalise gay marriage in all 50 states (2015). Her aim is to expand the ‘We the People’ of the US Constitution so it actually reflects America today, a melting pot of different cultures, religions and sexualities.
Countering the accusation that second-wave feminism is misandrist, Ruth Bader Ginsburg showed how the patriarchy negatively impacts men and women. “I did see myself as a kind of kindergarten teacher in those days,” she says, reflecting on her first experiences as a lawyer in RBG. “The judges didn’t think that sex discrimination existed.” She shrewdly decided that the second case she would take to the Supreme Court would be that of the widowed father Stephen Wisenfeld, who was denied childcare benefits purely because he was a male caregiver.
In a typically sharp, well-argued address, GInsburg won with a resounding majority. She practised what she preached beyond the courtroom, enjoying an equitable marriage with Marty (it’s very telling that she added her husband’s surname to hers before this was fashionable). She moved to Columbia so he could pursue work as a tax attorney; he then relocated to Washington when President Clinton invited his wife to be a Justice. They had a partnership in the truest sense: as early as the 1950s the couple shared domestic responsibilities, from cooking to cleaning. Ruth Bader Ginsburg has dismantled sexist structures in public and private life, speaking truth to power. After all, you can’t spell truth without Ruth.
Now that she is outnumbered in a Justice line-up that skews conservative (and disappointingly counts the alleged sexual predator Brett Kavanaugh among its ranks), Ginsburg’s staunchly pro-women, pro-immigration and pro-minority verdicts are more important than ever before. She has chipped away at the glass ceiling within the legal system and only wants female representation to continue when she eventually steps down, hoping that there will be a time when all nine Supreme Court Justices are women. (“People are shocked [when I say that].” she admits. “But there have been nine men and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”) With all the trails she has blazed, Ruth Bader Ginsburg certainly lives up to her name as a flaming feminist.
‘RBG’ was released on 4 January 2019; ‘On the Basis of Sex’ was released 22 February 2019.
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