by S.M. Chen  |  4 July 2018  |

“No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men.”
—Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948) – lawyer, politician, founder of Pakistan


RBG are the initials of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

A 97 minute documentary has been made of her life and career.

Why should I view it?  You may ask.

If you are a woman, you owe much to her. Since the 1970s, she has championed the notion that woman deserve equality with men in pay and opportunity. She won 5 of 6 cases she argued before the U. S. Supreme Court.

As Supreme Court associate justice (the 2nd woman, after Sandra Day O’Connor), she has maintained that perspective and often written lucid, cogent dissenting opinions when she has not sided with the majority.

If you are a man, you are also in her debt. She successfully won litigation on behalf of a single father who was seeking the same Social Security economic benefits that would have been accorded him had he been a single mother.

Oh, and by the way, it rated 93% at Rotten Tomatoes, a film-rating website.

The film opens with comments by detractors, of whom there are at least a few. It seems not to be a one-sided hagiography.

Orrin Hatch, Republican senator from Utah, who ultimately supported her appointment to the Supreme Court, said, “Even if you do not agree with her, she is a force to be reckoned with.”

Her credo is similar to that of Sarah Grimké (1792-1873), Southerner turned abolitionist: “I ask no favors for my sex… All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks and permit us to stand upright.”

You can define brethren as you will.

Her mother, who died when she was 17, instilled in RBG 2 notions:  

  1. be a lady
  2. be independent, not dependent on someone else for what happens.

‘Kiki’ (a childhood nickname) grew up to be quiet, a deep thinker, and easy on the eyes.

She attended Cornell where, at the time, males outnumbered females 4 to 1. One relative told her, “If you don’t find someone there, there may be no hope.” But there was hope.  She had the good fortune to meet Marty Ginsburg when she was 17, he 18. Though she went on many dates, he was about the only one to appreciate the fact she had a brain. They married after college and had a long, affectionate marriage, terminating with Marty’s death in 2010.

Both she and Marty attended law school. Marty developed a virulent malignancy during his 3rd year, which meant she had to care for him as well as their young son. She learned to get by on little sleep during the week, a pattern she would continue thereafter (she often works till 4 am), trying to make up lost sleep on weekends.

Despite graduating at the top of her class from Columbia in 1959, no law firm would hire her. Meanwhile, Marty was able to find a position as a tax attorney, and became a successful one).  

When I learned this, I couldn’t help thinking their loss was our (the people’s) gain. What my parents might have called a blessing in disguise.

In the 1970s gender discrimination was rampant. Employers could fire woman for becoming pregnant. In 12 states, a man could not be accused of raping his wife. A woman often required her husband’s co-signature to open a bank  account.

Marty recovered from the illness he developed in law school. More gregarious than his wife, he once quipped one secret of their happy union was she never gave him advice on cooking (she was never going to compete with Julia Child or James Beard, but, as one film critic commented, who cares?), and he in turn didn’t advise her on law.

Early on, he realized what an accomplished attorney he’d married, and facilitated her career while tending to his own. He successfully lobbied her for the U. S. Supreme Court—nominated by Bill Clinton, she joined that august group in 1993.

Her friendship with Antonin Scalia, another Supreme Court justice whose philosophy was aligned 180 degrees from her own, is instructive.  They both shared a love of opera and she once observed that he made her laugh. (Men, are you listening?)

In one photograph, they sit astride an elephant, he in front. When asked why she sat behind, she quipped, “It was important to maintain weight distribution.” Scalia was nothing if not corpulent.

RBG is diminutive, and she speaks softly, slowly, and with deliberation, evidence of a careful mind at work. One nice touch in the film: moments she shares with her granddaughter, a graduate of Harvard Law School. When the latter graduated, the male:female ratio was about 50:50 (up from over 500:9 when RBG graduated from Columbia).

Something similar happened in medical school. When I graduated in the 1960s, less than 10% of my graduating class was female. Today, it is close to 50%—or more.

And that is the way it should be. Women comprise close to half our population. There is no reason they should be underrepresented in the professions. Nor should they be compensated less. In no small part, we have people like RBG to thank for what progress has been made in the struggle for equality in our society.

RBG is now 85. She has survived 2 different cancers. Revered and followed by many, she is a true inspiration. Speaking of which, one acolyte has a T-shirt reading: “You can’t spell TRUTH without RUTH.”

Anthony Kennedy recently announced his impending retirement from the Supreme Court. This has been a cause of rejoicing for some, of consternation among others.

During a confirmation hearing, RBG quoted another respected jurist, Learned Hand (1872-1961), who in 1944 delivered an annual “I Am An American Day” address in Central Park where newly naturalized citizens swore the Pledge of Allegiance. Hand stated that all Americans were immigrants who had come to America in search of liberty. Liberty, Hand said, was not to be found in America’s constitutions, laws, and courts, but in the hearts of the people.

Hand went on to say:  

What then is the spirit of liberty?  It is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right… which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias.  It remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded. It is the spirit of Him who taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten: that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.

It is perhaps ironic that a Jewish public servant would espouse the principles of Christianity, but she has—all her life.  

That alone is one reason to see the film.


Sam Chen writes from California.

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