At the age of 84, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is an icon, a rock star, and a heroine. In a culture that downplays the value of people over 40, Ginsburg herself seems flummoxed at her newfound fame. “I’m 84 years old and everyone wants a picture taken with me,” she says in the documentary RBG which is currently screening at The Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor and will begin screening Friday, June 8, at Levis Commons 12. Though mainstream awareness of her equal rights work has peaked in recent years, her contribution in helping women to take the battle for equal status under the law from the streets to the courtroom has been life long.
RGB follows Justice Ginsburg’s life, starting with her childhood, as her mother was one of her biggest influences, with advice like: “Be a lady, but be independent.” Ginsburg explains that to “be independent” meant don’t rely on a man to be the breadwinner. Pretty radical advice for the early 1950’s, when women who attended college were essentially there to meet a husband. Ginsburg laments that many of her female classmates at Cornell (where the ratio of men to women was four to one) suppressed their smarts so as not to surpass what the culture expected of them. While in college she met her husband, who she describes as “the only boy I ever met who cared that I had a brain.” They were supportive of each other’s careers, nurturing a marriage that would last all of their lives.
Not marching, but advocating
The film goes on to explain that Ginsburg entered the women’s rights movement, not marching in the streets, but by spending much of her legal career as an advocate for gender equality (for both women and men) as well as women’s rights. Choosing her legal battles both wisely and strategically, Ginsburg, for example, argued in favor of a husband receiving benefits he was initially denied after his wife died in childbirth. She argued six legal cases on gender equality before the Supreme Court in the early 1970’s, winning favorable rulings in five of the six. In 1993, while in her early 60s, President Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court, when many questioned whether she was too old to serve. As the Court has become more conservative, she has won the hearts of a new generation as she was forced to move from a more centrist philosophy to that of a dissenter.
It’s important that girls understand there was a time, not long ago, when women couldn’t be all that they wanted, with a lesson of vigilance to ensure equal rights under the law for ALL people. There will likely be a tendency for women to take their daughters to see this film, but to really want to further the understanding of the fight for gender equality, they should bring their husbands and sons as well.