On November 11, 2016, I woke up with newfound resolve. It had been a trying week for many Americans. That Wednesday, I rode a silent subway to work. I entered a deadly quiet, more than half-empty office, where the people who had elected to come to work wore somber faces. The woman who sat in the cubicle behind mine quietly sobbed for the better part of the day.
That Friday, though, I was going to do something about it. I set up recurring donations to Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. In the shower, I came up with another plan: Every day, I would think, “What can I do for Ruth Bader Ginsburg today?”
Truth be told, I didn’t get very far. There wasn’t much I could do for RBG. She didn’t need my money, and it’s not like I could give much to her anyway. I briefly considered writing to her offering to quit my job to be her unpaid personal assistant, before realizing that she probably already had many assistants who were actually trained in the line of work and far more skilled than I. So, I settled for sending positive thoughts her way.
RBG, of course, is not a story about how I coped with my grief over the 2016 election. And while it does touch on the election, it’s not really a story about that, either. It’s the tale of how one brilliant, talented woman changed the country for all Americans.
The film takes us through Ginsberg’s childhood and her years at Cornell, Harvard, and Columbia. We see her relationship with her mother, who taught her to be brave and not shirk from her own intellect. We see her thrive as one of nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law School and make the Law Review. And we learn how, despite graduating at the top of her class at Columbia — where she transferred to be with her husband, Marty — she had difficulty finding a job after law school because of her gender.
We watch her triumph in the key cases Ginsburg argued before the Supreme Court, including Frontiero vs. Richardson, in which Sharron Frontiero, a United States Air Force lieutenant, was denied benefits for a husband, though the wives of men in uniform could receive them. In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, Ginsburg argued on behalf of widower Stephen Wiesenfeld, who was denied his late wife’s Social Security benefits, which he needed to raise his infant son, because only widows and not widowers were entitled to these benefits. This represented a key to Ginsburg’s strategy: arguing that gender discrimination can apply to both men and women, and thus challenging the assumptions of Justices who had never previously considered their inherent privilege, nor the complications of affording people rights on account of their gender.
Interviews with childhood friends, former classmates and colleagues, and Ginsburg’s children bring the larger-than-life justice alive. Ginsburg’s friend, Gloria Steinman, speaks to how Ruth the lawyer and later judge used to the tool she had to change history: the law. Even people who disagree with her politically, including Orrin Hatch, describe their admiration for the Justice, and the late Antonin Scalia’s son, Eugene, offers insight into his father’s friendship with Ginsburg. Despite having completely divergent views, the odd couple maintained a close friendship until his death.
RBG is also a love story. We see how a love affair that started when Ruth and Marty were undergraduates at Cornell continued until Marty’s death; just before his death, Marty wrote to his wife, “You are the only person I have loved in my life, setting aside, a bit, parents and kids and their kids, and I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met.”
Her husband wasn’t just her companion, we learn; he was also her greatest advocate, the tax lawyer who saw his greatest job as ensuring that Ruth achieved success in hers. As the extrovert foil to her introvert, he used his network and charisma to make sure she had a spot on President Bill Clinton’s list of potential Supreme Court nominees, knowing that once she got into the president’s office, she would earn the seat through her own intelligence and qualifications—which, of course, she did. (Clinton is interviewed in the film as well.)
Intercut among interviews and historical footage, including the early days of Marty and Ruth’s courtship, is footage of Ginsburg’s Supreme Court Confirmation Hearings, in which she narrates her story. We also see current-day scenes of her and her granddaughter, Clara, looking at pictures from Clara’s Harvard Law School graduation. Clara notes that her class of 2017 was the first to have an even split between men and women—a far cry from her grandmother’s class of less than two percent women and a symbol of how far her efforts have carried.
I was lucky enough to watch a Q&A with Betsy West, one of the film’s directors, after the viewing ended. West revealed that without their persistency, the film would never have been made; she and co-director Julie Cohen asked Ginsberg if she would be willing to participate in the film several times, and her answer was consistently “not yet,” before she finally agreed. That’s right: We get to see interviews with the subject herself, along with shots of her high-intensity workouts and reaction to seeing to Kate McKinnon portray her on SNL.
When we left the theater, my boyfriend asked me if I wanted a Notorious RBG shirt. “I have a birthday coming up,” I reminded him.