‘What are you doing taking a seat that could be occupied by a man?’ was the question put to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG)—lawyer, feminist, supreme court judge, icon, ‘rockstar’, and just about the closest thing we have to a superhero—when she was just one of nine women in a law class of over 500 men.
The question—arguably rhetorical—reflects the sentiment RBG has not only encountered but triumphed over throughout her entire career.
And in contrast to the usual fate of older women, RBG is these days not being dismissed or overlooked, but is instead ‘winning the internet’. In fact, this 84-year-old feminist, who this month celebrated 25 years as a US Supreme Court judge, has become something of a liberal hero for those of us desperately seeking someone to believe in in the face of Trump-led chaos.
For those unfamiliar with RBG—or the ‘Notorious RBG’ as she’s come to be known thanks to a Tumblr set up in her honour that gives a nod to 80s rapper Notorious BIG—there is now a documentary and a book that unpack and celebrate her story.
RBG, playing in cinemas around Australia now, and The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which comes in both an adult and young adult version to inspire people of all ages, provide insight into a remarkable woman who has, through quietly setting about doing her job as a lawyer, literally changed the course of history for women, particularly.
Softly spoken and never one to raise her voice in anger, RBG has overcome obstacles that would defeat most others. Apart from having to prove she deserved to be at law school, she excelled at her own studies. She also helped her husband excel at his while he was suffering from cancer, organising his friends to take notes in classes and typing up his notes and assignments. This was on top of doing her own study and caring for the couple’s young child. Only to find upon graduating that no law firm would hire her purely on the basis of her gender.
When RBG quotes Sarah Grimke, a kind of RBG of centuries past, in the documentary, I felt a tear-forming, chest-swelling mix of emotions: ‘I ask no favours for my sex … All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks.’
That sentiment imbues RBG’s career, throughout which she has patiently and systematically set about trying to change discriminatory state and federal laws. These include the legal ability for:
- husbands, considered masters of their communities, to decide where their families lived without women having any input
- employers to fire women for being pregnant
- banks to require a husband to give permission for their wife to have a credit card.
Which makes her accomplishments sound straightforward when they were anything but. ‘I did see myself as a kind of kindergarten teacher in those days,’ RBG says of having to explain some very straightforward legal concepts to men who could not conceive of anything being wrong with them.
And her work ethic was and is clearly extraordinary. A common theme of RBG’s and her late husband Marty’s marriage was that Marty would often have to coax her home—she would otherwise work late into the night. Likewise that he did the bulk of the cooking because this seemingly infallible woman is a self-professed and professed by others terrible cook. (I was relieved to discover this because: a) I’m a terrible cook too; b) it showed me that despite her impressiveness, RBG is also relateably human.)
When RBG was just one of two women appointed to the Supreme Court, she actually had to devise new cloak collar options because the existing collars catered to men’s shirts only. It was a practical logistical requirement, but now her ‘I dissent’ collar is iconic.
The ideal number of women on the Supreme Court, she believes, when asked the question, is ‘nine.’ It’s a statement that prompts laughter, including from me, until she aptly points out that there have, until she and another were appointed, been nine men.
Which makes you realise that even if you consider yourself a feminist, there are cultural and systemic ‘norms’ RBG not only sees but figures out how to tackle and that the rest of us need to pay attention to.
Suffice to say, the documentary is must-watch and the book must-read. For fear of spoiling the surprise, those in my immediate circle will be getting copies of the book for Christmas.