I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
She has been called a pop-culture icon and rock star. She is also lovingly referred to as the “Notorious RBG”, a riff on the late hip hop artist Notorious B.I.G. Her quotes have inspired merchandise from T-shirts to coffee mugs. The one above is actually her quoting an 19th century women’s rights pioneer, Sarah Grimké.
At 86, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman to be appointed to the US Supreme Court after Sandra Day O’Connor, has no plans to either retire or slow down. More than one scene in the 1-hour, 37-minute documentary, RBG, released on Netflix in 2018, shows her in the gym, planking and doing push-ups. On her T-shirt, the words: Super Diva.
When the documentary had a limited theatrical release in the US last summer, it made $6 million (around ₹41.5 crore now) in the first four weeks alone. I was in New York and saw it on the big screen with an almost entirely women-only audience that whooped, clapped and cheered alongside. Appropriately, the film is made by an all-women crew, including directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West, cinematographer Claudia Raschke, editor Carla Gutierrez and music composer Miriam Cutler.
What is it about this 5ft, 1-inch woman that has made her such a feminist icon?
For one, the film, an unabashed love song to her, dovetails into the #MeToo movement and the post-Donald Trump years that have seen a revival of women’s street protests.
There is a renewed interest in finding and reclaiming new feminist icons. Ginsburg began her legal career at a time when women were not welcome in the profession. As one of nine women in her law class at Harvard (she eventually transferred to Columbia and completed her law degree there), she was asked by the then dean how she could justify taking a spot from a “qualified man”.
As a lawyer, she fought landmark cases in the Supreme Court. She won five of the six cases in which she appeared at the court. All these cases had to do with gender discrimination. “I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed,” she says in the film.
As a judge, she ruled in favour of women getting admission into the all-male Virginia Military Academy and later, in 2014, gave a dissenting opinion in the Hobby Lobby case that allowed employers to deny insurance coverage for birth control for religious reasons.
Amidst renewed Republican politics over abortion rights, Ginsburg represents the resistance in the fight for control over women’s bodies. At her confirmation hearing back in 1993, she spoke at length about her support for abortion: “The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. It is a decision she must make for herself. When government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.”
Ginsburg explains her winning strategy: Fight one step at a time without ever losing dignity, a lesson she learnt from her mother. Fight “in a way that will lead others to join you”, Ginsburgsays. “Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.” In another context, shewould say: “You can disagree without being disagreeable.”
Perhaps most telling in these divisive times is her friendship with the conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who died in his sleep in 2016. Ideologically, they were at extreme ends, Scalia was as far to the right as she is to the left. Scalia’s was, incidentally, the lone dissenting voice in the Virginia Military Institute case. “She likes opera and she’s a very nice person,” said Scalia in 2015.“What’s not to like? Except her views on law.”
A photograph in the film shows the two riding an elephant in India, with Scalia seated in front. Apparently, RBG was roasted by feminists for taking a seat behind him. But, she clarified, it was the elephant’s driver who decided the seating position, based on weight distribution rather than gender.
In a world where the gender pay gap persists and women continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles, whether in the corporate world or politics, Ginsburg’s contribution to chipping away at patriarchy makes her “the closest thing to a superhero”, in the words of another feminist icon, Gloria Steinem. “Ruth’s work made me feel as if I was protected by the US constitution for the first time,” she says.
But behind a sharp brain and an unwavering commitment, there is one important lesson from her life for all women everywhere: Choose your partner with care.
Ginsburg met Martin, her husband for 56 years, at the age of 17, while she was a student at Cornell. He was, she says, “the first boy I knew who cared I have a brain.”
The marriage was revolutionary for its time. Martin supported and backed his wife’s career, telling her to go work and be brilliant while he—a successful tax attorney in his own right—cooked dinner for the family every night. It was Martin who lobbied for his wife’s appointment to the Supreme Court when then president Bill Clinton apparently expressed reservations over her age; she was already in her early 60s when appointed. “I think that the most important thing I have done is to enable Ruth to do what she has done,” he says.
Less than 24 hours after he died of cancer in 2010, Ginsburg was in court ruling that a Christian group at a public university could not bar gay students from attending meetings. “Marty would have wanted it this way,” she observed.
“What a treat it has been to watch you progress to the very top of the legal world,” Marty Ginsburg wrote to his wife 10 days before he died. He could have been speaking for many of us.
RBG is streaming on Netflix.
Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist who writes frequently on gender issues.