I went to the documentary RBG (directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen) in a minor state of excitement since its subject – Ruth Bader Ginsburg – is an inspiring figure on so many levels: as a civil rights advocate, a woman who broke through career barriers, a justice of the supreme court, and an older woman who continues to work for her central passion – the law.
The documentary does a fine job of sketching the sheer determination and unreal work ethic of Bader Ginsburg, and how she progressed through a career in the law all the way to the supreme court.
Bader Ginsburg’s character is reserved and serious – ‘a deep thinker’ as one of her childhood friends observes – and this makes her an unlikely subject of a documentary in some ways. Throughout her life her small size and quiet personality has meant that her legal opponents have constantly under-estimated her, especially in her early days when it was difficult for her to even find work. No law firm in New York would hire a woman attorney when she graduated.
Those who dismissed her are won over by Bader Ginsburg once as they encounter her razor intellect, so adept at cutting through the irrelevant and crafting compelling legal arguments.
She has been an ardent advocate for ensuring that women and men are treated equally by the law. The early sections of the documentary can result in teeth-grinding when you observe the obstacles in mindset and regulation that American women had to deal with during this era. It should inspire a deep sense of gratitude for the multitudes of women, including Bader Ginsburg, who have worked so hard to win better rights for women under the law.
Bader Ginsburg took a long, determined attitude towards change. Her mother (who died when Bader Ginsburg was 17) gave her two piece of advice: ‘Always be a lady’ (and by that she meant don’t be controlled by emotion) and ‘Be Independent’. Bader Ginsburg had many, many justifiable reasons to be angry throughout her life but took the difficult approach that anger would not change conservative minds, and especially not the law. Precise arguments artfully described had more effect.
What’s also quite clear throughout the documentary is how important men were in helping Bader Ginsburg and her career. Her husband, Marty Ginbsburg, a smart and respected lawyer in his field, adored his wife and wanted the world to appreciate her talents. He advocated for her in the area where she wasn’t strong: socialising and self-promotion. He was confident in his own abilities and did not feel threatened by her career trajectory. Judges were won over by her arguments and ability, and President Carter and President Clinton put her forward for important positions.
And what this underlines is how important it is for everyone to support the fight for equality. Supporting equal rights for everyone – no matter your race, gender, sexuality, class, physical ability, etc. – benefits society. Inequality hurts not just individuals but their wider community.
Late in life Bader Ginsburg has gained huge popularity among the public, who recognise her indomitable spirit and her steady persistence on the side of equality. People can be amused to see this Opera-loving, tiny Jewish woman linked with rapper Notorious B.I.G., but she recognises their commonality of spirit and is comfortable with it. She deserves the respect she had earned by her long and influential career.
The American people are lucky to have such a relentless advocate for fairness working for the betterment of society within their legal system.