The Notorious RBG

By Suchara Fernando

At the beginning of this semester, I saw the documentary RBG which traces the life and career of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and was instantly inspired and motivated. In fact, I was so enthused with the film that whenever I lost enthusiasm for my studies or work I re-watched it. This led me to consider just what it is about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that is so inspiring: is it her position of judicial power, her trail-blazing decisions in women’s rights cases, or her resilience in the face of adversity? The only possible answer seems to be  a combination of all of the above. At a time when rejections seem endless, and the world seems plagued with negative news, RBG is a reminder that there is so much good one can do in spite of the obstacles placed in our way. Although I heartily recommend watching RBG, in case you’re too time-pressured, I took one for the team, re-watched the film again, and have summarised the key, motivation nourishing points below.

The Notorious RBG

Justice Ruth Bader-Ginsburg is an 85-year old woman with a demur manner, and a soft-spoken voice who is now commonly known as ‘Notorious RBG’. The nickname – inspired by the rapper Notorious B.I.G. – was born on a Tumblr account as an ode to her many dissents on the bench. Ginsburg grew up in Brooklyn during the depression and lost her mother at a young age, attending Cornell University before going on to meet her husband Marty Ginsberg at Harvard.  

Women have brains?

Although Ginsburg was blessed with a sharp intellect, she cut her teeth in an environment that discouraged women from studying and pursuing a professional life. She describes the women at her undergraduate university, Cornell, as brilliant women who had to suppress their ability. Fortunately, Ginsburg never did this and when she began law school at Harvard, she made the Harvard Law Review in her first year. However, her time at Harvard was rife with sexism, and an understanding of her experiences there makes you consider how far we have come. Ginsburg was one of only nine women at Harvard Law, in a class of approximately 500 students. In the documentary, she recalls when the Dean of Harvard Law asked her, in front of other students, to justify taking a spot from a ‘qualified man’. Then there is the story of her being prevented from entering one of Harvard’s libraries, Lamont Library, which was closed to women when she attended the university in the late 1950s. Ultimately, Ginsburg drew on these experiences to motivate herself to fight for women’s’ rights, a fight which is ongoing but in which Ginsburg has had a large hand in pursuing.

Columbia and a career

RBG’s career as a lawyer began similarly to her university studies: plagued with overt sexism. With her husband starting a job in New York City, Ginsburg had to transfer to Columbia University and completed her studies there, graduating at the top of her class. However, despite this massive achievement she was unable to find a job and received 14 rejections from various law firms. These rejections were delivered on the grounds that the firms did not hire women. Ginsburg being a wife and mother at the time did not help either. Again, this adversity would see her resilience shine as she volunteered with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). This allowed her to start strategizing and selecting cases that would challenge the discriminatory practices she had witnessed in her own life.

Weinberger v Wiesenfeld

In her role at the ACLU, Ginsburg argued six gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court between 1973 and 1975, five of which she won. She was acutely aware of the work importance of what she was doing and only took cases that would be able to shed light on the various iterations of inequality in American society at the time. She was, furthermore, unafraid of a Bench consisting of men. One case that demonstrates Ginsburg’s strategic thinking is Weinberger v Wiesenfeld 420 U.S. 636 (1975): the case saw Ginsburg defend Wiesenfeld, whose wife had died during child birth. Wiesenfeld had become the sole carer and provider for his newly born child. He applied for Social Security survivor’s benefits but soon found that he was eligible as he was a widower, and these benefits were only for widows. Ginsberg argued that Section 402(g) of the Social Security Act discriminated against Wiesenfeld by not providing him with the same survivors’ benefits as it would do a widow. Further, Ginsburg argued that Wiesenfeld’s wife’s contribution to social security was not treated on an equal basis to a man with a wage and that she too had been discriminated against. The Supreme Court decided unanimously in favour of Wiesenfeld that section 402(g)in the Social Security Act was unconstitutional on the grounds that the gender-based distinctions violated the Fifth Amendment. The key takeaway from this case is that it forced the Supreme Court – a Bench that consisted solely of men – was forced to consider that gender discrimination was not merely a women’s issue, as Ginsburg highlighted that the social security provision had discriminated against men acting as caregivers and women serving as bread winners.

Challenging the status quo

Just as Ginsberg did not shy away from taking on cases that challenged the status quo as a lawyer, she continues to question the powers that be while serving as a Supreme Court Justice. Sitting on a predominately conservative bench, she dissents often. In fact, she has a specific collar for her robe when she dissents, showing that dressing à la mode and the Supreme Court aren’t mutually exclusive. Cases in which this collar has been donned include matters concerning voting rights (Shelby County v Holder, 570 U.S. 2(2013), access to education (Schuette v Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action 572 U.S. (2014), religious freedom (Burwell v Hobby Lobby Stores, 573 U.S. (2014). Her commitment to pursuing social justice and being unafraid of her peers on the Bench to pursue social justice is remarkable.

At 85, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shows no signs of retiring despite multiple battles with cancer. She has expressed commitment to serving the Supreme Court of the United States until she is no longer mentally able to do so. Although her perseverance, intelligence and spritely spirit are nearly unfathomable, RBG succeeds in shedding some light on an accomplished, resilient and inspiring woman.