By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Never mind The Avengers. The real superhero in theaters right now is Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the focus of “RBG.”
More valentine than documentary, the film is a spritely and affectionate tribute to the 84-year-old judge and unlikely pop-culture phenom who, like some fairy godmother many of us never knew we had, helped change the landscape of women’s rights in 20th and 21st century America.
While better-known feminist icons such as Gloria Steinem were leading marches and addressing rallies, Ginsburg was slowly but surely chipping away at a seemingly impregnable wall of gender inequality under the law.
Did you know that in 1970 — 1970 — a pregnant woman could be fired by her employer? Or that a woman needed her husband or her father to co-sign her application for a credit card? And don’t get me started on laws about marriage and rape.
As a lawyer and a judge — the movie gives a shout-out to President Jimmy Carter for appointing her to the bench — Ginsburg followed a strategy that likened gender rights to civil rights. In one of her earliest cases, she works on behalf of an Air Force pilot who discovers that, unlike her male colleagues, she’s not entitled to a housing allowance. The attitude was, the pilot says with some astonishment, you’re lucky we even allowed you to be here.
A few years later, turning inequality on its head, so to speak, Ginsburg takes (and wins) the case of a man who, after his wife dies in childbirth, is denied Social Security benefits granted widows. She’s able to convince the all-male Supreme Court that gender-based discrimination hurts everyone. (She is composed enough to ignore Justice William Rehnquist’s “quip, “ You won’t settle for Susan B. Anthony on the dollar?”)
The movie is especially compelling as a kind of postcard from a too-recent and much-too-scary past. Ginsburg is one of nine females in a Harvard Law School class of 500 men. Even then, the dean wonders why these women want to take a place away from a man.
When she graduates from Columbia, where she’s transferred because her husband Marty (more on him in a minute) has gotten a job in New York, Ginsburg doesn’t get a single job offer. A friend and former classmate recalls telling his law firm about how brilliant she is and the minute they realize he’s talking about a “she,” they collectively harrumph, “Young man, you don’t seem to understand. This firm doesn’t hire women.”
The year is 1959…
Aside from an opening cacophony of off-screen voices calling her “this witch,” “this evil-doer,” “this monster” (also, “vile” and “anti-American,”), the movie has no interest in a dissenting opinion. And it can verge on the cloying when it dwells on either Ginsburg’s millennial-based celebrity or cutesy footage of her working out (Hey, even Stephen Colbert succumbed to that joke).
Mostly, “RBG” just wants to tell us about this remarkable woman who calmly and with impressive clarity laid out some of the most basic tenets of gender equality. And she did so in the face of a system that all but screamed, “Nice girls don’t file lawsuits” or “What does she want??” (Well, to be treated like everyone else, says one client).
And if “RBG” is a love letter to Justice Ginsburg, it is also an unabashed celebration of her 56-year marriage to a man who loved her both wisely and well. You sense that, perhaps, here is why this otherwise reclusive woman would agree to ”RBG” in the first place. Marty Ginsburg is as much of an ahead-of-his-time hero as his wife
And here’s a bit of sexist observation: it’s surprising to see how the gnome-ish “little old lady” we now recognize as Ginsburg was once a rather lovely blue-eyed brunette whose mother advised her to be both a lady and independent. The “lady” part came in handy when it came to keeping her emotions in check and the independent part, well, as Ginsburg says, her mom felt “It would be fine if you met Prince Charming, but be prepared to fend for yourself.”
That is, perhaps, the most amazing aspect of “RBG.” Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew how to fend for herself. She also knew how to fend for the rest of us.