She had an outstanding record at Harvard and graduated at the top of her class while caring for her ailing husband and their child, but no law firm would hire her because she was a woman. (Her predecessor on the Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, had the same experience; no law firm would hire her as an attorney but one did offer her a position as a legal secretary.) So, Justice Ginsburg began to teach law school, and as an academic, she had the chance to take on cases a private law firm would be unlikely to accept. In both the documentary and the feature film we see her brilliant strategic maneuver. Her first big case on gender discrimination was about a law that infringed the rights of men; only women qualified for government assistance to care for a dependent family member. She knew the male legal establishment would be more likely to recognize injustice if it applied to their own gender.
The six cases she argued as an advocate before the Court, which she would later serve, had as profound an impact on American culture and society as Brown v. Board of Education. Historian Jill Lepore wrote in the New Yorker, “Aside from Thurgood Marshall, no single American has so wholly advanced the cause of equality under the law.”
Justice Ginsburg married her Cornell classmate, Martin Ginsburg, because, she said, he was the only man who was interested in her mind. He was more than interested. He was her support system (he did all of the cooking because she was a disaster in the kitchen) and it was he who advocated for her appointment to the Supreme Court. I had the pleasure of seeing them together at a judges’ conference, and no movie has ever had a more endearing or devoted romantic couple.
Shakespeare could have been describing Justice Ginsburg when he wrote “though she be but little, she is fierce.” Certainly, the contrast between her tiny frame and powerful intellect was part of what made Justice Ginsburg an icon, reflected in the teasing nickname, “Notorious RBG,” inspired by rapper “Notorious BIG.” This month’s documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy” has a devastating depiction of the impact of the Supreme Court’s overturning of the Voting Rights Act. The voter suppression restrictions adopted within hours of the decision’s announcement proved the accuracy of Justice Ginsburg’s dissent. As with so many of her careful, meticulous opinions on the Court—omitting “respectfully” from one dissent was her version of what Kate McKinnon called a “Gins-burn”—she was ahead of her time. We will honor her memory in the years ahead by letting her example guide us, and by trying to catch up.