Before Ruth Bader Ginsburg Was A Meme, She Was A Feminist With A 'Radical Vision'

“RBG” tells the story of Ginsburg’s legacy and influence beyond the internet.
The documentary "RBG" is a love letter to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The documentary "RBG" is a love letter to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

“I saw myself as a kindergarten teacher,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explains to the camera at one point during “RBG,” a documentary about, of course, herself.

Ginsburg was talking about her attempt to get the Supreme Court justices of the 1970s (almost all white, all male) to understand the structural discrimination women faced under the law. During that decade, she argued six cases as an attorney in front of the Supreme Court, all of which had to do with gender discrimination in some capacity. This was Ginsburg’s strategy ― to educate the ignorant, bit by bit, year by year.

The first time she appeared in front of SCOTUS was in ’73, on behalf of Air Force Lt. Sharron Frontiero, who was seeking a dependent’s allowance for her husband that the law only guaranteed for military wives. She won.

Twenty years later, Ginsburg was appointed to serve on the Supreme Court, and 25 years after that, she’s still there. The film traces her early life in Brooklyn, as the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants in New York; her education at Cornell, Harvard Law (where she was one of nine women) and Columbia Law; and the quiet, incremental work she did that ended up transforming the way women were seen under the law. All of this before she ended up the most meme-able justice of the bunch.

“There’s a certain amount of irony in the fact of an 85-year-old Jewish grandmother who is rough and tough and speaking truth to power,” said filmmaker Betsy West, unpacking how an octogenarian who refers to herself as a “sober judge” could become an icon in the eyes of millennials.

“RBG,” which comes out on May 4, is a love letter to Ginsburg’s life. If you’re hoping for a critical analysis of her more centrist tendencies, this film isn’t it. But it does humanize the justice, who is not her “Saturday Night Live” caricature or her “Notorious” memes or the “vile” woman some decriers would paint her as. She’s a human woman, with complexity and vigor and a great sense of humor. She adored her husband and loves her grandchildren and works out like a boss and deeply believes in the ability of the United States to evolve as a nation. (There’s a reason former President Bill Clinton decided to appoint Ginsburg to the Supreme Court after interviewing her for 15 minutes.)

HuffPost spoke with West and her co-director, Julie Cohen, about Ginsburg’s transformation into a pop culture icon, her 56-year feminist marriage and her “radical vision” that women be treated as equal to men under the United States Constitution.

Why make a film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg?

Julie Cohen: Yeah, well, when phrased that way, it’s like ... how can you not make a film about Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Her story is so amazing and, fortunately for us, fascination with her is just very high. In 2015, Betsy and I took note of all the attention she was starting to get. Each of us had interviewed her for prior projects. So we knew a bit about her amazing life story, and in January 2015, at the height of her ― at what seemed like it was gonna be the height, I should say ― internet fame, we just said, “Oh my God. Somebody should make a documentary about Justice Ginsburg and why not have it be us?”

I was really struck by the opening of the film. The first thing you hear is a series of voice-overs of powerful men criticizing RBG, calling her “vile.” Why was that the way you decided to open the movie?

Betsy West: We were looking for a way to symbolize the kind of opposition and dismissiveness she has faced in the past, and also to highlight with the statues ― the male statues ― the world that she inhabited, still inhabits: an all-male hierarchy. And then to see her coming back so forcefully with the words that she quoted in her first argument before the Supreme Court as a young litigator: “Get your feet off our necks.”

We like the contrast.

The movie paints Ginsburg as somewhat of a radical figure, but also as someone who made a conscious choice to work within the system and through the system rather than directly against or outside the system. Does that feel accurate?

Cohen: Yes, I think absolutely that’s accurate. Activists who want to make change in society can come at it from all different angles. Ruth Bader Ginsburg absolutely made a choice to use her legal training and work within the system through the courts to try to push for change.

Her efforts certainly were multiplied and helped by the work going on out in the streets. The more familiar images of the women’s liberation movement [were of women] fighting for change through protests. But as effective and important as that stuff was, it wouldn’t have made change without Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the other side in the courts, doing the work to change the law so that men and women are considered equal under the Constitution in a way that they just weren’t before she started her work.

The Supreme Court in 1993.
The Supreme Court in 1993.
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Do you think RBG considers herself to be an activist?

West: I think it depends on how you define that word. I think she definitely considers herself to be a feminist, but it is not her style to march or protest. It is her mission to, as Julie said, win equal treatment for women under the law. At the time that she was arguing that, it was a radical idea that women should be protected in that way by the Constitution. There was a paternalism that excused all the discrimination on the basis that it was good for women to be put on a pedestal, to prevent them from working overtime, to have their husbands in charge of their finances. She saw through that and that was a radical vision at the time. It’s now accepted. There’s not so much of an argument about what she did in the 1970s.

Cohen: She certainly wouldn’t go along with the conservative characterization of her now as an “activist judge,” which is used as a dig at judges who take Justice Ginsburg’s view that we have a living Constitution that can change as our times change, versus the Scalia view that the Constitution should mean exactly what it meant when the Founding Fathers wrote it and that things shouldn’t change as our times change. Certainly, she does not consider herself a judicial activist. She feels that she’s following the Constitution. Whether she would say that her 1970s work as part of the women’s movement was activism, I guess we can’t answer for her, but it’s a different situation ― her late career versus who she’s become as a judge.

I was also interested by how much of the movie focused on the role her husband, Marty, played as this supportive partner. Did you always know that relationship would be a focal point of the film?

West: We knew going into the film that Justice Ginsburg had a very long and successful marriage. We really didn’t understand the extent to which that relationship affected her both personally and professionally. I mean, first of all, to see the look on her face when she watched the home movie that her biographers had unearthed ― when she looks and just sighs, “Oh, he was so young.” Every time Marty’s name is raised, she gets a look in her eye. You can see that it was a true love and a true passion.

But the other part of the story is just what a feminist marriage it was, way ahead of its time. She just loved the idea, as a young and beautiful woman, [that] Marty was the first boy who appreciated that she had a brain. He bragged about her. He supported her, and at a certain point, he put his career kind of on the back burner so that he could move to Washington and support her even more, take over the cooking. It’s just a wonderful template for a modern marriage that did inspire us. So I think it grew as the film was evolving, the role of a marriage in our narrative definitely increased.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist (right) swears in Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993 as husband Marty (center) and President Bill Clinton look on.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist (right) swears in Ginsburg to the Supreme Court in 1993 as husband Marty (center) and President Bill Clinton look on.
Dirck Halstead via Getty Images

We so often hear stories about women who tirelessly supported their more famous and successful and ambitious husbands, and I love that their relationship flipped that script really beautifully.

West: Yeah, obviously we loved it, too, that they were fighting the stereotypes that it’s the wife who’s supposed to do all the support to help her great man, that she supports all his ambitions. Their story is really the flip side of that. As we were putting the film together, we had women on our team making this film in our 60s to our 20s, and all of us really found ourselves connecting to that part of the story. So, we thought audiences would, too.

I certainly connected to it. My grandparents met at Cornell just a few years before Ruth and Marty did, and my grandfather’s name was Marty. So I was very personally touched.

West: Wow.

Cohen: My parents met at Cornell just a couple of years after [Ruth and Marty did], and are also from Brooklyn, and are still married to this day for 59 years.

West: Did everyone go to Cornell?

Cohen: Justice Ginsburg didn’t see the film until its premiere at Sundance, but we did show her a two-minute clip at some point during production just to let her know where it was going, and it included that beautiful 1950s color footage of Cornell. And as she was watching it, she started to sing the Cornell theme song. You know, even for someone as famous as she is, the power of seeing your life told as a story is really strong.

Another theme that comes up in the documentary is collegiality, even with people you radically disagree with. This seemed to be encapsulated in her friendship with the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Do you think there’s anything that audiences can or should take away from that?

West: Many audiences who have watched the film already have remarked on the Ginsburg-Scalia relationship. I think some people were skeptical, “Oh, they couldn’t really be friends. This was just for show.” No, it wasn’t for show. It was a genuine friendship based on mutual love of opera, love of humor, and they were intellectual equals and sparring partners. They respected each other. They didn’t necessarily change each other’s lives, but they sharpened each other’s arguments. Both Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia believe in our legal institution. They devoted their lives to it, and I think there is a message that people can take from the kind of civil discourse they were able to engage in at a very high level and still be friends.

Sometimes people just don’t want to talk to someone who disagrees with them, and we see this so often. You just shut yourself off from disturbing opinions. And that is not what Justice Ginsburg has done in her life. She is always willing to meet opposition head-on and to not lose her temper, but just to rationally put forth her point of view.

The movie also tracks how she became this “Great Dissenter.” Is there a particular case that you see kind of as a turning point for her as that Great Dissenter?

West: Well, she’s actually written a number of really key dissents over the years going back some time, but for whatever reason, the turning point case was really her 2013 dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, the Voting Rights Act case, because she wrote it in such great plain language ― language that non-lawyers could really connect with.

[She has] the great line that stripping away some voting rights protections because ... the situation for African-Americans being able to vote in the South had improved was like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” That was just a line that really resonated with people, and then after that, young people just started paying a lot of attention to words that she was writing in her dissents.

RBG is kind of a rare figure in a culture that tends to fetishize youth. She became this cultural icon and viral sensation much later in her life. What do you think it is about her that has struck such a chord with young people?

West: There’s a certain amount of irony in the fact of an 85-year-old Jewish grandmother who is rough and tough and speaking truth to power. The Kate McKinnon “Saturday Night Live” impersonation of course is nothing like the real Justice Ginsburg, but there’s the truth at the heart of it, that she is speaking truth to power, and I think young people identify with that.

From left, Kate McKinnon as Ginsburg with Colin Jost and Michael Che during "Saturday Night Live" on Oct. 7, 2017.
From left, Kate McKinnon as Ginsburg with Colin Jost and Michael Che during "Saturday Night Live" on Oct. 7, 2017.
NBC via Getty Images

I loved that moment in the film where she’s watching the “SNL” impression and just cracking up at it. It was delightful.

West: Kind of cuts against what your impression might be of Justice Ginsburg, who sometimes, semi-ironically, calls herself a sober judge. And in fact, she is overall quite a serious and restrained person, but there are glimpses of delight and sparkle and humor to her, and that was certainly one of them. She loves to laugh, and that part of explains the success of her marriage to a very funny guy and her friendship with Justice Scalia and her ability just to laugh at an impersonation of herself. I mean she’s got to have a great sense of humor.

Was there anything that surprised you about her or her life that you learned while making the movie or any particular tidbits that you feel might surprise audiences?

West: I think that we were a little surprised, but also happy that she agreed to let us film her workout routine. We didn’t really know what to expect. We thought the whole thing might be a little bit of an exaggeration. So we got in there, and I would say that we were surprised by the rigor of the exercises that she performed and her kind of determination to just, you know, keep herself in shape by doing the weightlifting and the pushups and the planks and the side planks. I mean, it was impressive.

Ginsburg works out in a scene from "RBG."
Ginsburg works out in a scene from "RBG."
Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

I just want to know where I can get that “Super Diva” sweatshirt she was working out in.

West: [Laughs] I believe both “Super Diva” sweatshirts that we’re aware of that Justice Ginsburg has have been personally created for her. We may need to discuss that as merchandise ... but I believe both were made for her personally. One of them, we know, was made by the Washington National Opera to celebrate the performance that you see in the film.

Well, I think someone could make a lot of money merchandising that is all I’m saying. To wrap up, what do you ultimately hope audiences take away from this movie? What do you want people to understand about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that they might not have before?

West: I hope they will take away an understanding of what Ruth Bader Ginsburg did [for] American women. ... And I also hope they’ll take away an appreciation for her approach. Her mother taught her that anger is a waste of time. She faced a ton of personal and professional challenges in her life, and she always approached them deliberately and calmly and with smarts to try to figure out how to overcome ― even to the point of going up against a level of discrimination that I think young women today can’t really understand. She took that on and she changed it, not by yelling and screaming, but by a very smart strategy.

Cohen: We want people to learn a lot from our film, but we also want it to be an emotional, fun experience ― [a peek] behind Justice Ginsburg’s serious judicial persona. There’s also a huge well of exuberance, and we think it comes through in the movie and we want our audiences to feel exuberant when they watch it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.