Isuspect I’m not the only person to became aware of Ruth Bader Ginsburg only in 1993, when she was appointed to the Supreme Court by President Bill Clinton, in the process becoming the second female Justice (following Sandra Day O’Connor) and the first Jewish Justice since the retirement of Abe Fortas in 1969. However, the fact is that Justice Ginsburg, then 60 years old, had led a remarkable life even before she was appointed to the highest court in the land.
Frieda Lee Mock’s documentary Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in her Own Words helps to fill in some of what Ginsburg did before being appointed to the Supreme Court, as well as her accomplishments as a member of the Court. It also gives you some idea of what it took for her to make her way in a field in which, as we see her telling a group of schoolchildren, she started with three strikes against her: being Jewish, being female, and being a mother.
To give you a little perspective, Justice Ginsburg was Phi Beta Kappa at Cornell University, made law review at both Harvard and Columbia (she transferred to the latter to accommodate her husband’s job), and graduated from Columbia Law School tied for first in her class. She managed these feats despite being asked, annually, by the dean of Harvard Law School why she was taking up a place that could have gone to a man (the other 8 women enrolled at the same time got this treatment also), and despite caring for a child born before she even started law school.
You might think that potential employers, regarding these accomplishments, would think: “Wow, this woman is really smart and extremely determined and certainly has great time management skills as well, so we should definitely hire her!” But prejudice doesn’t work that way, and Ginsburg had difficulty finding a job. She was hired as a clerk for Judge Edmund Palmieri only after one of her professors threatened to never recommend another Columbia student, did he not offer her a clerkship. That did the trick, and Ginsburg’s formidable legal career was underway. She went on to make her mark in a number of legal areas, including gender discrimination, voter protections, the obligations of law enforcement agencies to obey the law, and the inclusion of mental illness as a form of disability entitled to legal protection.
Notably, in the area of gender discrimination, Ginsburg often used the tactic of emphasizing that men were harmed by conventional assumptions about gender. For instance, in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), she successfully argued that a widower should be awarded Social Security “mother’s benefits” after the death of his wife, who had been the primary breadwinner for the family, so he could care for their child. In Duren v. Missouri (1979), she successfully argued that automatic exemption of women from jury service deprived a defendant (who in this case was male) from trial by a fair cross-section of the community.
Justice Ginsburg led a life that was anything but dull. Unfortunately, the same is not true of this documentary, whose style is reminiscent of the kind of docs that put kids to sleep in high school. It’s clearly built around what archival footage was available, not all of which is fascinating, and we hear a lot from people besides the subject, so a bit of false advertising from the title as well. Nonetheless, it’s hard to find too much fault with anything that makes information about Justice Ginsburg available to a broader public, so on that basis alone Ruth is worth a look. | Sarah Boslaugh
Ruth: Justice Ginsburg in her Own Words is distributed on DVD by Kino Lorber, and is also available for streaming from Kino Now. The only extras on the disc are trailers for this and five other films.