- RBG, the 97-minute documentary on Justice Ginsburg's life, is as much about her extraordinary trailblazing career as it is about her 56-year marriage. Tweet This
- Justice Ginsburg’s life is a living testament to the way a happy marriage not only compliments but reinforces a flourishing career for a woman. Tweet This
When thinking about our nation’s most high-profile ambassadors for the goods of marriage, one could be forgiven for not thinking of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Yet, as the recently released documentary about her life and career, RBG, makes plain, Justice Ginsburg’s life is a living testament to the way a happy marriage not only compliments but reinforces a flourishing career for a woman.
A surprising amount of the 97-minute documentary is dedicated to Justice Ginsburg’s marriage and family life. The movie is as much about her extraordinary trailblazing career as it is about her 56-year marriage to her one and only husband, Marty. “Meeting Marty was by far the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me,” Ginsburg says in one scene, where she is pictured seated in one of the Supreme Court’s grandest rooms. The imagery is striking: here is one of the most successful women in American history, and she doesn’t hesitate in identifying her greatest accomplishment as her marriage.
The film wonderfully portrays the way her marriage and family life were an engine for her success. In one scene, she is pictured in a black and white photo, the only woman among a cohort of male peers the year she became the first woman in Harvard’s history to make the prestigious law review. In the following scene, she holds her baby daughter, who was an infant when Ginsburg accomplished that feat. Speaking about that time in her life, Ginsburg didn’t use conflicted or bitter language about the strains of having a baby while striving to succeed in an extremely male-dominated environment. Rather, she spoke warmly about the way having a child in law school helped her to do better by balancing her out and offering her a way to grow personally while growing intellectually. Having a child amid such rigorous studies, she said, actually helped keep her sane.
Much of the movie features interviews with her children and granddaughter, but it is her marriage to now-deceased Marty that shines. Their marriage embodied the generous give and take that seems to characterize most thriving marriages. She attributes his encouragement to her success at Harvard, but when he landed a job in New York City before she graduated, she transferred to Columbia. Justice Ginsburg attributes her success as both mother and jurist to her husband, who made clear from the onset that whatever path she chose, her work at home or in the office would always be equal to his, something she reflected on in her Supreme Court confirmation hearing before the United States Senate in 1993, when she said:
What has become of me could happen only in America. Like so many others, I owe so much to the entry this nation afforded to people yearning to breathe free. I have had the great good fortune to share life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation, a man who believed at age 18 when we met, and who believes today, that a woman's work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man's …
Her reflections on her marriage are similar to those of another younger, but equally well-known female figure: Sheryl Sandberg. Best known for urging women to better advocate for themselves and their interests in the workplace, Sandberg is less known for her counter-cultural take on marriage. Prior to her husband’s passing, she spoke often about his essential role in her own success and the need for more appreciation for the work women do at home. As I wrote on this blog, "while she gets somewhat caught up in statistics about the chore wars, she nonetheless argues that men should pitch in at home even if their wives stay home all day because her work is full-time just like that of a woman with an office. But it is her take on marriage that is truly fresh for mainstream feminism." Sandberg writes:
I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is. I don’t know of one woman in a leadership position whose life partner is not fully—and I mean fully—supportive of her career. No exceptions. And contrary to the popular notion that only unmarried women can make it to the top, the majority of the most successful female business leaders have partners. Of the 28 women who have served as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 26 were married, one was divorced, and one had never married. Many of these CEOs said they ‘could not have succeeded without the support of their husbands.’
Both women don’t just defend marriage as compatible with career, they argue both personally and in the abstract that it is an important piece of the puzzle for the professional success of many women.
There is plenty for conservatives to disagree with when it comes to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, such as her full definition of what constitutes women’s rights. But one can disagree vehemently with her on many fronts while still appreciating that she forged a path for women today, in particular, one in which women can be both respected inside and outside the home, for both their domestic and professional work.
In one scene in the RBG film, dressed in one of the elegant lace collars she became known for, Justice Ginsburg says, “My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady, and the other was to be independent.” Her life epitomizes that a happily married woman can be both.
Ashley E. McGuire is a Contributing Editor at the Institute for Family Studies. Her new book is Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Regnery, 2017).
Photo credit: Magnolia Pictures