Profiles

How Notorious RBG reshaped US history

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In this file photo taken on November 30, 2018 associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg poses for the official photo at the Supreme Court in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO

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Summary

  • Her successes are under assault right now.
  • With her passing, the liberal wing of the Supreme Court could lose the progress made by both RBG and Justice Marshall with a US Senate appointment of a conservative justice.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died September 18 of colon cancer. But the legal legacy of ‘Notorious RBG’, as she is known to her many millennial fans, will live on thanks to both the trail-blazing role she played arguing against gender discrimination up to the US Supreme Court and to the documentary film, RBG about her life. The doc film and the book Notorious RBG both came out in 2018.

There are actually two films that came out that year about RBG, who was only the second female to become a US Supreme Court Justice. The other was a romanticised version which (like the documentary) highlights her remarkably successful marriage to fellow lawyer, Marty Ginsburg, whom she credits as being the key to her pioneering career.

Having seen both films, I prefer the documentary just because the woman herself is present in a large part of it. Beautifully edited to include film footage, photographs, interviews with those who knew her well, and embellished with observations from RBG herself, the film is wonderfully upbeat. For instance, in one interview, she is asked if she knows how she got nicknamed ‘Notorious R.B.G’. She responds that it comes from the Rapper ‘Notorious B.I.G’ whose rap music we hear as part of the film’s mixed musical soundtrack.

The film also elaborates on her remarkable journey from a lower middle class upbringing in the Bronx in New York all the way to first Cornell University, then Harvard Law and Cornell Law schools, to tenured professor and practising human rights lawyer with the ACLU up to her appointment (by President Bill Clinton in 1993) to Supreme Court Justice.

What both films make crystal clear is the way RBG reshaped the course of American history by first identifying and then arguing against sex (or gender) discrimination even before she was a Justice.

Basing all her arguments on the US Constitution, the first legal precedent she set was before the High Court in relation to the 14th Amendment. That is the one providing ‘equal protection’ to ‘all persons’ under the law. Her persuasive argument was that women were included as persons. Just as Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice argued that African Americans were ‘persons’ and, therefore, protected by the 14th, so she too strove for social justice and equal rights among the sexes using legal means; it worked.

UNDER ASSAULT

But her successes are under assault right now. With her passing, the liberal wing of the Supreme Court could lose the progress made by both RBG and Justice Marshall with a US Senate appointment of a conservative justice.

This is one reason this film is so timely. It provides the context for understanding both the revolutionary impact that RBG made both legally and culturally.

And it amplifies the issues at stake which not only affect women and men in the US. They could have a ripple effect internationally as well.