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'RBG' Follows Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Lifetime Of Squashing Sexism

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Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gets pumped in documentary RBG. (Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

By Elyssa Dudley with Marialexa Kavanaugh

From D.C. to L.A., Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has become a feminist pop culture icon. Documentary RBG tells her story as that of a real life superhero. After opening in May, it could go on to be the highest grossing documentary this summer (despite some competition from Mr. Rogers doc Won't You Be My Neighbor).

In 1956, Ginsburg was one of just nine women in a class of 500 at Harvard Law School. She was at the top of her class and one of the 25 students to make the Harvard Law Review, beating out hundreds of men -- including her future husband. But there was always pushback.

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The 85-year-old Ginsburg began her law career at a time when working women were a novelty and female lawyers were practically unheard of. She remembers when the dean of Harvard Law invited her and the eight other women in her cohort to dinner. He wanted to know: "How do you justify taking a spot from a qualified man?"

Major side-eye.

Filmmakers Betsy West and Julie Cohen wanted their documentary RBG to show the gender discrimination Ginsburg has faced while also showing her triumphs. They follow her travels speaking to crowds of adoring fans, many of them millennials, who've dubbed her in modern meme terminology "The Notorious RBG."

They also go inside her gym, showing her rigorous workout with her trainer. Whatever keeps her going is something we all want to know for our own routines.

A few things you'll learn in the film about Ruth:

  • Her trainer's a former Navy Seal
  • She loves opera
  • She's a night owl
  • She doesn't cook
  • She has a steel trap memory
  • She's not going anywhere anytime soon

Ginsburg was kept out of jobs and denied an opportunity to clerk for the Supreme Court. West told KPCC's The Frame that it was because she'd been recommended to a justice who said, "I'm not going to hire a woman."

She became part of a movement to change discriminatory laws and customs. Lawsuits she brought forced the Supreme Court to look at discrimination.

"Ruth Bader Ginsburg brought it to their attention and had a tremendous impact on every woman in this country," West said.

Ginsburg faced casually sexist remarks in her work as a litigator in front of the Supreme Court. When asked how she dealt with those comments, she told the filmmakers, "Never in anger."

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West said, "My favorite comment that she made was, 'I almost felt like I was a kindergartener, explaining to these justices that yes, discrimination against women exists.' It was Justice Ginsburg, then as a lawyer, who was explaining to justices [that] no, women don't have it all. They are not on a pedestal and treated better. The pedestal is almost a cage."

She also had an unconventional marriage with her late husband that helped her on her journey to change the nation. Her husband was an accomplished lawyer, West said, a partner at a New York City firm.

"When he was trying to make partner, his career came first," West said. "But as the women's movement ramped up and as she began this initiative to bring cases to challenge discriminatory laws, Marty Ginsburg understood the importance of her work."

He stepped back and let Ruth's career come first. He also did all the cooking.

"He was a fantastic cook, a very funny guy," West said. "She loved his sense of humor and he helped her become a Supreme Court Justice. She says, 'There's no question that without Marty, I probably wouldn't have been considered.'"

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