In her later years, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was internationally known simply as her initials — RBG — and a 2018 documentary film by the same name about Ginsburg’s legal career, personal history and unexpected celebrity became a surprise smash hit. We speak with Julie Cohen, co-director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary ”RBG,” about Ginsburg’s early years and leadership in fighting for equal rights for women, including arguing a case before the Supreme Court with all male justices who were condescending to her. “She never let that condescension get her down,” notes Cohen. “She was a deeply strategic person.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the life and legacy of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who, by the end of her life, was internationally known simply by her initials — RBG — or, as one best-selling biography put it, “The Notorious RBG.” And a 2018 documentary film about her legal career, personal history and unexpected celebrity premiered at Sundance and became a surprise smash hit. It’s called RBG. This is the film’s trailer.
JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
ANNOUNCER: We welcome today Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
NINA TOTENBERG: She’s become such an icon.
FAN: Would you mind signing this copy?
JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I am 84 years old, and everyone wants to take a picture with me.
UNIDENTIFIED: Notorious RBG.
UNIDENTIFIED: Yeah, yeah.
GLORIA STEINEM: When you come right down to it, the closest thing to a superhero I know.
NINA TOTENBERG: Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed the way the world is for American women.
JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I became a lawyer when women were not wanted by the legal profession.
NINA TOTENBERG: Thousands of state and federal laws discriminated on the basis of gender. She was following in the footsteps of the battle for racial equality. She wanted equal protection for women.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: Men and women are persons of equal dignity, and they should count equally before the law.
NINA TOTENBERG: She captured for the male members of the court what it was like to be a second-class citizen.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: The point is that the discriminatory line almost inevitably hurts women.
JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I did see myself as kind of a kindergarten teacher in those days, because the judges didn’t think sex discrimination existed.
JUDGE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I have had the great good fortune to share life with a partner, truly extraordinary for his generation.
JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: He was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain.
ARTHUR R. MILLER: She is a center of power, on and off the court.
IRIN CARMON: Every time Justice Ginsburg wrote a dissent, the internet would explode.
AMINATOU SOW: I came up with a couple slogans. “You can’t spell truth without Ruth.”
JUDGE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: I surely would not be in this room today without the determined efforts of men and women who kept dreams alive.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s the trailer for the Oscar-nominated documentary RBG. In this clip from the film, Justice Ginsburg talks about the first time she argued before the Supreme Court, in the case Frontiero v. Richardson in 1972, centering on a female Air Force lieutenant who had been denied the same housing and medical benefits as her male colleagues. Ginsburg argued the Air Force’s statute for housing allowances treated women as inferior, and the Supreme Court ruled in her favor 8 to 1.
JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG: There was not a single question. I just went on speaking. And I, at the time, wondered, “Are they just indulging me and not listening, or am I telling them something they haven’t heard before, and are they paying attention?”
BRENDA FEIGEN: The justices were just glued to her. I don’t think they were expecting to have to deal with something as powerful as a shear force of her argument, that was just all-encompassing. And they were there to talk about a little statute in the government code. I mean, it was just — we seized the moment to change American society.
RUTH BADER GINSBURG: In asking the court to declare sex a suspect criterion, we urge a position forcibly stated in 1837 by Sarah Grimké, noted abolitionist and advocate of equal rights for men and women. She said, “I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”
AMY GOODMAN: Ruth Bader Ginsburg. And we’re joined by Julie Cohen, who, along with Betsy West, is director and producer of the Academy Award-nominated documentary RBG.
Julie, welcome back to Democracy Now! We had you on when the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. We had you on through the health challenges that Justice Ginsburg has faced, and now, sadly, today, in the aftermath of her death. Can you talk about what we don’t know about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, how she was shaped, her early years and those cases she argued before the Supreme Court?
JULIE COHEN: Sure. I need to gather myself a bit, because, actually, listening to that, those clips of Justice Ginsburg, feel a bit emotional in this context. I haven’t been able to watch the film again since hearing of her death on Friday evening. And just listening to that quiet but centered and super-determined voice is — I found it moving in life, and now that she’s passed away, is moving, as well.
Justice Ginsburg was shaped hugely, like many of us are, by her mother. You know, both her parents were from immigrant families, both from extremely modest backgrounds. And RBG’s mom — at the time she was Ruth Bader, obviously — got cancer when Ruth Bader was in high school, and was quite ill for a period of time. And RBG was so close to her mother and so saddened by her mom’s impending death. But her mother really used the opportunity to impart a lot of life lessons to a young Ruth Bader, to really instill in her a deep, deep ambition, a desire to put her all into education. You know, her mom told her, like, “Go find love. For sure, that’s important. But, like, don’t rely — you need to be independent. Like, don’t rely on a man to bring you what you need in your life. You actually need to make sure you can fend for yourself.” And she also had sort of some life philosophies, which were, you know, basically, “Don’t waste your time on useless emotions — anger, envy, like, guilt. You know, forget those things.” And RBG really took that advice to heart. I’m not saying she never got angry. Surely she did. Everyone does. But her inclination, based on what her mom said, was always to moderate that anger and really to try not to show it, to look for peace and conciliation and stability wherever she could find it.
You know, we spoke to her — in our documentary, we had a number of clips of her arguing those early cases for gender equality before the Supreme Court in the 1970s. She’s arguing at this point before this group of nine male justices, who — you have to put yourself in the context of back at that time. Like, women’s rights, when it first came out, people really didn’t get it. Like, “I don’t understand. What are women complaining about? We open the door for them. We treat them very politely. We give them rings when we propose to them. Like, we just don’t — we just don’t see why a woman would be complaining about her treatment in any way.” And they often not only were obtuse about her arguments, but were also quite condescending to her while she was — you know, here she is, an esteemed lawyer, arguing cases before the highest court in the land, and they’re kind of like making fun of her at times. And she just took it, you know, like water off a duck’s back. She never let that condescension get her down.
She told us that she liked to think of herself as a kindergarten teacher — you know, not just a teacher, but a kindergarten teacher. And that’s how she — she looked at these Supreme Court justices as kindergarten students who just needed to be schooled. And she did indeed school them and, I think, moved on, later in her career and as she’s become this public figure of “The Notorious RBG,” to kind of schooling a lot of us, not only about legal and constitutional principles, but about how to handle the tricky emotional challenges that come up for all of us, particularly people that are fighting for their rights.
AMY GOODMAN: And the case United States v. Virginia, the cases also where — and we’re going to talk about this in a minute — where she used a man to demonstrate what inequality was all about?
JULIE COHEN: Yeah, I mean, such a clever — you know, she was a deeply strategic person. She was not choosing what cases to pursue just on a whim or, like, that sounds like a good, cool case. She was thinking, like, “How might I win?”
And, by the way, she was very consciously modeling her strategy after one that had happened 10 or 15 years before she was arguing her cases, with the string of Supreme Court cases argued by a young Thurgood Marshall, before he was a justice, when he was a young lawyer taking cases for racial equality. Thurgood Marshall, I believe, argued more than 30 cases before the Supreme Court, had an extraordinary win record. And the reason that he achieved so much for racially equality and for forwarding the idea of racial equality under the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, particularly, was by being strategic. He did not take every case. He looked at cases that he thought were winnable and, like, incremental, like one little step at a time. Justice Ginsburg was a student of what Supreme Court jurisprudence — she was aware of what Thurgood Marshall had achieved. And when she started to look into gender equality cases, she wanted to be like Thurgood Marshall in terms of picking cases very strategically.
And it occurred to her that there were a number of ways having to do — I mean, Stephen Wiesenfeld is going to tell you about his own case having to do with the death benefits that a man gets as a widower versus what a woman would get as a widow — that there were instances where — like, you know, say, a man having leave for child care, that kind of thing, that there were instances where men also were victimized by gender discrimination. And her view was like, people should be taken on their own terms. Like, let’s view people as individuals, not as representatives of their gender. And she thought that was going to be a point that would — that might be able to sink in to some of these male justices, who just hadn’t thought through the idea about women’s rights at all.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, 30 seconds, Julie, on your thoughts on her passing and what happens next?
JULIE COHEN: I am incredibly sad about her passing. I would hope, as I know Justice Ginsburg hoped, that some of these fiery dissents that she’s been writing, particularly over the past 10 years, would ultimately become the basis of later Supreme Court majority opinions, where her thoughts and her legal ideas become the law of the land.
AMY GOODMAN: Julie Cohen, thanks so much for being with us, co-directed and produced the Academy Award-nominated film RBG.
When we come back, we hear from the man Ginsburg once called her favorite plaintiff. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “The Daughter of the Regiment,” performed by Luciano Pavarotti. Ruth Bader Ginsburg loved opera, reportedly spent her final weeks, right up until her death, visiting with family, exercising, working and listening to opera. And she also performed in one.