RBG Documentary: What We Learned About Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The documentary RBG, arriving in theaters on Friday, takes a fresh look at the 85-year-old U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, through interviews with her family, friends, scholars, judges and the justice herself. It charts her historic path to becoming the second woman to serve on the nation’s highest court — and later on, to Internet fame, through the viral “Notorious R.B.G.” memes that depict her as a wisecracking feminist trailblazer.

And, though Ginsburg has already been the subject of numerous biographies, there’s always more to learn about such an influential career. Here are three of our favorite lesser-known facts from RBG:

Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Legal Career Was Jump-Started by the Red Scare

She attributes the decision to pursue law in the McCarthy era to one particular government professor at her alma mater, Cornell University. Though the teacher is not named in the documentary, Ginsburg did track entertainment-industry blacklists — lists of people barred from work for their supposed communist sympathies — for the government professor Robert Cushman, who oversaw the school’s Civil Liberties program. Ginsburg was there in 1953 when the House Un-American Activities Committee grilled zoology professor Marcus Singer about his participation in a communist study group while teaching at Harvard. Singer maintained that he wasn’t a card-carrying member of the Communist Party and refused to rat out the other members, invoking the Fifth Amendment. He was convicted of contempt of Congress in 1956 but was acquitted the following year.

It was during this period that she saw how “lawyers who were defending the rights of these people to think, to speak, to write, freely,” she says in the documentary, “and then I got the idea that you could do something that would make your society a little better.”

She Made Her Mark on Gender Discrimination Jurisprudence With a Male Client

Before she wrote meme-worthy opinions on women’s rights Supreme Court cases, she was arguing them. But in fact it was a male client who helped her prove most clearly that “gender discrimination hurts everyone,” as she told the Senate during her Supreme Court confirmation process.

In the case Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975), Stephen Wiesenfeld was a self-employed consultant and male homemaker in Edison, N.J., who was denied his late wife’s Social Security benefits to support their son because that money only went to mothers. He brought a lawsuit, which Ginsburg argued, charging that this provision of the Social Security Act denied him equal protection and violated the due-process clause of the Fifth Amendment.

“When we got to the courtroom she sat me down at the table with her,” Wiesenfeld says in the documentary. “She just wanted a male presence to be at that table so that the justices had something to identify with.”

Apparently it worked. “It is no less important for a child to be cared for by its sole surviving parent when that parent is male rather than female,” the court ruled. The unanimous decision in Wiesenfeld’s favor led to a new class of Social Security payments. As TIME summed up the significance of the ruling, “The equal-rights movement has bumped up against one of the most powerful bastions of male dominance in the U.S.—and moved it.” Or, as she described it herself in a speech years later, “I have often said that women will not achieve true equality until men are as concerned as women are with the raising of the next generation.”

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Her Husband Campaigned for Her Supreme Court Nomination

The love story between the Justice and her college sweetheart, the late esteemed tax lawyer Marty Ginsburg, who died in 2010, is a thread throughout RBG. She raised a baby while helping him get through law school when he had cancer, and says that while she helped hold down the fort at home until he made partner, it was her turn after that. And throughout his life, he was an ardent supporter of her career — even personally making the case for her to end up on the Supreme Court.

“Friends say Mr. Ginsburg worked behind the scenes to help persuade Mr. Clinton to nominate Judge Ginsburg for the Supreme Court, calling on leading scholars to write to Mr. Clinton and his counsel, Bernard W. Nussbaum,” the New York Times reported a few days after the Senate confirmed her nomination 96-3 on June 14, 1993. “When rumors began circulating last month that Judge Ginsburg had opposed the right to abortion, Mr. Ginsburg enlisted academics to tell the White House and others that his wife had criticized the reasoning, but not the result, of the 1973 case establishing the constitutional right… [It] was Mr. Ginsburg, one of the nation’s leading tax experts, who averted any controversy about the couple’s finances. On a few hours’ notice, Mr. Ginsburg compiled years of financial records.”

He also was the one who kept the Justice sane at times, doing all of the cooking and physically going to her office to take her home when she was working too late. The film also talks about how Marty was the ham in the relationship, and how much she appreciated that he kept her laughing — something that, between her enjoyment of the Notorious R.B.G. memes and Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live, clearly continues to this day.

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