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Ahlin: RBG: The movie and the woman

"I ask no favor for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks." Such were words of an abolitionist/ suffragette from the 1800s named Sarah Grimke. The quotation—used twice in the movie "RBG"—obviously is relished by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Maybe it's the economy of words or the unmistakable message or both, but her eyes twinkle when saying it. We see a hint of how a quiet legal scholar became "Notorious RBG."

When Joan Ruth Bader was growing up, her mother gave her two pieces of advice: 1) Be a lady. 2) Be independent. Sadly, her mother died from cancer a few days before Ruth's high school graduation.

But Ruth remembered the advice as cautionary. To be a lady she shouldn't give in to anger or other self-defeating emotions. To be independent she shouldn't expect someone else to take care of her—even in marriage. Shy and serious, Ruth lived into that advice to great success.

In the movie "RBG," which just ended at the Fargo Theatre, we see the beautiful young woman of the 1950s, first, an undergraduate student at Cornell, then, one of nine women in a Harvard Law School class of over 500. By the time she began studying law she had married Marty Ginsburg. Her husband was in Harvard's second year class and they were parents of a toddler daughter born in Fort Sill, Okla., during his active U.S. Army duty. Interestingly, in Oklahoma she worked for the Social Security Administration and was demoted when she became pregnant.

When RBG started law school Marty Ginsburg was going through radiation treatment for testicular cancer. Moviegoers learn she typed up class notes each night from his classmates plus papers he dictated so he would not fall behind, she took care of their daughter, she did her own studying, and she managed to make Harvard Law Review. When her husband graduated from Harvard Law School and took a position in New York City, the family moved. Ruth transferred to Columbia Law School for her last year, where she also made Law Review (and tied for first in her class).

In 1959, with those formidable credentials, she couldn't find a job. New York City law firms didn't hire women.

It's impossible to watch the movie and not be struck again and again by the cement-like nature of gender inequality when Ginsburg began her legal career and how strategic and successful she became in changing it, one case at a time.

The other point made clear is the power of a good marriage. When it was Marty's turn to sacrifice for Ruth's career, he did, wholeheartedly. No doubt her great professional success owed much to their personal love story. The two of them well-understood something else Sarah Grimke said in the 1800s: "Intellect is not sexed... strength of mind is not sexed....our views about...the sphere of man and the sphere of woman are mere arbitrary opinions..."

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum. Email janeahlin@yahoo.com

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