Briefing Notes No 50
April 12, 2019
After-screening discussion with DAUK members Susan Schoenfeld Harrington, Carol Moore and Asha Subas
About the film
The filmmakers Betsey West and Julie Cohen initiated this project in 2015. Both had previously worked on Makers: Women Who Make America, a digital archive of the modern women’s movement. For this documentary, they assembled an all-women crew of directors, producers and editors – creating a “unique and empowering experience.”
Born in 1933, her story is an inspiring American journey: from an immigrant, Jewish, Brooklyn background and the first in her family to attend college to the highest court in the land.
RBG’s path to becoming the second woman appointed to the Supreme Court was strewn with obstacles. She faced gender quotas when applying to college and Law School and overt hostility. She was one of nine women out of 552 students in her Harvard Law School class and received no offers from New York law firms upon graduation, despite being on Law Review and among the top of her class at both Harvard Law and Columbia Law. When RBG became a tenure-track professor at Rutgers in 1963, there were only 18 tenured female law professors in the USA.
To achieve her successes, not only did RBG have to be extraordinary, she also had to rely upon extraordinary levels of support from legal mentors and family, in particular, from her husband Marty.
About her strategy and legacy
The label ‘Notorious RBG’ belies the fact that she has been strategic and incremental in her approach to achieving progressive change: “I do believe that real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time”.
RBG is persistent in her advocacy for women’s rights – sex and gender equality in the law. She is unapologetic in
proclaiming “I consider myself a flaming feminist” (2018).
In legal arguments and advocacy, she stressed how gender discrimination hurts everyone.
In 1971 RBG founded the ACLU Women’s Rights Project and developed her legal strategy for women’s equality “step by step, case by case.” Since the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly provide for equal rights for men and women, RBG won five out of six cases largely through advocating for women’s rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment. RBG continues to advocate for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. (see over)
The changing context
Despite her unapologetic support for feminism and reproductive rights, RBG was confirmed by Republicans and Democrats with a vote of 96-3 in 1993. Times have changed. Due to years of Republican obstruction and heightened partisanship, RBG now sits alongside the two (not three, as should be) Obama appointees, Justices Kagan and Sotomayor, whose margins of confirmation were only 2/3 to 1/3.
As the ideological composition of the Court moved right, RBG went from being a justice who often found common ground with her more conservative colleagues to delivering fierce, and often eminently quotable, dissents from the bench. Indeed, her dissents inspired a whole new generation on social media, and more importantly led to legislative change through the Lily Ledbetter Act. Alongside Sonia Sotomayor, whose opinions on criminal justice issues are particularly note-worthy, RBG remains a potent and important voice for progressive jurisprudence.
RBG is an inspiring story – needed in these difficult times. Her story serves as a timely reminder of the importance of our judiciary and how precarious ‘progress’ can be.
The information and sources provided as well as the views expressed here reflect
neither the views of DAUK or the Democratic Party nor their endorsement of, or association with them.