In thinking about the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s genius and legacy, I keep thinking about her husband, Marty.
I don’t particularly want to be thinking about Marty (as wonderful as he seemed to be), because I want to think about RBG as her own autonomous being, a beacon of light who brought women closer to equal footing of the average American man. But when we look back at Justice Ginsburg’s enormous impact on society, we can’t pretend that, had her husband not been who he was, RBG would have been able to thrive in the way she did. So that’s why I’ve been thinking about Martin D. Ginsburg.
When news broke about Justice Ginsburg’s death last Friday, an evening of grief spilled into a morning of mourning for women. Tears were shed. Tributes poured in. But the general response from our male counterparts was notably different, markedly unmatched. I noticed it, and several of my female friends did too. As one of them put it: “I spent the night explaining to my husband why Ruth Bader Ginsburg was and is such a big deal.”
This week, countless articles have confirmed this narrative by calling RBG’s death a loss for “girls and women everywhere,” rather than a loss for all Americans, while frequently highlighting Marty and Ruth’s mutual support of one another, but often within the structure of a Disney-princess storyline, in which Ruth “found” a husband who “allowed” her to thrive. These headlines double down on the reason why many men didn’t seem to understand the magnitude of her death, nor the terrifying political implications that come with it. That, or they just didn’t care that much.
Women care because one has to care when the right to make your own decisions about your own body is a constant flashpoint of government debate. And that’s why the feelings of sorrow that many felt after RBG’s death quickly morphed into existential dread.
Despite setting his own precedent and hindering President Obama’s Supreme Court justice nominee Merrick Garland from taking the bench, stating that it was simply too close to the 2016 election, Mitch McConnell and the GOP, like vultures circling a carcass, are eating their words and moving quickly forward with a Supreme Court justice nomination, less than two months before the General Election. So much is at stake, including access to contraception and safe and legal abortion, as Republicans seek to fully rollback Roe vs. Wade. The nomination of another conservative Supreme Court justice may finally be the formula to do just that.
When Ruth Bader Ginsburg graduated from Columbia Law School (tied for first in her class) in 1959, she was married with a 3-year-old daughter. At a time when women’s societal role was to tend to the children and the house, to have dinner hot and waiting for their husbands’ return, Marty Ginsburg (who died in 2010), walked the radical line when he, a successful tax attorney in his own right, made the decision (many times) throughout their 56-year marriage to adjust his life to his wife’s career — her plans, her dreams, and her genius. According to NPR, Marty once told a friend, “I think that the most important thing I have done is to enable Ruth to do what she has done.”
I wonder how many male partners, here, now, in 2020, would and could truly say the same as Marty, who relocated cities for his wife (as she had done for him) and took on many of the domestic duties, like cooking and childcare. When their son James was acting up in school and the teacher called Ruth several times about it, she famously said, “This child has two parents. Please alternate calls. It’s his father’s turn.”
At a time when families have had to quickly adapt to the implications of a pandemic in order to keep their children alive, healthy and educated, it has been by overwhelming default that mothers across the United States have quit their jobs and shelved their own plans, dreams and genius. All to keep society, in some way, running.
Cosmopolitan published a piece Sunday titled, Hey, Dudes, You Owe Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Too. And they do. The author notes the 1975 gender discrimination case in which Ginsburg helped reverse a law that gave women access to their husband’s social security benefits but not the other way around. Thanks to RBG, a male widower was able to access his wife’s benefits. In another example, the author writes that RBG defended “frat boys God-given right to drink beer.”
These facts are true and, dudes, yes, you should be thankful for those freedoms. But RBG’s legacy is rooted in the rights she brought forward for women and other marginalized groups (often by brilliantly turning sex-based policies on their head and focusing her legal theories on the inequalities experienced by men). I don’t want to have to convince a former frat boy to grieve Ginsburg’s death by caveating it with examples on what she did for him too. I want men to care as much about a woman’s right to her own sovereign self as women do. I want them to care because they know that women’s rights are human rights, and to have the former compromised means that the latter is compromised too. I need men to understand that a woman’s access to family planning gives her control of her future, which in turn creates healthier people, healthier children, healthier homes and a healthier society.
As the gatekeepers to the pie-in-the-sky ideals that American women are of equal value to that of American men, our male partners have a responsibility to share the weight of this grief and this battle, to stand alongside us and defend a woman’s right to live just as freely as they do. That begins with fully understanding Ginsburg’s life work and the real-life implications of her death. And the next step is to demystify Marty as a husband, who was committed to his wife as a fully formed human — as a mother and litigator, an opera-lover and activist, a change-maker and Supreme Court justice. Husbands of the world, you too can be like Marty, if you so choose.
Years ago, when I was a young reporter at ABC News, I interviewed Dr. Eva Lathrop, then an assistant professor of family planning, obstetrics and gynecology and global health at Emory University Schools of Medicine and Public Health. In our conversation, which was focused on unsafe abortion rates on the rise globally, she noted, “The health of a society can be measured by the health of the women, who are the backbone of that society.” It is a quote that I think back on regularly and has informed most of my work. Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew this, and Marty did too, as she fought for the backbone of this society for her entire life. Today, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg breaks one more glass ceiling by becoming the first woman and the first Jewish American to lie in state in the U.S. Capitol, it is our job as men and women to commit to continuing this revolution together.
Mikaela Conley is a freelance journalist whose work primarily focuses on reproductive rights, addiction and public health.