Walking the Powerful Woman Tightrope: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Documentary

Walking the Powerful Woman Tightrope: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Documentary reviewed by popular lifestyle blogger, Design Mom

I saw RBG the other night. Have you heard of it? It’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary about her career. I didn’t understand how emotional I would feel as I watched it, but I started crying at two minutes in, and was a ball of tears off and on throughout. I went into the movie not knowing much about her (outside of the Notorious RBG memes that have been popular the last few years), and loved learning how she carefully and systematically built a legal foundation for working toward women’s equality. Her career is really quite remarkable.

One of the things that struck me throughout the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary was her appearance. I couldn’t shake the idea that every detail about the way she presented herself affected whether or not she would be listened to and taken seriously by her peers — who were essentially all men.

Walking the Powerful Woman Tightrope: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Documentary reviewed by popular lifestyle blogger, Design Mom

The movie shares images and footage of her in the 1950’s as a college student and law student — one of 9 women in a class with over 500 men. She is beautiful. Quite stunning. To my mind, she was just the “right amount” of beautiful. Meaning, she was beautiful enough that men would be drawn to her and want to be in her presence, but not so beautiful that they would instantly disregard her intellect. If she had been a few degrees more glamorous, in the direction of a Hollywood starlet, would they have been willing to take her seriously, or would she be instantly objectified; her voice neutralized?

She met and dated the man she would eventually marry early on in her undergraduate years at Cornell. They married right after graduation. She was “safe” because she “belonged” to a man. If she hadn’t had a boyfriend right away, what kind of harassment would she have had to face as she tried to get an education? If she hadn’t married as soon as she graduated, would she have been ignored or pitied because she “couldn’t get a husband?”

In the 1950s, her husband was one of a kind in his generation  — he adored her, truly respected her brilliance, approached her as an equal, and was not threatened by her abilities. She mentioned he was the first man she’d ever met who cared she was smart. As her star rose, he put her career above his own. And because she wasn’t one to brag about herself, he bragged about her to everyone — which influenced who considered her for a Supreme Court Justice. If she hadn’t found this particular man, would she have been able to progress in her career as far as she did? Would she have had to put her husband’s career in front of her own? Would she have been able or allowed to have a career at all?

Her husband was also very successful himself and deeply respected by his peers. He was well-liked and funny. He was one of the top tax lawyers in New York City. If her husband hadn’t been successful, would people have been okay with RBG’s success? If her husband had been unpopular, would she have been shamed for marrying such an awful guy?

When she started law school, her first baby was a one year old. Her husband was in law school too — a year or maybe two years ahead of her. He got cancer. She nursed him back to health, while caring for her baby, and going to her law school classes, and ALSO arranging for notes to be taken during her husband’s classes, so that he could continue his schooling throughout the cancer treatment. And remember, this is before chemo was a thing. The treatment was just brutal radiation. If she hadn’t been supermom/superwife during that period, would she have been disrespected for carrying about her career more than her family? Would people have used her “unnatural, unwomanly love of career” as an excuse to ignore her?

They were a truly happy couple with a long devoted marriage. If there had been stories of cheating, or if their marriage had been rocky and he had badmouthed her to his friends and colleagues, would she have been deemed a horrible wife who couldn’t keep her man happy, and therefore not worth listening too?

They had two kids. One girl, one boy. The “ideal” American family. If they hadn’t had kids, or even just had one kid, would she have been told that she needed to stop what she was doing and attend to her family? Get her priorities straight?

Throughout the movie, I noticed how she dressed. Always neat and put together. Always feminine. Never too showy. Always appropriate. I’m sure it made the men she worked with, and the judges she needed to present in front of–men who rarely heard from women in a professional setting–comfortable. It gave her a non-threatening feel. Had she dressed a bit more mannish, or worn flowery prints, would they have rolled their eyes and assumed she was just pretending to have a career? Pretending to be a man; one of the guys? Or deemed too girly to be able to handle the work?

She was quiet. Her husband was the loud, funny one. She was described universally as reserved, serious, and quiet. Never making small talk. She said her mother insisted that she be ladylike and not lose her temper. If RBG had been chatty or gregarious, would men have gotten too annoyed when working with her and put blocks in place to prevent her from moving forward?

She was born and raised in Brooklyn and she has a strong voice with a classic Brooklyn accent. If she had been raised in another part of the country and had learned to keep her voice more feminine — with a higher pitch, or with a lilt, or with a Valley Girl flirtiness — would men have been willing to listen to her? To take her seriously? Would they have called her shrill?

I should note: these thoughts were not themes in the movie, and barely if ever brought up as her story is told during the film. They are just my observations as I watched. I had a recurring thought the entire time about how her life path and appearance were ideally suited for her to accomplish what she’s accomplished. If any of the circumstances I listed above were changed even a little bit, I think it could have put her (and our nation’s legal history) on a completely different course.

During the movie, I was struck over and over again about how much women’s appearance matters in our society — in the 1950’s and still today. The potential criticisms that I brought up — the ones RBG was able to avoid — are still flung at women right this minute. I see them on social media every single day. This woman’s opinion doesn’t count because she’s not pretty and couldn’t “get a man.” This woman can’t be believed because she’s divorced. There must be something wrong with this woman because she never had kids. This woman should be disregarded because she earns too much and that emasculates men. This woman is power-hungry and ambitious; it’s not becoming. This woman is ignored because her voice is “too shrill” or she talks too much. This woman isn’t taken seriously because she dresses wrong — too outlandish or too boring or too slutty.

The path to being a successful or powerful woman in our society is a tightrope. If you don’t manage to take every step perfectly, down you’ll fall.

Have you seen the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary? Do you know anything about Ruth Bader Ginsburg? Have you ever felt the tightrope walk? Or seen women in your life struggling with it? If you’re married, do you feel your spouse would be willing to put your career above theirs? Have you been criticized for appearance that isn’t traditionally feminine? Or life choices that aren’t traditionally feminine? Am I an outlier here? Am I reading too much into this? What are your thoughts?

P.S. — Powerful poetry about powerful women by the powerful Amy Turn Sharp.

34 thoughts on “Walking the Powerful Woman Tightrope: Ruth Bader Ginsburg Documentary”

  1. I will now have to watch this documentary! I am an engineer and when I worked for a corporate entity, the dressing was always a chore. Can’t be too casual in case you had to meet a vendor or client. Not too fancy, in case you had to go to the plant, the operators would think you were one of the suits. If you colored your hair, you didn’t have enough gravitas. Most meetings I was the only woman and then should you dress feminine or not? Sports analogies were fine, but kitchen analogies (doesn’t everyone have to cook to eat?) not such a hit even though you do use machines in the kitchen as well. Thankfully I am older now and work for myself. Even so, the clothes that are advertised as work attire, would mostly not work for me on the days I have to head out.

  2. I think you are right that the stars aligned to give RBG her powerful voice. Much, though, was her actually aligning her own stars in choosing how she presented herself. And, it is no coincidence that some of her early wins for gender equality were because she found a man’s case to defend. Once the judge/jury decided “Of course that man deserves social security to stay home with his baby after his working wife died” there was no way to deny it for women, who are the more common recipients in that situation. She is brilliant and quietly changed the world for us.

    1. Your comment is close to my own: success is a combination of good choices and good fortune. I find I have little patience for anyone who thinks that anyone’s life is simply a result of choice OR luck.

    2. I agree. I was wondering about that as I watched the movie. How much of how she presented herself was intentional, and how much was just her natural personality?

  3. I came out of that movie believing that RBG is a freaking superhero. Her superpower is functioning at an extremely high level on almost no sleep. The movie says that she was getting two hours of sleep a night her 2L year–caring for her husband with cancer, caring for a two year old, serving on the Harvard law review, and studying both for her own classes and getting her husband’s notes together. On two hours a night I would just die…

    She was superhumanly brilliant and hardworking and *still* the stars also had to align for her to get on the Court. Like, dayum.

  4. RBG is awesome :) I think you would like the book Notorious RBG because of the depth it goes into about her perspective on the law and more details about her life.

    One important note–yes she worked for women’s equality. Even larger than that she worked for ALL people, women and men, to be equal before the law. A great example is one already mentioned about a husband being denied social security survivor benefits when his wife died. She changed the world for women and men for the better. She got flack from some for this who thought she should only focus on women and not worry about advocating for men.

    But no mention in your review of the dissent jabot or her workout?! :)

    1. Yes! The movie was so good about covering her collection of jabots, her daily workout, and also the case about the husband being denied social security survivor benefits.

      I loved every bit of it.

  5. What an interesting perspective. Thanks for presenting your thoughts as you watched the film this way. I am now mentally wandering through forest of the “what if”.
    RBG is just brilliant so strong! I am grateful for her place in the world, and now, for the role (but of course) that her husband played in recognizing her value as a person, a partner, and professional.

    1. If we marry, who we marry, plays such a massive role. I can’t help but think of HRC and what her life and career might have been like with a different husband.

  6. I didn’t know much about RBG until I read Notorious RBG a few years ago. She’s such an inspiration. The questions you raise are interesting to think about – how tightly one has to thread the needle so to speak to be a woman in power. And I would love to see so many more versions/visions of women in power. Thanks for the intro to the poet Amy TS too!

    1. “how tightly one has to thread the needle so to speak to be a woman in power”

      I like how you phrased that.

      And yes, Amy Turn Sharp is amazing. I highly recommend following her on Instagram or Twitter. Her words are amazing.

  7. I think you’re right on! RBG was brilliant and also walked a tightrope. Many of us as Women continue to walk the tightrope if we want to be successful. And then there are all of the brilliant women who couldn’t fit the mold because of race, class, and a million other factors. Some of whom still manage to Succeed! Sorry for the weird capitalizations- I’m typing this on my phone while nursing a wiggly child…

  8. I can’t wait to see this movie. Just your description brought tears to my eyes! I had to do a “hero report” in high school and chose to do it on Ruth Bader Ginsburg. At the time I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I have forgotten a lot of what I learned about her and am so looking forward to re-learning it. I guess I’ll pack some tissues! Have you seen the children’s book “I Dissent“? It’s great.

  9. As a brand new lawyer, I had the opportunity to meet Justice Ginsburg when I was admitted to the US Supreme Court…what a class act she is. A tiny slip of a woman with a huge presence; she was so gracious and warm. After the ceremony at the US Supreme Court she was the only justice to stop by to meet and chat with our group. She took time with each of us. I will always remember that. Yes, as women, we are all walking the tightrope. Thanks for a compelling post.

  10. On a much smaller scale but still so relevant to this conversation, I watched the David Letterman and Tina Fey interview last night. It struck a chord with me about women in the workplace and how Letterman, when asked about women writers on his team (there were none!) so innocently responded that he never thought they would want to. Tina responded with a simple, “well, we do”. We still have so far to go!
    I lament for women of further minorities who have so many more hurdles to jump than me. Onwards and upwards ladies!

  11. I saw the film and loved it. And felt emotional about the way certain things she has worked for seem in danger of being dismantled. I was struck by many of the things you mentioned and also her size—if she weren’t so petite, would she have seemed more threatening? And also the fact that she seems to be one of those people who requires very little sleep! As someone who is at my best with closer to 9 hours a night, her schedule (particularly in law school when her husband was ill) made my head spin. Such a remarkable woman! We are lucky to have her.

    1. I think we’re lucky to have her too. And I”m so appreciative that she’s working out and trying to do what she needs to to stay in good health.

      And I hear you on her size. In some of those photos with the other justices, she’s just so tiny!

  12. My love for RBG knows no bounds. What a role model for my 3 girls. The Notorious RBG is a fantastic book – so great, and we have ‘I Dissent‘ and another kids book about RBG for my girls. You can definitely figure out her politics, but being a SCJ and not a politician she’s removed from partisan politics which is great because my mom thinks we’re brainwashing our kids with our HRC books. :)

    1. I know what you mean. Being a SCJ keeps her (mostly) above the political fray, and makes it easier for a wider audience to appreciate her as a role model.

  13. Mary Margaret

    All the heart eyes for RBG and this movie — she is truly an inspiration and has been a tour de force for women (and men) throughout the land. Even though I was familiar with several of the cases (attorney), there is so much I did not know about RBG or her particular role in them. So much to unpack in this documentary. I love that her kids kept a notebook called “Times Mom Laughed,” that she and her husband were unfailing champions for each other, that she has a killer set of jabots, and that her husband wrote her the sweetest goodbye note when he was dying. Totally worth a second viewing. I would love to take my kids and husband to see and would definitely petition for this to be mandatory film for school kids.

    1. Yes! The note her husband wrote. The sweetest. And I love the “Times Mom Laughed” notebook too. So many details that painted a really remarkable life.

  14. Gaby, is the movie suited for/calibrated to a younger audience? Wondering if my 10 year old & 13 year old would be able to appreciate the movie. It’s coming to my town in two weeks – I can’t wait!

    1. I think a 10 and 12 year old would be fine. I don’t remember any inappropriate content — so base it more on whether or not your kids would enjoy a documentary.

    2. Joana Galarza Johnson

      I took all my kids (ages 16, 14, 10 and 8) to see RGB. I took all of them because I read a review about it being slightly “happy” in tone– it was… inspiring and all my kids enjoyed it and were glad I took them!

    3. Mary Margaret

      I took my kids (14, 12 and 9) and husband to see as well — all enjoyed (although middle one complained that it was a bit long — it’s not). It has a fast pace and is interesting enough for kids — plus documentary viewing is a worthwhile endeavor even for kids! I saw it a second time. Very inspirational.

  15. Kathleen Kennedy

    I played hooky from work for a couple hours on Tuesday morning and went to see this with my mom, after being inspired by your post. Thanks so much for highlighting such a fantastic documentary and person!

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