If We Want Another RBG, We Should Encourage More Marty Ginsburgs
Are we missing out on an opportunity to change the stigma around men in supporting roles?
There is a line in my journal under “Relationship Goals” that simply reads — an RBG-style relationship.
I distinctly remember the feeling I had when I wrote that line down. The moment was nothing short of an epiphany. Learning about the 60-year relationship between Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Martin “Marty” Ginsburg completely redefined my idea of what an extraordinary partnership could look like.
What many people don’t realize is that what Justice Ginsburg has achieved in the Supreme Court is actually the result of the life efforts of two people, not one.
Ron Klain, the associate White House counsel at the time of Justice Ginsburg’s Supreme Court nomination, had this to say — “I would say definitely and for the record, though Ruth Bader Ginsburg should have been picked for the Supreme Court anyway, she would not have been picked for the Supreme Court if her husband had not done everything he did to make it happen.”
Justice Ginsburg often repeated this sentiment as well. In her New York Times op-ed, she wrote, “I betray no secret in reporting that, without him, I would not have gained a seat on the Supreme Court.”
She iterates this fact again in the documentary RBG, saying, “No question about it, people who observed at the time, said, “Well, Ruth would have been on a list. Maybe she would have been 22 or 23 but Marty made her number one.”
Of course, this takes nothing away from the fact that it was Justice Ginsburg who instantly wowed President Clinton and earned her seat on the Supreme Court. It only acknowledges that her husband was the one who made sure that there was a door for her to walk through.
What’s really worth highlighting about this story isn’t just that Marty Ginsburg was so fiercely supportive of Justice Ginsburg’s ambitions. There are plenty of partners who do that. It’s why he did it.
Judge Harry Edwards sums it up best, — “He was so in love with his wife and so respected her as a real giant in the legal profession, that he felt it would be an outrage if she wasn’t seriously considered.”
Now that, is what our society today needs more of. A man who supports his wife not for personal gain or out of obligation but because he loves and respects her so much that he would be outraged if the world was deprived of her greatness.
Marty Ginsburg epitomizes the difference between passive support (“I don’t mind if you do this”) versus active support (“I will do everything in my power to make sure you succeed”).
Not only was Mr. Ginsburg not afraid of his wife’s light, but he also reveled in letting everyone know how brightly she could shine. Mr. Ginsburg often told people how his wife had made the Harvard Law Review, while he had not, sharing how proud he was of her successes even when they exceeded his own.
Beyond the obvious respect and adoration he had for his wife, Mr. Ginsburg also truly believed in the importance of Ruth’s work.
When Justice Ginsburg was appointed as a judge on the District of Columbia Circuit, Marty gave up his job as a tax lawyer in New York to make the move with her. It’s worth noting that Marty had been extraordinarily successful in his career at that time.
A long-time friend of the couple, Professor Arthur Miller, said that there were people who would even say that he was the best tax lawyer in New York.
Yet, rather than viewing his actions as a compromise, Mr. Ginsburg seems to have regarded supporting his wife’s career as a part of his life purpose. He once shared this with a friend, “I think that the most important thing I have done is to enable Ruth to do what she has done.”
Justice Ginsburg tells that her husband’s behavior was so unusual for its time that people would come up to her and people would commiserate with her on how hard it must be to commute between New York and D.C. because they simply could not comprehend that a man would leave his work to follow his wife.
Here is what is important about that comment — not much has really changed since then. If the America back then did not believe that such a supportive husband could actually exist, neither does the America today.
In the years between when Justice Ginsburg and her husband met and today, the world has evolved tremendously for women — largely thanks to her. It changed from one where she could not get a job even after graduating from the best law schools in the country to one where she sat on the highest court in the nation.
As a society, we have become more and more accepting of women in leading roles but our opinion of men in supporting roles stays the same. We think of men who prioritize their wives’ careers as losers who are weak and incompetent. And of course, no one believes that a man would actually choose to play second fiddle to his wife unless he had to.
Screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman told the New York Times that when he was working on the biopic about Justice Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex, the Hollywood types would constantly suggest changes to the portrayal of Marty Ginsburg, saying that such a supportive husband could never exist.
Of course, he did exist, and he defied all the stereotypes about a man who chooses to play the supporting role. Marty Ginsburg was certainly not a loser who had no choice. As a white man in the 70’s who was at the top of his game, it would have appeared to anyone other than the Ginsburgs that he was the one that held all the potential in that relationship. In fact, it was precisely because he was so powerful and well-connected that he was able to help Justice Ginsburg obtain a Supreme Court nomination.
Yet, not only did he choose to play the supporting role, but he relished in doing so. After his death, Justice Ginsburg found a letter he had written to her which read, “What a treat it has been to watch you progress to the very top of the legal world.”
Marty Ginsburg’s active support of his wife contributed greatly to her being on the Supreme Court and fundamentally reshaping the lives of many Americans.
Still, we are as bad at celebrating men in supporting roles as we are at honoring women in lead roles.
There is a saying that “Behind every great man, is a great woman.” A saying that firmly cements the man in the lead role and the woman in the supporting role.
If we wanted to flip the equation and have more women in lead roles, the logical conclusion to that is that we would also need more men in supporting roles.
To do that, we are going to need to start celebrating the men who do these supporting roles well. Men like Marty Ginsburg.
When I first started writing this article, I had hesitated to finish it. I did not want to dilute Ruth’s greatness and hard work to further glorify white men. Nor did I want to suggest that she did not also pull her weight in the relationship and equally support her husband, which she definitely did.
I had only wondered if we are missing out on an opportunity to change the conversation around men who chose to be in supporting roles. To say to the world, “Not every man who chooses to support his wife is a loser and weak. When an amazing man truly supports his wife, extraordinary things can happen.”
As I struggled with this internal dilemma, I remembered a gender discrimination case Justice Ginsburg had won in the Supreme Court. The case involved Stephen Wiesenfeld who had become the sole provider for his son after his wife had died in childbirth. Stephen had applied for Social Security survivors’ benefits, only to be told that this was a mother’s benefit — available to widows but not to widowers.
In this instance, Justice Ginsburg had fought against a social security system that discriminated against men who acted as caregivers, and women serving as breadwinners.
After reading about this case, it felt to me like writing an article about reshaping gender roles would be in line with her legacy. It was a reminder that she hadn’t fought just for women’s rights — but she had campaigned for a world where we gave equal acknowledgment for doing the same job, irrespective of gender.
It’s time we stopped discriminating against men in supporting roles because if we want another Ruth Bader Ginsburg — we are going to need many more Marty Ginsburgs.