(CNN)Back when a woman could easily be fired for being pregnant; when a wife needed her husband’s permission to get bank credit; and when a married man could not be charged with raping his spouse, a young lawyer had a radical idea. She believed that the US Constitution should treat every American equally, regardless of gender.
And then, relying on her prodigious brain, steely character and a practical, step-by-step strategy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg repeatedly convinced an all-male Supreme Court to see it her way. Betsy West, left, and Julie CohenIn 1973, she successfully argued that a female Air Force lieutenant’s husband should be eligible to receive a dependent’s allowance, such as if the genders were reversed. In 1975, the court again agreed with Ginsburg, ruling that widowed fathers should be able to receive Social Security benefits as readily as widowed mothers. She won a similar case two years later, when she argued on behalf of a widower who’d been denied survivor’s benefits after his wife died.”I thought of myself as a kindergarten teacher,” she said of her early work arguing groundbreaking sex discrimination cases before the court in the 1970s. “Because the justices didn’t think that discrimination existed.” By the time we began making our documentary “RBG” in 2016, Ginsburg had not only changed the world for American women — she had also become the Court’s second female justice, and one of the most unlikely cultural icons of our time, the Notorious RBG. Read MoreRemembering the 'Notorious RBG' is complicatedThe first time we filmed one of her frequent appearances at law schools around the country, the line stretched around the block. Many didn’t have tickets, they just wanted to catch a glimpse of the tiny, octogenarian jurist. As her longtime friend Gloria Steinem told us, RBG was the closest thing she could imagine to a superhero.From her Supreme Court chambers, to the gym where she worked out with famous determination, what an honor it was to tell her story, and what a lesson in how to make change. When we listened to the audio tapes of litigator Ginsburg arguing gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court in the 1970s, we were struck by the casual condescension from some of the justices. In the midst of her argument in Duren v. Missouri, that women should not be exempt from jury duty, Justice Rehnquist joked, “You wouldn’t settle for putting Susan B. Anthony on the dollar?”How did she respond? “Never in anger,” she told us. “That would have been self-defeating.” She won that case. JUST WATCHEDNina Totenberg on 50 years of friendship with GinsburgReplayMore Videos …MUST WATCH
Nina Totenberg on 50 years of friendship with Ginsburg 01:13Two decades later, Ginsburg, by then a justice herself, convinced Chief Justice Rehnquist to join her in the landmark decision that struck down Virginia Military Institute’s all-male admissions policy, paving the way for women to attend VMI. It was the case that put the finishing touches on RBG’s historic crusade to give women equal protection under the law. “Fight for the things that you care about,” she later said, “but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”RBG’s fans were galvanized by her words, including her stinging dissents as the US Supreme Court was moving ever more to the right. Her statements were clear and prophetic.Objecting to the Shelby County v Holder decision in 2013 that effectively removed voting rights protections, she wrote, “It’s like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” You sure can’t help but think about that vivid image when you consider what happened in the 2018 midterm elections in Georgia and Florida, and ongoing voter disenfranchisement. Elizabeth Warren's pregnancy story is one too many women already knowBeyond her strategic approach to achieving change, there was so much to admire about Justice Ginsburg: her determination, her brilliance, her exquisite fashion sense. And then there was her thoughtfulness. Every time we interviewed a friend or colleague, we would hear about the condolence notes, presents to new babies, thank you letters.Eventually, we received a few thoughtful letters ourselves. The last one came this summer. We had directed a short film about Jill Biden for the Democratic National Convention. The next day, there it was, an email in our inboxes, telling us she had watched the video “with pleasure,” and signed RBG. Get our free weekly newsletter
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We were thrilled that the justice was up at 11 p.m. watching a convention at a time when she was undergoing treatment for the cancer she had been fighting for 11 years. She was actively engaged in the civic life of our country until the end, even dictating a message to her granddaughter days before she died: “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” When we asked her how she wanted to be remembered, Justice Ginsburg said with characteristic modesty, “Just as someone who did whatever she could — with whatever limited talent she had — to move society along in the direction I would like it to be for my children and grandchildren.”As Justice Ginsburg becomes the first woman to lie in state at the US Capitol, it is clear that our superstar justice accomplished that goal, and so much more.