Yes, Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Husband Really Was That Wonderful

Photo: Karin Cooper/Liaison/Getty Images.
Our story begins with a blind date. In 1950, not long after arriving on Cornell's campus, 17-year-old future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader was set up with 18-year-old Martin Ginsburg, kicking off an unparalleled, 56-year-long romance and partnership. As the movie On the Basis of Sex, out in limited release December 25, shows so vividly, Ruth (Felicity Jones) and Martin (Armie Hammer) were the definition of couple goals. And yes, their marriage really was that functional.
As the legend goes, Ruth and Marty fell in love with each other’s minds. Personality-wise, they were quite different — she was shy, reserved, and meticulous; he was gregarious and played golf in between classes. But according to Ruth, they shared an “intense intellectual and emotional connection.” In the literature class they took together, Ruth swooned when Marty was the only one to answer the professor’s question correctly. The admiration was mutual. In an interview at Cornell years later, Ruth recalled that Marty “was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain."
The pair married in June 1954, right after Ruth’s graduation from Cornell. From there, they moved to Fort Sill, OK, where Marty completed his ROTC assignment. During their two years in Oklahoma, an essential tenet of their marriage was established: Ruth would be free from all cooking duties. "I learned very early in our marriage," Marty said, "that Ruth was a fairly terrible cook, and, for lack of interest, unlikely to improve. Out of self-preservation, I decided I had better learn to cook." He excelled in cooking for Ruth and their daughter, Jane, born in 1954 (their son James was born in 1965). Eventually, Martin would go on to write a cookbook called Chef Supreme and host “dazzling” dinner parties with Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O‘Connor, as well as bake birthday cakes for the clerks of the Supreme Court.
In the Bader-Ginsburg household, chores were divided equitably. Marty cooked; Ruth cleaned up. In fact, everything was divided equitably. Frankly, the marriage between Ruth and Martin was unusual in any era — the 56 years of devotion, the fruitful working partnership. But it was especially unusual in the 1950s, a time when women were encouraged to view marriage as its own career path, not as a highway to professional development. "To be a successful wife is a career in itself, requiring among other things, the qualities of a diplomat, a businesswoman, a good cook, a trained nurse, a schoolteacher, a politician, and a glamour girl," wrote Emily Mudd, a prominent marriage counselor at the time, in an article for Reader’s Digest.
So, in an era in which women were encouraged to view marriage as its own career path and forgo paid work, Martin Ginsburg was packing and moving to D.C. for his wife’s career. “He was a man ahead of his time,” Jane Sherron de Hart wrote of Martin in her biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Neither of them thought of social conventions concerning women’s roles.”
Instead, they pursued their dreams in tandem. In 1956, after Marty finished in the army, Ruth and Martin attended Harvard Law School together. As one of only nine women in a class of 500, Ruth’s first year of law school was challenging enough. Then, Marty was unexpectedly diagnosed with testicular cancer, which required difficult radiation treatment. Marty managed to stay on track in law school, largely because Ruth helped him with this coursework. Still, amid all this pressure, Ruth continued to exceed her academic goals. She became Harvard’s first female member of the Harvard Law Review. After relocating to New York for Marty’s job at a law firm, Ruth graduated top of her class at Columbia Law in 1959.
Throughout her career, Marty was instrumental in helping Ruth reach new heights. "He always made me feel like I was better than I thought I was," Justice Ginsburg told Elle. In 1970, Marty came across a case that could could dismantle gender-based discrimination (the case is the focal point of the movie On the Basis of Sex). Together, the Ginsburgs launched a constitutional revolution — one that in turn launched Ruth’s career. In 1980, Ruth was nominated to the D.C. Federal Court of Appeals. Martin relocated for her career, just as she had relocated for Marty’s.
At this point, the dynamics in their marriage shifted, and Ruth's career became the priority over Marty's. "In the course of a marriage, one accommodates the other. So, for example, when Marty was intent on becoming a partner in a New York law firm in five years, during that time, I was the major caretaker of our home and child. But when I started up the ACLU Women's Rights Project, Marty realized how important that work was," Justice Ginsburg said on the Rachel Maddow Show.
Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features.
In 1993, when Supreme Court Justice Byron White retired, Marty campaigned to get his wife's name to the top of the list of potential judges. “He was my campaign manager,” Justice Ginsburg confirmed during the New York premiere. “He saw to it that my name didn’t remain perhaps number 25, but got elevated to the top.” President Clinton finally agreed to a meeting with Bader Ginsburg. After 15 minutes of meeting, Clinton knew Bader Ginsburg was his pick. On August 3, 1993, she was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice.
Marty was often present in her chambers, and their intimacy was quiet but constantly evident. Take this story that clerk Heather Elliott recalled in the book Notorious RBG as proof. “I started to talk to [Bader Ginsberg] about the research I had done, and while I was talking, Marty got up and walked toward us. I started freaking out in my mind—‘Is what I am saying that stupid? What is he coming over here for?!’—only to watch him come up to RBG, fix her collar (which had somehow fallen into disarray), and then go back to his book. The comfortable intimacy of that moment was something I will always remember.”
Marty died of cancer in 2010. Before he left for the hospital for the last time, he left a note for Ruth. “You are the only person I have loved in my life, setting aside, a bit, parents and kids and their kids, and I have admired and loved you almost since the day we first met at Cornell some 56 years ago. What a treat it has been to watch you progress to the very top of the legal world!!”
Ruth continues to call Marty her "best friend." With On the Basis of Sex, this extraordinary marriage gets the on-screen treatment it deserves. Viva la Ruth-aissance.

More from Movies

R29 Original Series