Martin and Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Thoroughly Modern Love Story (Guest Column)

Martin D. Ginsburg_Ruth Bader Ginsburg - Getty - H 2019
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To mark Valentine's Day, James Ginsburg, the son of the Supreme Court justice, looks back at his mother and his father Martin, a tax attorney, and how they forged "an equal partnership" that defied the conventions of their times.

Unlike most girls growing up in the 1930s and 40s, my mother — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, aka the Notorious RBG — was raised to "be independent" and to "stand on your own two feet." These were frequent admonitions from her mother, who sadly passed away when Ruth was 17, the day before her high school graduation.

When she got to Cornell, Ruth (or "Kiki" as her friends called her) made no attempt to hide her formidable intellect as many of her female classmates did in pursuit of their all-important “MRS” degrees.

At Cornell, she met Marty, someone so secure in his own intellect that hers was no threat to him — indeed, it was something he reveled in. He was, she has said, "the only boy I dated who cared that I had a brain."

Another modern aspect of my parents' early days together was their decision, midway through college, to pursue the same professional education. Marty started as a chemistry major, but abandoned that major, and the possibility of medical school, because afternoon labs conflicted with golf practice (just as well, since medicine would not have played to Ruth’s strengths). Marty had his heart set on pursuing his higher education at Harvard. This ruled out business school as [Harvard Business School] did not admit women at the time. So law school it would be.

Marty was a year ahead of Ruth, so he entered his first year of Harvard Law School while Ruth completed her senior year at Cornell (they were married immediately after she graduated in June 1954). Even then he was bragging to anyone who would listen that his fiancée would make Law Review (an honor reserved exclusively for those at the very top of the class).

Ruth, however, was having some trepidation about entering law school, knowing she would be doing so as the mother of an infant. When she turned to her in-laws for advice, she discovered the cloth from which Marty was cut. My grandfather, Morris Ginsburg, turned to his pregnant daughter-in-law and said, "Ruth, if you don’t want to go to law school, you have the best reason in the world; no one will think less of you. But if you really want to go to law school, you will stop feeling sorry for yourself and you will find a way to do it." Imagine that advice, coming under those circumstances, from a man of his generation, in 1955!

Ruth and Marty’s joint attendance at Harvard was delayed, however, by Marty's two-year call-up to the Army. The still-newlyweds found themselves at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with time to spare ("far away from family looking over our shoulders" as Ruth has put it), enjoying their young daughter (my sister Jane) and developing their lifelong habit of reading to each other. It also gave Marty the time and space to explore a really prescient wedding gift, courtesy of Ruth’s double-cousin Richard, who was well aware of Ruth's lack of culinary prowess. Thanks to Richard, Marty spent those two years cooking his way page-by-page through Ma Cuisine by Auguste Escoffier to become truly a "Chef Supreme" (the title of the recipe book the other Supreme Court spouses compiled posthumously in 2010 in his honor).

After my parents' return to Harvard came the crisis that turned RBG into the superwoman she remains today. During their second year there, my father’s third and last of law school, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer from which survival seemed unlikely. Following extensive surgery, he underwent massive daily radiation treatments for six weeks. During this time, Ruth continued to care for toddler Jane, attended all of her classes, continued on the law review, collected and typed up notes from Marty's classmates and took care of him. He would come home from radiation treatment, throw up, go to sleep and wake up around midnight, at which point Ruth would feed and tend to him until he returned to slumber. This is when she developed her lifelong ability to manage with very little sleep, getting her own studying done in the wee hours of the morning. Amazingly, Marty recovered and got his best grades that term, thanks to the devotion of his wife and the support of his classmates. Ruth maintained her top-of-the-class standing and transferred to Columbia Law School for her final year to be with Marty as he began law firm life in New York. She graduated tied for No. 1 in the class.

One thing my parents prided themselves on was their equal partnership, taking care of home and family — yet another modern aspect to their marriage. The one exception to this was the beginning of their time in New York. Marty was determined to make partner at his law firm within five years, during which Ruth did take on the majority of the household and child-raising duties, including the everyday cooking. Preparing meals for company was, of course, Marty's job. Once he made partner and began running the tax department at his firm, he emphasized the importance of family: While other parts of the firm toiled late into the night, those in Marty's department were always headed home by 7 p.m. to have dinner with their loved ones.

My sister always wanted a sibling. Advised that Marty's radical radiation therapy had likely rendered him infertile, my parents were at pains to convince their daughter of the advantages of being an only child. So it was quite a surprise when I came along! When the gynecologist (a woman, by the way) confirmed Ruth’s pregnancy, she asked her patient gently, "Tell me dear, is there another?" Ruth promptly requested and Marty proudly complied with a sperm test! My mother insisted on natural childbirth: she wanted to see me and be sure that I was okay — 10 fingers, 10 toes, etc. — right away. Another sign of the times (1965 now), the hospital didn’t want to allow my father into the delivery room, but he was not to be deterred.

One of the many things that bound our family together was love of music. This was especially fortunate for me. Mom liked to say, "James was a lively child" (school administrators would say "hyperactive") but discovered that classical music would grab my attention and stop my running around. I remember trips to the Little Orchestra Society at Hunter College with Mom; New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts (conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas) with Dad; and Light Opera of Manhattan (for Gilbert & Sullivan operettas), New York City Opera and The Metropolitan Opera with both.

Weekend family time was spent on the golf course. Dad was one of the better golfers in the club, I was an eager learner, and Mom was along for the ride, literally: She would read her legal briefs in the golf cart between shots. I remember my father’s loving teasing of my more serious mother (Jane used to maintain a journal of rare entries titled "Mommy Laughed") as one of the constants of growing up, and one moment on the golf course remains vivid: Deliberate in all the things she did, preparing to putt, Mom hunched motionless over the ball for such a long time that Dad finally came over and said, "I believe you're supposed to face East."

This was also the time when Mom's career as an advocate for those disadvantaged by gender-based discrimination began to take off. Even as Dad’s reputation as "the best tax lawyer in New York" continued to grow, he immediately saw the value of her work and encouraged her, including bringing her the Tax Court advance sheet that led to them arguing Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue together in 1971.

As Mom's career grew — in the 1970s she became the first tenured woman professor at Columbia Law School and ran the ACLU Women’s Rights Project, arguing six cases before the Supreme Court — Dad’s share of the household responsibilities increased, and Mom was relieved of cooking duties entirely: "She was banished from the kitchen by her food-loving children," according to Dad.

As lucrative and rewarding as his work was, Dad always saw Mom's as more important. He truly thrived in supporting her. His persistent lobbying to get Mom considered for Clinton's first Supreme Court vacancy is well documented. What is less well-known is how hard he worked behind the scenes to get her to the Court of Appeals in D.C., without which appointment the Supreme Court would never have happened.

When Mom got that job in 1980, acquaintances commiserated about how hard it would be for her to commute from New York. The idea that a man would give up his successful law firm practice and his new tenured position at Columbia Law School to follow his wife was beyond most of their contemporaries’ imaginations. But there was no question in his mind that it was his turn to follow her now. When asked about making such a sacrifice, his answer was always, "It's not sacrifice; it's family."

I leave you with a 2003 speech in which, while introducing Mom, Dad presented the essence of their thoroughly modern marriage:

"In December 2000, just after Bush v. Gore, Ruth and I were in New York City to see the play Proof. And after the first act intermission, as we walked down the aisle to our seats, what seemed like the entire audience began to applaud, many stood, Ruth beamed. I beamed, too, leaned over, and whispered loudly, 'I bet you didn’t know there’s a convention of tax lawyers in town.' Well, without changing her bright smile, Ruth smacked me right in the stomach, but not too hard. And I give you this picture because it fairly captures our nearly fifty-year happy marriage, during which I have offered up an astonishing number of foolish pronouncements with absolute assurance, and Ruth, with only limited rancor, has ignored almost every one."

James Ginsburg is founder and president of Cedille Records — a nonprofit label devoted to recording and promoting the finest classical musicians in and from Chicago — and a Grammy-nominated producer of well over 100 recordings, including Notorious RBG in Song.