My maternal grandmother was born in 1932 in Queens, one year before Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Brooklyn. She was married in 1955 and, like many Irish-Catholic families then, she and my grandfather went on to have many children—seven, in their case. He worked in construction and she did not work outside the home, but she volunteered at church and at the polls, and eagerly took an office job after her sixth child entered grade school, happy for the slice of independence. According to family lore, she was crushed to leave her position when she found out she was pregnant again.
My grandma’s is an entirely common story for a woman born in the ’30s. That Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s life diverged so remarkably from the rest of her generation seems to be a function of two things. First, there was the fact that her mother, Celia Bader, left behind a college fund when she died of cancer the day before Ruth’s graduation; then, there was the man she married: Martin “Marty” Ginsburg, a proto-feminist unicorn who supported her dreams and ambitions along with his own.
In the outpouring of remembrances following RBG’s death on Friday, it’s become increasingly clear that Marty was Ruth’s not-so-secret weapon; that she may never have been able to reach her full, glorious and iconic potential had she not had a husband who ranked her career as equal to his own. In a career full of legal battles dismantling gender discrimination, Ruth’s own love story may be the best case study for proving the power of an egalitarian partnership.
“If she wants children and a job, a woman’s life is only as good as the man or woman she marries,” Caitlin Moran writes in her new book, More Than a Woman. “All too often women are marrying their glass ceilings.” By this metric, one can understand at least part of why Ginsburg said that meeting Marty was “by far the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me.”
When they got together at Cornell University in the ’50s, “Marty was a most unusual fellow,” Ginsburg famously said. “He was the only boy I ever knew.…who cared that I had a brain.” She fell in love with his mind too—in professor Vladimir Nabokov’s lit class, Marty correctly answered a quiz question about Dickens, and Ruth was hooked. They reportedly read Tolstoy and Dickens aloud to one another—a real-life fairy tale for the bookish among us.
The Ginsburgs hitched their wagons to each other’s stars, going from Cornell to Harvard Law. When Marty was diagnosed with testicular cancer, Ruth attended his classes and typed up his notes before starting her own coursework at 2 a.m. She and their daughter, Jane, followed Marty to New York when he got a law firm job after graduation, with Ruth foregoing her last year at Harvard Law and instead finishing her degree at Columbia. What feels rare is not that Ruth made sacrifices for their marriage, but that Marty made them too. As he became a tax attorney and Ruth pursued advocacy work at the ACLU and professorships, he famously took on the domestic task of cooking for the family. “Ruth wanted nothing whatsoever to do with the kitchen,” former Solicitor General Theodore Olson once said.
Cooking was not a chore for Marty, but a love language, according to Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s The Notorious R.B.G. “If my first memories are of Daddy cooking,” Jane Ginsburg said, “so are my last. Cooking for Mother even when he could not himself eat, nor stand in the kitchen without pain, because for him it was ever a joy to discuss the law over dinner with Mother while ensuring that she ate well and with pleasure.” As Marty told the New York Times: “As a general rule, my wife does not give me any advice about cooking and I do not give her any advice about the law. This seems to work quite well on both sides.”
But Marty also gave his direct and indispensable professional support. As a potential nominee to the Supreme Court under President Bill Clinton, it was considered taboo for Ginsburg herself to self-promote. But there were no rules against husbands lobbying on behalf of their wives, so Marty launched his own campaign for Ruth’s nomination. “I wasn’t very good at promotion, but Marty was,” Ruth told PBS’s Gwen Ifill, adding that he was “tireless” leveraging his own network of lawyers, media columnists, and politicians. After she got the nomination, Ginsburg said of her husband: “I have been aided by my life’s partner, Martin D. Ginsburg, who has been, since our teenage years, my best friend and biggest booster.” The line “I married my best friend” has been contorted into near-satire on social media, but in the Ginsburgs’ case, the best friendship feels purely true.
Ruth’s ascent to Supreme Court Justice meant eclipsing her husband at the very top of their shared field, but he showed no evidence of having a fragile ego. “The thing about Marty was that he had such confidence in himself and he never regarded me as any kind of a threat,” Ginsburg later said. Marty was only the second-ever husband of a SCOTUS justice—after Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband, John. Together, the two were said to joke that they were members of the Denis Thatcher Society (named for Margaret’s husband) of men whose wives have “a job which deep in your heart you wish you had,” according to Time. But Marty added, “Now let me just say that in my case it is not true. Only because I really don’t like work. She works like fury all the time. The country’s better off as it is.”
When the SCOTUS spouses (mostly wives) gathered for lunch, “I remember being surprised when I realized his dishes weren’t catered,” said Cathleen Douglas Stone, widow of William O. Douglas. People seem to wonder, a little taken aback, how ever a first gentleman would manage all of the domestic labor of the East Wing—the china selections and state dinners and Easter Egg rolls. Let Marty Ginsburg be the exemplar: He leaned into the role of first SCOTUS spouse in all of its domestic glory, just like any woman with a graduate degree and careers of her own has been expected to do. According to The Notorious R.B.G., “On each clerk’s birthday, Marty would bake a cake—almond or chocolate, sometimes ginger, lemon, or carrot. [Ruth] would leave a to-the-point note: ‘It’s your birthday, so Marty baked a cake. ’ ”
Sixty-six years after the Ginsburgs married, the world still needs more Martys. For all of the legal progress RBG made for both sexes (including establishing the legal concept of sex discrimination itself), marriage and motherhood still do not tend to benefit women’s careers. A recent New Yorker cartoon showed a man on bended knee, mid-marriage proposal, captioned: “Would you do me the honor of taking on even more responsibilities while my life remains largely unchanged?” It’s funny because it’s true: Men are still paid more, and, as such, their careers are often given more weight, prone to subsuming those of their wives. Even when women do work, they often do double-duty, shouldering more housework and childcare (a dynamic magnified by the pandemic) than male partners. By these limitations, there is little opportunity for women’s careers to thrive. Unless—unless!—her partner is a Marty. Every aspiring Ruth deserves one: a man who doesn’t just support her in theory but in practice; who loves her brain and knows his way around the kitchen. Ruth’s legacy is certainly a beacon for us, but Marty’s should be too.
The story is widely known now: Shortly before Marty’s death in 2010, he wrote a letter on a legal pad and left it in the drawer next to his hospital bed. It read: “My dearest Ruth, you are the only person I have loved in my life. Setting aside a bit parents and kids, and their kids.” Included in some of his parting words to his wife and best friend of five decades was an expression of his pride in her accomplishments: ”What a treat it has been,” he wrote, “to watch you progress to the very top of the legal world.”