Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s 1950s marriage was more equal than most modern ones

Still exemplary.
Still exemplary.
Image: AP Photo/Ed Bailey
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One of the many gifts bestowed by RBG , the Oscar-nominated documentary about the life of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is its invitation to consider the typically bitter topic of housework in coupledom through the lens of a sweet love story. Sadly, the Ginsburgs, who broke the mold in the middle of the last century, would arguably still be outliers in 2019.

Several segments of the film delve into the iconic judge’s marriage to Martin Ginsburg, who died of cancer in 2010. Marty, as he was known, is often depicted in the press, and in this documentary, as a gifted attorney and witty “fun one” in the Ginsburg couple. Notably, he was also the caregiver and cook throughout most of their marriage. He supported his wife’s brilliant career not only in spirit, but by freeing her up to methodically dismantle laws that denied women’s rights—all while managing his own demanding work as a lawyer and professor.

“When Marty was starting out in law practice and eager to make partner, I was responsible for the lion’s share of taking care of the home,” Justice Ginsburg explains in a interview heard in the film, referring to the couple’s life in New York in the early 1960s, when their first child, Jane, was still young. (Their son was born in 1965.) “But when the women’s movement came alive and Marty appreciated the importance of the work I was doing, then I became the person whose career came first.”

In 1980, when a now prominent Ginsburg was named to US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, her husband left his prestigious job at a Manhattan law office and tenured position teaching at Columbia University to launch a new life in Washington. People they met socially still regularly assumed that she was commuting, however, “because they couldn’t imagine that a man would leave his work to follow his wife,” Ginsburg tells an audience in a clip seen in the film.

Marty’s enlightened ways were not overlooked when his wife was named to the Supreme Court by former president Bill Clinton in 1993. “I have had the great fortune to share life with a partner truly extraordinary for his generation, a man who believed at age 18 when we met, and who believes today, that a woman’s work, whether at home or on the job, is as important as a man’s,” she said in her confirmation hearing testimony.

Ginsburg’s qualifier about Marty being special “for his generation” may feel bittersweet for many viewers. If there’s a social convention that the couples I know have found most difficult to unlearn from their parents, it’s the one that leaves women with the heavier load of housekeeping duties, even when we no longer assume that a career means more to a male partner.

That’s not to say the housework gender gap hasn’t narrowed at all in the past few decades. It has. But recent surveys still tell us that about a quarter of older and middle-age Americans who believe in equality for women in the workforce hold sexist views (paywall) of the roles of men and women at home. “At home, men are more resistant to [egalitarianism] because it really means surrendering privilege,” David Cotter, a sociology professor at Union College recently told the New York Times. Change in this arena has not kept pace with other advancements that have made it possible for women to more easily juggle careers and a family —like a narrowing pay gap, women’s increased enrollment in higher education, and men’s burgeoning interest in paternity leave.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017 that American women did, on average, 2.1 hours of housework per day, compared to a man’s 1.8 hours. In 2016, a UK survey revealed women performed an overall average of 60% more unpaid work than men. While men were putting in an average of 16 hours per week of housework, women were clocking 26 hours. A large Australian survey comparing data from 2002 and 2016 found that women still do seven more hours of housework per week compared to men in that country, and that when women return to work after having a child, their share of housework barely budged. At the current rate of progress, researchers said, it would take Australia 30 years to close the home chores gender gap.

One reason that housework-related cultural conventions may be stalling even as women become higher earners is the ironic finding by some researchers that men whose partners earn more them than will often do less to keep order around the home, not more. The theory is that if a man feels emasculated by his wife’s role as the breadwinner, he is more resistant, perhaps not even consciously, to taking on what has been seen as women’s work. This is how deeply rooted our biases about cleaning the home, and which specific chores are more “feminine” or “masculine” run, possibly even among same-sex couples. 

Additional proof of how much we’re still struggling with this issue can be seen studies involving children, who absorb all the culture rules they live with: Studies have found that girls do more chores around the house than boys, about 15 minutes more per day, in one case. Also consider the viral popularity of essays like writer Gemma Hartley’s “Women Aren’t Nags —We’s Just Fed Up” in Harper’s Bazaar, in 2017. In that piece, which so vividly described the mental load of keeping track of what needs to be done to keep family life running smoothly, Hartley wrote, “I don’t want to micromanage housework. I want a partner with equal initiative.” Thousands of women couldn’t send the story to their partners and understanding friends quickly enough.

“Real change, enduring change happens one step at a time,” Justice Ginsburg said in her Supreme Court confirmation testimony, a reference to her case-by-case approach to modernizing American laws. Unfortunately, it remains unclear what tangible action or structural change might help, even marginally, with this other crucial and related battle for equality. Even in Sweden, where couples are allowed tax breaks that recognize unpaid work, and people are encouraged to hire outside help, women do 45 minutes more housework than men per day. More hopefully, one study published in 2015, found that offering men in Quebec a use-it-or-lose-it parental leave led to higher rates of men being involved in housework and childcare years later.

In the documentary and in the new drama On the Basis of Sex, also about Justice Ginsburg, Marty Ginsburg is portrayed as a man who, like his wife, believed in women’s equality as a starting point. He was so “at ease with himself,” that he never saw his spouse as a threat, Ginsburg comments in RBG. The pair approached housework logically: she was a terrible cook, so Marty taught himself how to do it. She worked long hours (and still does), so he showed up at her office, urging her to come home, to eat a meal, to sleep.

To be sure, the couple was wealthy enough to hire help for the children, too. And it’s Marty’s cooking that’s most often highlighted in accounts of their marriage—one of those tasks that men will more readily do. Still, in this case, Marty happily prepared dinners alongside the wives of other Supreme Court judges, like Maureen Scalia and Mary Kennedy, at a time when doing so deeply challenged gendered preconceptions. (As it happens, you can try out his recipes in this cookbook, sold through the Supreme Court gift shop.) Interviews suggest he also picked up other daily, more thankless tasks than rescuing their two children from their mother’s tuna casserole, which he called “nobody’s favorite.”

“I have been supportive of my wife since the beginning of time, and she has been supportive of me,” he said when Ginsburg was nominated to Supreme Court. “It’s not sacrifice; it’s family.”

If RBG wins on Sunday, whether for best feature-length documentary or for its theme song “I’ll Fight,” nominated for best original song, one fact we’ll likely learn during the acceptance speech is that the entire crew behind the production, “from the cinematographer to the composer,” as the New York Times wrote, was comprised of women. What’s more, as the newspaper also reported, the husbands of directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen have emulated Marty Ginsburg:

The directors and their spouses watched the nomination announcement together, at West’s Manhattan apartment, where her husband, Oren Jacoby, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker in his own right, made them all scrambled eggs for breakfast — a page from the supportive partner playbook of Martin Ginsburg. “Just like Marty Ginsburg, these are guys who had their own amazing careers,” said Cohen, whose husband, Paul Barrett, is a law professor and journalist. And in the last year, “they have been just supporting our journey.”

It’s a step.