How Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Late Husband, Marty, Helped Her Reach Her Potential

Photo credit: Getty Images/Michael Stillwell
Photo credit: Getty Images/Michael Stillwell

From Town & Country

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has died of complications from metastatic pancreas cancer at the age of 87. In light of this news, we're republishing this story about her relationship with her husband, Marty Ginsburg.

Read the original article, published on February 23, 2019, below.

When screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman was working on On the Basis of Sex, a recent biopic about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he found himself doing a lot of explaining. Hollywood types would read the script, and instantly suggest he change Ruth's picture-perfect relationship with her ever-supportive husband, Martin "Marty" Ginsburg.

“It came up a lot,” Stiepleman said to the New York Times. “I remember at some point saying in a meeting, There’s a 5,000-year history of narrative, of men coming home from battle, and their wives patch them up and boost their egos and send them back out to fight again. You write one supportive husband, and everyone’s like, such a creature could never exist!”

In the end, he got his way, and the public got to appreciate just how ideal the couple's relationship was—a theme also underscored in the 2018 documentary RBG. Here, a timeline of their love story, starting with their first meeting in college.

Photo credit: The Washington Post - Getty Images
Photo credit: The Washington Post - Getty Images

They fell in love as undergraduates at Cornell University.

Marty's roommate set him up on a blind date with Ruth. He found her "awfully cute," their son James Ginsburg told People. "Then he noticed, she’s awfully smart." Indeed, Ruth would later say that Marty was "the only young man I dated who cared that I had a brain."

Marty was sharp, too. In a class taught by none other than Vladimir Nabokov, Marty was once the only student who could muster a correct answer about Dickens. Bader, an avowed fan of their professor, was quite impressed.

They married in 1954, soon after graduating from Cornell.

The Ginsburgs then moved to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where Marty was set to complete his ROTC assignment. It was there that Marty came to understand an important thing about their life together. "I learned very early on in our marriage that Ruth was a fairly terrible cook and, for lack of interest, unlikely to improve," he said in a 1996 speech. "This seemed to me comprehensible; my mother was a fairly terrible cook also. Out of self-preservation, I decided I had better learn to cook because Ruth, to quote her precisely, was expelled from the kitchen by her food-loving children nearly a quarter-century ago."

Though born out of necessity, Marty's interest in cooking soon became a treasured hobby. When he passed away decades later, the Supreme Court justices' spouses assembled a cookbook in his honor.

Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images
Photo credit: Bettmann - Getty Images

Not long after the birth of their daughter Jane, the couple attended Harvard Law School.

Ruth remembers worrying about taking care of a child while managing the school's rigorous coursework; thankfully, her father offered some useful advice. "Ruth, if you don’t want to start law school, you have a good reason to resist the undertaking," she remembered him saying in a New York Times op-ed. "No one will think the less of you if you make that choice. But if you really want to study law, you will stop worrying and find a way to manage child and school."

Marty graduated and got a job at a New York law firm, and Ruth followed him to the big apple, taking her third year of law school at Columbia. She graduated at the top of her class.

They then began their respective careers: Ruth, teaching and practicing constitutional law, and Marty doing the same for tax law.

As they pursued their individual paths, the couple continued to share their domestic responsibilities. Once, when James got into trouble in grade school, the headmaster called Ruth—only to get a well-deserved earful. "They said ‘You must come to school right away,'" James told People. "And she said, 'This child has two parents. You must alternate the calls from now on, starting with this one.'"

"In the course of a marriage, one accommodates the other," Ruth said on the Rachel Maddow Show. "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."

Ruth was nominated to the D.C. Federal Court of Appeals in 1980, and the couple relocated for the job.

Photo credit: Mark Reinstein - Getty Images
Photo credit: Mark Reinstein - Getty Images

When Ruth's name came up for the Supreme Court in the 1990s, Marty worked hard to campaign for her seat.

"I betray no secret in reporting that, without him, I would not have gained a seat on the Supreme Court," Ruth wrote in her NYT op-ed. She then quoted Ron Klain, the associate White House counsel at the time of her nomination. "I would say definitely and for the record, though Ruth Bader Ginsburg should have been picked for the Supreme Court anyway, she would not have been picked for the Supreme Court if her husband had not done everything he did to make it happen," he said.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice in 1993, becoming the second woman ever appointed to the highest court in the country.

In 2010, their long and uncommonly happy marriage ended when Marty died of cancer.

When Ruth went to the hospital to make arrangements, she found a note he'd written her. Read it below (and maybe grab a tissue—or better, the whole box).


My dearest 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!!

I will be in JH Medical Center until Friday, June 25, I believe, and between then and now I shall think hard on my remaining health and life, and whether on balance the time has come for me to tough it out or to take leave of life because the loss of quality now simply overwhelms. I hope you will support where I come out, but I understand you may not. I will not love you a jot less.


Ruth read an opinion for the Supreme Court the next morning. As she told the New Yorker, "That’s because he would have wanted it."

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