It’s time. Women are tired of not having equality in the workplace, in the boardrooms or many other areas too numerous to mention.
Almost 50 years ago, US Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsberg was tackling each case of discrimination “on the basis of sex” that she could find and upturning these unjust precedents. She made it her life’s work to tackle these cases one by one.
On the Basis of Sex sees Ginsberg in her early days studying law at Harvard. At that time she was one of only nine women in her class. Working hard to reach the top her graduating class, she even takes notes for her husband, Martin Ginsberg – who is being treated for testicular cancer and misses class.
British actor Felicity Jones as Ginsberg plays a devoted and sympathetic wife – the first few scenes in the film where her husband falls is reminiscent of her role as Stephen Hawking’s wife in The Theory of Everything (2014). Again, she develops a steeliness, despite her diminutive frame making her look even slighter next to Armie Hammer as her husband.
The films begins in the 1950s where gender stereotypes and prejudices are more expected, if not fully accepted. The women in academic circles are faculty wives and secretaries, rarely students. That women should be taking the positions from the men is questioned by the Dean who grills his female students on why they think they should be taking a position from a man. Ginsberg gives the glib answer that her husband is studying law and she wants to be a sympathetic wife. It’s not a popular answer but there were no responses that would have been popular in her Harvard class in 1956.
This doesn’t impede Ginsberg, who works hard, is smart, driven, and graduates equal first in her class. This doesn’t ’t make it easier to find a job – as a woman, she may be having another child, she’s Jewish, and because many meetings are held in club environs where women are not allowed, it makes the job too difficult. And, of course, seeing her around their husbands in the office would makes wives at home jealous. These are some of the excuses she faces.
She does eventually win a role as a Professor at Rutgers University. A black professor had left and she is felt to be a suitable “minority” replacement. Disappointed she will not be able to practice in court, she nonetheless takes the job and works hard to teach the next generation of lawyers. It was not realised in the film, but in 1953 her role at Rutgers earned her less than her male counterparts because she had a husband in a well-paid job. The action moves swirly from the 50s to the 70s, when she begins to focus almost exclusively on women’s rights. She works with the American Civil Liberty Union (ACLU) with Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux) where she is able to win her time in court.
At this point the film highlights Ginsberg’s daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) as a measure of how much the world has changed in terms of women’s rights. The daughter feels more empowered and encourages her mother to see that the arguments of the day have moved on.Ginsberg’s successful run in overturning gender-based rights was the case of Moritz vs the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. The case revolved around Charles Moritz who filed for a deduction on his tax return for carer’s duties. The Tax department didn’t accept that a single man was eligible for such a deduction (although a single woman in that position could) and as this was actually law, it was the basis of Ginsberg’s case to be appealed “on the basis of sex”. The law she believed, from what one of her earlier professors had said, was: “A court ought not be affected by the weather of the day, but will be by the climate of that era.” She argued that times had changed and this would mean the law should support the right of the country to change. The Moritz case was the beginning of her success and all from a very unexpected area of the law to be a catalyst of change.
Jones is perfect in the role. In preparation, she asked Ginsberg to pronounce certain words and phrases, which she recorded to perfect the American accent and Ginsberg’s own speech patterns. She also studied her gait, her posture and her facial expressions. Jones carries the film although her supporting cast do their job well. It is hard to believe Law and Order’s very reasonable Sam Waterston could be a prejudiced Dean. Armie Hammer, as he has in many movies before, appears too good to be true but then the Ginsbergs did have a loving and solid marriage for 56 years.
In film, America is perceived as passionate about the law – there is a sense of patriotism. But for me, the focus is on gender discrimination. The journey had started, as she said,100 years before the Moritz case in the early 70s. Despite change, there is a long way to go – as Ginsberg observes in her closing remarks of that case, when she was at Harvard she didn’t question the absence of a female toilet facility, the women were just so awed to have been allowed admission to the university. That her daughter could expect her own career just 20 years later was an example of how society was changing, it was just that the law needed to catch up to support these changes.
Ruth Bader Ginsberg is an important feminist idol in the US and beyond. This is the second film about her in 2018. The documentary RBG featured actual footage of the then 84-year-old Justice herself, along with her husband, children, Bill Clinton and others. She’s had an exceptional life, great success in her field, and deserves the respect of her peers and anyone who appreciates justice in the world.
It’s an interesting time to be celebrating this woman’s effect on women’s progress. As her daughter says in the film, “you can’t be part of a movement if you are sitting.” Of course, you can if you’re sitting on the bench of the Supreme Court.
Feature image: IGN website