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‘On the Basis of Sex’ reminds us of why Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought so hard against gender discrimination

January 11, 2019

‘On the Basis of Sex’ reminds us of why Ruth Bader Ginsburg fought so hard against gender discrimination

CLEVELAND, Ohio – In the opening scene of On the Basis of Sex, a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) is striding across campus to her first day at Harvard Law School, the lone woman in a sea of young white men, as a chorus sings the school fight song “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard.” When they arrive, Dean Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston) welcomes the class by regaling them on “what it means to be a Harvard man.”

Later, at a dinner party at Griswold’s home, he invites each of the nine first-year women to stand up, introduce herself, and explain “why you’re occupying a place at Harvard that could’ve gone to a man.”

This was 1956, still 37 years before Ginsburg was nominated to the Supreme Court, when women were so new to Harvard Law School that the school didn’t even have any bathrooms for them. In an era where women comprise more than half of the students in U.S. law schools and three of the nine Supreme Court justices, we forget that Ruth Bader Ginsburg endured being ignored and openly mocked by her professors for wanting to study law.

But nevertheless, she persisted, quickly distinguishing herself as brilliant and fearless. When an unexpected illness sidelines her beloved husband, Marty (Armie Hammer), she attends all of his law school lectures in addition to her own, so he wouldn’t fall behind.

Then, despite graduating first in her class, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was rejected by more than a dozen law firms. One firm told her they had already hired a woman, so why would they want two? Ginsburg eventually lands an assistant professor’s job at Rutgers University School of Law, where she teaches aspiring lawyers about gender bias in the law.

One day, Marty, now a successful tax attorney, brings her a case of a Colorado man named Charles Moritz who had unsuccessfully tried to claim a tax credit for being his mother’s caregiver – a credit only available to women. She reads it and quickly realizes that “this is sex-based discrimination – against a man!”

Seizing the chance to “topple the whole damn system of discrimination,” the Ginsburgs offer to work pro bono, and enlist their lawyer friends and law school students to help them build a case. They argue that the caregiver definition should be expanded to include their male client – opening the door to challenging 178 other federal laws that discriminated on the basis of gender.

Because the script was written by her nephew Daniel Stiepleman and blessed by Ginsburg, it offers an especially sweet and intimate glimpse into her marriage to her college sweetheart, Marty (Hammer has said he pursued the role for his toddler daughter’s sake). What’s odd is that the movie is called “On the Basis of Sex” when Ginsburg preferred the less titillating term “gender” in her legal briefs.

On the Basis of Sex, released months after the documentary “RBG” and in the wake of her recent public health scares, reminds us of how hard the now-85-year-old Ginsburg fought to reverse gender discrimination and why she was so motivated to do so.


On the Basis of Sex

Who: With Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Kathy Bates, and Sam Waterston. Directed by Mimi Leder.

Rated: PG-13

Running time: 120 minutes.

When: Opens Friday, Jan. 11.

Where: Area theaters.

Grade: A-

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