“Fight for the things you care about, but in a way that will lead others to join you.”—Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
She was tiny. A determined young woman in a vibrant blue suit, head held high, briefcase in hand, clearly thrilled to be entering the hallowed halls of Harvard Law School as a first year law student. But there was a glitch. It was 1956, and her gender didn’t fit.
Director Mimi Leder’s 2018 biopic, On the Basis of Sex, opens with a sea of suitably suited young men, almost but not quite entirely obliterating the tiny young woman in blue as they walk en masse into Harvard Law to convene with their Dean as classmates for the first time. The soundtrack reverberates with a rousing chorus of “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard,”a fitting anthem to the mountain Brooklyn-born Ruth Bader Ginsburg will have to climb to survive and thrive as a freshly pressed young lawyer, devoted wife and doting mother in the “old boy’s club” that was Harvard Law School and the legal profession in the Fifties and Sixties.
Dean Griswold (Sam Waterston) has only men in mind when he encourages his first year law students to be big fish in a big pond. His cursory nod to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) and the handful of other women who survived the cut is dismissive at best: “Why are you occupying a place at Harvard that could go to a man?” he snaps tartly.
It’s clear that Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career began in earnest that day and the days that immediately followed at Harvard Law. Her drive to survive and excel, despite the sexist battering, would fuel her career-long ambition to upend discrimination in all forms on the basis of gender. She would eventually become only the second woman to be named to the Supreme Court, where she served for 27 years.
Carefully scripted by Ginsburg’s nephew, screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman, On the Basis of Sex carries Ginsburg through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, highlighting the snarky sexist challenges she faced during her two years at Harvard Law and her futile attempts, despite her stellar academic credentials, to land a job in any New York law firm. She accepts a Rutgers Law School teaching post that proved to be a viable niche to propel a pivotal sex discrimination case–“Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue”–that she would argue alongside her husband, tax attorney Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), in federal court in the early 1970s. With that case and several others that followed (e.g., Reed v. Reed), she was determined to set a precedent that the equal protections guaranteed by the 14th Amendment not only applied to racial discrimination but gender discrimination as well.
While the film recreates a fascinating portrait of Ginsburg’s early career where the roots of her road to champion gender equality were clearly planted, On the Basis of Sex is also a touching love story. Ruth Bader and Marty Ginsburg met as undergrads at Cornell. The film catches up with Marty a year ahead of his wife at Harvard Law, and during his early career as a tax attorney at a high profile NYC law firm.
An unusually supportive, liberated husband for the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, (or any decade for that matter!) and a warmly attentive father to their kids, Marty never let his wife second guess her lofty career goals or give in to defeat. He also served as a buttress between two strong-willed women–his wife Ruth and their feisty, feminist teenage daughter Jane.
When Marty Ginsburg was felled unexpectedly by an early bout of cancer, Ruth stepped in to attend both her own and her husband’s Harvard classes so he wouldn’t fall behind. It’s clear why their marriage lasted 56 years. Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer and Cailee Spaeny (as daughter Jane) are outstanding in their extremely engaging roles.
To flesh out Justice Ginsburg’s early life and later career en route to the Supreme Court, I also encourage you to revisit RBG, the Emmy®-winning, Oscar®-nominated feature-length documentary directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen. The 2018 box office hit helped cement Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s preeminence as a progressive champion for women’s and LGBTQ rights and recast her visibility as a late-in-life pop culture icon.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a trailblazer, a role model and a friend,” remembered Senator Elizabeth Warren, who navigated a similar male-dominated milieu at Rutgers Law School.
To honor Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “life and unparalleled legacy upholding justice,” Participant, Focus Features and Magnolia Pictures will be re-releasing their 2018 films, On the Basis of Sex and RBG in theaters, today, Friday, September 24, 2020, the day that Justice Ginsburg will lie in state in the Capitol, the first such honor for a woman.
Both films will play in theaters in tandem with their availability on On-demand platforms. AMC Theatres will reportedly charge $5.00 per ticket. On the Basis of Sex is also currently airing on Showtime (check schedules in your region) and is available to subscribers via Showtime OnDemand.
Proceeds from the films’ re-release are earmarked for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project, co-founded in 1972 by Ruth Bader Ginsburg. ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project “empowers poor women, women of color and immigrant women who have been subject to gender bias and who face pervasive barriers to equality.” Their four core areas of concern are: employment, violence against women, criminal justice and education.
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed the world, but she changed the world by persuading the people who disagreed with her as opposed to destroying them,” said her nephew and On the Basis of Sex screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman. “What is crucial to understand about Ruth was how much she really revered the Constitution and the law and the country. What I learned from her is what patriotism looks like.”
As we approach what will go down in history as the most divisive and critically important Presidential election in our nation’s recent history, I encourage you to take a breath and revisit RBG and On the Basis of Sex. Then join the conversation at #ThankYouRuth and share how much Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg’s legacy means to you, the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution and our democracy going forward. –Judith Trojan