‘On the Basis of Sex’ – a carefully done movie of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early days
By Eleanor Ringel Cater
Here’s a multiple-choice test.
Which of the following was the reason Ruth Bader Ginsburg was turned down by a dozen Manhattan law firms in the late ’50s, after graduating at the top of her class from Harvard and Columbia?
- A) She was mistakenly sent to interview for the secretarial pool.
- B) Women are too emotional to be lawyers.
- C) She should be baking cookies for her children.
- D) They hired a woman last year. What would they do with two?
- E) The wives might get jealous.
- F) All of the above.
The answer, alas, is F.
As late as the 1970s, a woman could only get a credit card in her husband’s name. And while that may not be as onerous as not being allowed to sit at a lunch counter, the implication is the same. You are somehow less than fully human.
This is what Ginsburg, long before she joined the Supreme Court, set out to change, i.e., do for gender what Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights heroes did for race.
“On the Basis of Sex” is the unwieldy and rather dull title of the new film about her early struggles and, in its way, the movie is similarly unwieldy and occasionally dull. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing – as a crucial history lesson, if nothing else – but nevertheless, there’s a slight sense of a missed opportunity, of a livelier, more galvanizing picture under this one’s sober (and sobering) surface.
If “Vice” is too larkish, “On the Basis of Sex, much like its protagonist, is perhaps too serious-minded and well-behaved. Director Mimi Leder – interesting footnote: she was the first person to direct a movie for the once-mighty, now defunct DreamWorks – couldn’t be clearer about her admiration for Ginsburg. But she’s also a bit too careful in telling her story, as if she wasn’t sure an audience would understand how important Ginsburg has been for decades in the fight for equal rights.
The movie begins with in 1956 with a procession of fresh-faced young men in identical dark suits and skinny ties. Suddenly, there’s a flash of color – a glimpse of a blue skirt. It is Ruth (Felicity Jones), one of nine women in the incoming law class of several hundred. That they are less than welcome is made immediately clear. The Law School’s Dean (Sam Waterston) invites the “girls’ to dinner and goes around the table, asking each why they are “occupying a place that could’ve gone to a man.”
Those who caught last summer’s excellent documentary, “RBG” already know this story. In fact, they may already know a lot of what Leder shows us: Ginsburg’s amazing, ahead-of-his-time supportive husband Marty (Armie Hammer); the rough patch they faced when he got cancer and she attended classes for both of them; the law establishment’s resistance to a woman, etc.
But there is some new information as well. After all those rejections, Ginsburg got hired at Rutgers, mostly because they were trying to replace an African-American professor and when they couldn’t find one, they figured a woman was almost as good. She teaches a course in gender and the law which, she sardonically points out, many of her colleagues consider the same as “teaching the rights of fairies and gnomes.”
We learn about the scarily dismissive way that women’s rights were treated by the ACLU. And we witness, in pretty good detail, the case that Ruth and Marty collaborate on to put gender equality front and center. Shrewdly, they choose an instance where a man is facing discrimination that he wouldn’t as a woman (a matter of at –home caregivers and tax breaks).
We need to hear about what it was like to be a second-class citizen because of your gender as recently as the early ‘70s and what it took – by someone as remarkable as Ginsburg – to change that.
As the judges in the case state over and over, men going to work and women staying at home is the natural order of things. It’s been so for thousands of years; it should remain so.
But, Ginsburg insists, these men (and they are all men) are upholding the traditions and morality of an America that no longer exists. “The word ‘woman’ doesn’t appear in the Constitution” sneers one judge, to which she replies, “Nor does the word ‘freedom.”
“On The Basis of Sex” is well-acted and thoughtful. Dutiful, you might say. And it says a lot of things that need saying, again and again. Right now, in its way, it’s probably the best family film around, if the kids (let’s say 12 and over) can sit still through all the perplexing legal-ese.
Then again, this is a movie about waging a brutal war for equality in the oft-blinkered court of law. So a little legal-ese is to be expected. Perhaps even embraced.