On the Basis of Sex celebrates the early career of a most beloved Supreme Court Justice, the Notorious R.B.G. The movie also depicts some of the real-life discrimination that women faced in the twentieth century, from getting an education to being unhireable even after graduating from elite colleges with top marks. Women in essence were treated as second-class citizens and wards of their husbands.
I wondered at the grit Ginsburg managed to exude after the continuous discriminations or micro-discriminations. How does one spring back again and again after unrelenting encounters with people that do not see your value or your humanity? (Something that could be asked about any group not part of the dominate power structure in a society.)
And I wondered at her thoughts about this movie. How much did it diverge from her life? How much did it leave out? How much had she forgotten about or was pushed out of her lived experience until the movie reminded her?
The movie is definitely a feel-good movie. Her marriage with her late husband is legendary. He was a devoted father who helped raise the children and was a staunch supporter and encourager of Ruth in all that she did. Even if this view of him is even marginally accurate, he was definitely not a man of his times.
The movie shows Ginsburg moving in a sea of white men. She attended college and law school in the 1950s, when the country had moved to the right. After the war, women were pushed out of jobs for returning GIs or fled back to the safety of domestic bliss (depending on the narrative you subscribe to).
In one scene, Ginsburg attends a dinner party hosted by the dean for the women entering law school that year. He requests them to answer the question why they deserved to be given a spot in the Harvard Law School that should have been given to a (white) man. Meant to intimidate, belittle, and throw the women off their game.
Ginsburg’s unrelenting determination is amazing. When her husband, a year ahead of her in law school, is unable to attend classes because of illness, she shows up—to the surprise of professors and probably students—to attend his classes for him. What a heavy burden on top of her own first-year classes and family duties (but also a fascinating opportunity for her to get a jump on second-year law classes).
She is, unexpectedly, denied employment after graduation. Her goal was to be a practicing lawyer at a firm. No one would entertain the thought of hiring her. Instead, she ends up as a professor, which the movie portrays as not her choice.
The movie then fast forwards to the 1970s and her classes on sex discrimination and equal rights in the law. The student body is much different. As if the social revolution suddenly happened. Even her daughter has joined in but Ginsburg is a bit taken aback by her daughter’s strength and audacity.
Her husband Martin, a tax lawyer, brings a tax case to her attention. It had the unusual possibility of becoming a precedent for equal rights under the law—if only they could convince the man being denied his tax deduction and the ACLU to take the case to court. Ginsburg started her successful, lifelong strategy to legally build equal rights under the law with this case.
Ginsburg is not, the movie portrays, all strength and self-confidence. She wavers and has doubts. She fails at a mock trial for upcoming arguments at an appeals court. She stumbles in her initial arguments at the court but rebounds during the rebuttal.
The people who give her strength and believe in her are her husband and daughter. Without them, especially her progressive husband, maybe Ruth Bader Ginsburg would not have been the woman and justice she is. And maybe equal rights under the law would not be where it is today. At least that is what the movie suggests.