US supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is known as a dissenting, appellate voice on the nearly all-male bench today. But when you watch her biopic – On The Basis Of Sex hits Australian cinemas on February 7 – the level of suppression women were accustomed to will shock you. In these post Weinstein times, what was considered standard fare not so long ago is hard to swallow when experienced in the cinema and really makes you realise the importance of marching in the marches and speaking up in the everyday; Walking the walk and talking the talk is not just a movement, it’s essential.
Directed by Mimi Leder and from a screenplay by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, the film follows the incredible life and work of Ginsburg. Centring upon her experience at Harvard Law School in 1956, Ginsburg (played by Academy Award nominee Felicity Jones) was one of just nine women who were accepted into the course in a class of nearly 500 students. While it wasn’t commonplace for a woman to study law or to even be ambitious outside the domestic duties of being a homemaker, Ginsburg was bright-eyed and hopeful and she didn’t see her gender as any kind of barrier. But scenes in the film – scenes which were truths in her life – become jarring reminders that sexism was engrained everywhere. At a dinner party, the dean of the school asks each woman to rectify why she is taking up a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man. Watch the moment here:
But delve a little deeper into the 1950s, 60s and 70s and you begin to realise, women really were second-class citizens: They couldn’t own credit cards in their own names. They weren’t paid for working overtime. They could be fired for being pregnant. And without women like Ginsburg working to change the constitution, we wouldn’t have the lives and liberties we now enjoy.
As the film explores, Ginsburg had a tough time at college. She met and married the love of her life Marty (played by the divine Armie Hammer) and they welcomed their daughter, Jan, into the world. But when the couple got into Harvard, Marty became sick with testicular cancer and Ginsburg attended both his classes and her own while caring for him and their little baby. She has admitted to getting about two hours sleep per night.
Despite graduating at the top of her class, Ginsburg was unable to land a job because women were considered “too emotional” to be lawyers. In fact, one employer told her if he hired her, the wives of his employees might get too jealous. Defeated, Ginsburg accepted a role as a law professor at Rutgers.
Here, she began working with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and after some gentle encouragement from her husband, she took on a case involving a Colorado man who was denied the caregiver’s tax benefit while looking after his ill mother because American law stated a caregiver must be a woman. This was sex-based discrimination against a man.
The defendant decided to paint a picture of what the American family would look like if the law included both sexes under the definition of ‘caregiver’; divorce rates would sky-rocket, the fabric of society would unravel with mommies on the factory floor and children coming home to no one.
In a watershed moment, Ginsburg won.
She continued to take cases to the supreme court to argue their unconstitutional nature. She did so by favouring those which involved male plaintiffs to appeal to the all-male justices. Ginsburg still faced sexism right up until her appointment into the highest court in the US by President Clinton in 1993. As she addressed the media, Ginsburg spoke at great length about the life her mother could have had should she lived in an age where a girl’s life was considered of same value as a boy’s.
A male journalist instantly stood up to question Clinton’s “zig-zagged” change of heart to appoint Ginsburg over a male nominee. The then-President was known to be warm with the media and always take questions but today, he was angry. “How you could ask a question like that after the statement she just made is beyond me.” The media stood and applauded. Watch the moment here:
I read an article this week which talked about the imagined threat of a woman governing like a man. It was in reference to NY congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and explored this notion of fear surrounding what she is capable of and what women as a collective body are capable of. During these times of rising activism, it’s important we not only look forward but also remember to look back. What this movie does is reminds you that in your lifetime, women couldn’t do a lot of things. And while we must continue to keep that pressure up on our governments, good gosh we’ve achieved a lot in a short amount of time. Imagine what’s to come.
You simply must see this film.
On The Basis Of Sex is in Australian cinemas on February 7. It is still showing in selected cinemas.