On The Basis of Sex, a biopic about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, takes place in the 1950s and ’60s—a time period that current conservatives nostalgically look back on as the height of America’s greatness. It was also a time when women without husbands couldn’t get credit cards and when Black women could not occupy the same spaces as their white counterparts. It was also a time when women were heavily discouraged from pursuing careers outside of nursing, teaching, and secretarial work—but Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Felicity Jones) blazed a trail for herself.
The film could easily have been a shiny, feel-good tale about a singular feminist hero, but what makes On The Basis of Sex stand out to me is its acknowledgement of the diverse voices who influenced RBG, and its keen awareness of the fact that sex and gender discrimination affects everybody.
The movie shows Ruth’s journey through law school and her years as a professor at Rutgers University. In 1956, she is one of nine women attempting to pursue a law degree at Harvard Law School, where she is subject to continual exclusion and prejudicial behavior. Unable to find a job as a litigator, she becomes a professor at Rutgers University. Eventually her husband, Marty Ginsburg (Armie Hammer), who is also a lawyer, approaches her with a tax case that includes multiple forms of sex and gender discrimination. Charles Moritz (Chris Mulkey), an older man taking care of his invalid mother, is denied a tax benefit that assists caretakers responsible for children or older parents—a benefit that the law claims should only belong to women since men are providers and women are caretakers.
Over the next two years, Ruth and her husband Marty put their heads together to work on the case, hoping to set a precedent that could overturn 178 laws with similar forms of sex and gender discrimination. Through a large cast of supporting and minor characters, the film demonstrates just how many diverse communities and minds it takes to truly achieve equality. It cannot be achieved by one white hero.
For example many of Ruth’s students at Rutgers are women of color who represent a new generation of second wave feminists, assisting Ruth as she researches the case and inspiring her to broaden her ideas about how true equality is really achieved.
While there are several progressive men in the movie who play a role in the case—a major one being Marty, one of the few characters offering Ruth unwavering support—the movie makes a point to emphasize that even progressive men can hold sexist views. This is particularly demonstrated through the character of Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux), the ACLU legal director. Despite the ACLU’s reputation for being strong political lobbyists for civil rights, Mel initially discourages Ruth from taking on the case. He says that if she pursues it and loses, she’ll set the women’s movement back 10 years, Mel continually reminds Ruth of her lack of litigation experience, insisting that she won’t hold up in the Supreme Court.
In a particularly poignant scene, Ruth participates in a mock trial to prepare for the case. She presents her arguments to a table of her peers, including Mel, as well as Gerald Gunther and Pauli Murray (Sharon Washington), pioneers in the Brown v. Board of Education case that desegregated American public schools. Mel and Gunther proceed to tell Ruth that she doesn’t have the litigation skills to handle the opening arguments, and that they’d prefer her husband Marty over her. They also insist that if Ruth presents the case to the Supreme Court as an issue of sex and gender discrimination, then they will lose.
But Pauli Murray, a Black lesbian feminist lawyer, believes that Ruth has the capacity to verbally present the argument in court, and suggests that Ruth and Marty equally split the responsibilities of the opening argument.
We see Pauli’s influence again when Ruth attempts to equate race and gender as unchangeable biological qualities. Pauli corrects her by emphasizing that race and gender are not the same—both are socially constructed, but ancestry and some physical traits play a role in how we perceive race. Gender, however, is how we express ourselves, and that doesn’t always line up with the biological sex we are assigned at birth.
Have you heard of Pauli Murray? Likely not - respectability muted her legacy. She graduated first in her class at Howard Law. She coined "Jane Crow" discussing BW and sexism. She knew intersectionality. She helped desegregate schools. And... she was lesbian. #BlackHistoryMonth pic.twitter.com/sw87TMlziQ— Preston Mitchum (@PrestonMitchum) February 2, 2018
Throughout the film, there are many women who offer similar advice to Ruth, including Dorothy Kenyon (Kathy Bates), a first wave feminist who attempted to overthrow sex and gender discrimination but ultimately failed, and Ruth’s own daughter Jane (Cailee Spaeny) who champions a more radical view of feminism that many progressive millennial women will identify with.
The film not only recalls an important historical event, but also provides a template for how we should pursue the fight for equality now. On the Basis of Sex puts Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s contributions to gender equality front and center, and her contributions were unequivocally groundbreaking. But the film’s director Mimi Leder knew to highlight the fact that social progress does not exist in a vacuum. There are no singular heroes or white saviors. Rather, as the film demonstrates, it takes a diverse cast of voices coming together to truly execute radical social change.
As Ruth Bader Ginsburg says in the movie, American culture doesn’t need a court to give it permission to change, but it does require the united commitment to equality evident in its namesake.