REVIEW: ‘On the Basis of Sex’ is a sympathetic, incomplete view of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
‘On the Basis of Sex’ provides only a partial view of the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Supreme Court’s most liberal justices.
Ruth is a brilliant young female attorney living in a male-dominated legal world.
The year is 1959, and although she graduated at the top of her class in one of the nation’s most prestigious schools, Ruth can’t land a job in a law firm. Some male lawyers believe she should use her skills as a secretary. Others would like to hire her, but fear their wives would become jealous.
So Ruth takes a position as a law professor at Rutgers University. There, she will mold the nation’s future lawyers to enter the fast-changing world of the 1960s. The job also will allow her to practice law in the courtroom if the right case arises.
Such a case lands in her lap when she learns about Charles Moritz, a Colorado single man who is taking care of his ailing mother and wants the same tax benefits for hiring a nurse that are afforded to women. But the federal tax law allows only females to use the tax deduction when hiring in-home nurses.
Ruth believes if she can convince a federal court to overturn a law that unfairly targets a man, then it could lay the groundwork for overturning laws that unfairly target women.
Will her strategy work?
The movie On the Basis of Sex (PG-13) is now playing in theaters, giving us an overview of the early life of now-Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It begins with her entrance into Harvard Law School in 1956 and ends with her arguing Moritz’s case before the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in the early 1970s. Her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, wrote it.
Although Ginsburg is one of the nation’s most socially liberal justices—supporting legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, for example—the film aims for broad appeal by spotlighting her targeting of sexually discriminatory laws. She complains that wives should not have to sign up for credit cards in their husbands’ names. She says women aren’t allowed to work overtime. She notes that there were no women’s restrooms when she began attending law school.
The word “abortion” is never heard in On the Basis of Sex, even though she became one of the biggest supporters of its legalization. Perhaps this is because Ginsburg didn’t play a direct role in the 1973 ruling.
The result is that people from both parties can watch the film and cheer her, even if her legal philosophy needs to be questioned. One such example is when Ginsburg in the film argues that times are changing and that the law is behind the public sentiment. This begs the question: Then why not pressure the legislature to change the law? Or change the legislature?
In fact, the real-world Ginsburg said in 2013 that she regretted how abortion was legalized—with one case overturning all pro-life laws nationwide. Roe, she said, became “a symbol for the right to life movement.” She would have preferred a piecemeal approach to legalizing abortion— although, for sure, it still would have come through the legal process.
“That would have been my ideal vision of how this would have been evolved,” she said.
Like the real-world Ginsburg, the big-screen Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones) supports incremental change, too. Her goal in the film is to take on each law where men and women are viewed differently. Supposedly, there were 178 of them. When the three justices ask her if she’s wanting to overturn all 178 laws, she says, “No.” She’s only fighting to overturn one section of the tax law. Legal attacks on the other ones will come later.
“We’re not asking you to change the country,” she says. “That’s already happened without any court’s permission. We’re asking you to protect the right of the country to change. Our sons and daughters are barred by law from opportunities based on assumptions about their abilities.
“You have the power to set the precedent that will get us started.”
There’s a lot to like about Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex. She fought for common-sense women’s rights that all women today—conservative and liberal—enjoy. She backed an incremental approach that leaders in any movement would be wise to use. She also was a devoted wife and mother of two children. The film shows her caring for her sick husband when he faced the possibility of death after a testicular cancer diagnosis. She even attended his classes and took notes (He was in law school, too).
But lurking in the background, unsaid, is her stance on more controversial decisions. As a Supreme Court justice in 2000, she voted with the majority for legalized legal partial-birth abortion—a procedure in which an unborn late-term baby is partially delivered, feet-first, before its brain is suctioned. When a similar case came before the court in 2007, she voted the same way again, although this time she was in the minority. In 2018, she joined dissenting justices who would have required pro-life pregnancy centers to hang signs about the availability of abortion.
It’s easy to cheer for the Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex. It’s just not the full picture.
Warning: minor/moderate spoilers!
(Scale key: none, minimal, moderate, extreme)
Minimal/moderate. We see Ginsburg disrobe down to a slip and kiss her husband in the bedroom. The scene then cuts away.
Moderate. A– (4), s–t (3), D–n (2), misuse of “Jesus” (1), misuse of “God” (1), b–ch (1), b—ard (1), f-word (1), d–k (1), “h-ll no” as part of a chant — several times.
- Is Ginsburg a legal hero? Why or why not?
- Name three positive traits about Ginsburg from the movie. Name three negative ones (from either the film or real life).
- What led to abortion’s legalization?
Entertainment rating: 3 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 3 out of 5 stars.
Rated PG-13 for some language and suggestive content.