“My mother told me two things constantly. One was to be a lady and the other was to be independent, and the law was something most unusual for those times because for most girls growing up in the ‘40s, the most important degree was not your B.A. but your M.R.S.”
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
At Harvard Law School’s 1956 welcome soiree, Dean Erwin Griswold stands in front of nine young women, all dressed in cocktail dresses, and says, “This is only the sixth year that women have had the privilege to earn a Harvard Law degree. This little soiree is our way of saying welcome.” After a round of applause, he scans the room and continues: “Let us go around the table, and each of you ladies report who you are, where you’re from, and why you’re occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man.” Perhaps he’s forgotten that he’s speaking to not just a table comprised solely of women, but to a new generation of law students at one of the top universities. The statement results in nine astounded faces—nine mouths half open.
Directed by Mimi Leder, On the Basis of Sex stars Felicity Jones as Supreme Court justice Joan Ruth Bader (Ruth) with Armie Hammer as her husband Marty. In the 1950s, a few years after the birth of her first daughter Jane, Ruth enrolls at Harvard. It’s during this time that her husband Marty, a second-year student, falls ill with an early stage of cancer; she then begins attending both of their lectures and typing up his essays in addition to her own. In the latter half of the movie, Marty brings an interesting tax-deduction case to Ruth’s attention. The convict is Charles Moritz, who has been denied of a tax deduction because Section 214 of the Internal Revenue Code limited the deduction to “a woman, widower or divorce, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized.” Ultimately, Ginsburg wins; Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue is the first case to prove the existence of discrimination on the basis of gender within the U.S. Code of Laws.
In December, Leder noted, “We really wanted the color palette to be Ruth’s favorite color—it was blue. And I wanted to stay in that world with Ruth.” This detail, however seemingly miniscule, evidences Leder’s efforts to maintain the integrity of her subject. And while the color may have been chosen subjectively, it actually ends up becoming a focal point in some pivotal scenes. In one of the beginning scenes, Ruth adorns a blue and green plaid dress while seated in a classroom amidst a sea of men in uniform black suits. Though the composition of this scene purposefully puts Ginsburg at its center, it is her outfit’s color which truly isolates her presence.
Ruth’s marriage to Marty is depicted as a driving force in her career and success. Marty was evidently a man ahead of his time: he never doubted Ruth’s abilities as a lawyer, and he even took over chores so she could fully pursue her career. Hammer’s Marty is charming and dedicated, a well-crafted husband figure. At times, his character feels a little one-dimensional due to a lack of development. This doesn’t make the movie any less interesting, however, because On the Basis of Sex is so definitively centered on the growth and progression of Ruth’s character.
Despite the success of Ginsburg’s first case, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue subtly demonstrated the notion that sexism wouldn’t begin to change until it hindered a man. There were many generations of women before Ginsburg who fought against sex discrimination, but it took a man being discriminated for women to make true progress. We might be in a more equal society than that of the ‘50s, but our generation cannot take past victories for granted—especially when true, universal equality is still far down the line.