Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Wenk/Focus Features

Standing to answer a question when the "Harvard men" are unable to do so, Ruth Bader Ginsberg ensures that her voice is heard in the movie. Thirty-seven years later, she would no longer have to.

Feb. 4, 2019

Times change 'On the Basis of Sex'

By Victoria Shea

Cleveland-Marshall College of Law first-year law student, Danielle Muster said that it was a movie that helped confirm that the law is a good fit for her.

Written by Daniel Stiepleman, the nephew of current Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “On the Basis of Sex” is an intimate look into what made Bader Ginsberg who she is today: an advocate for equal rights for all, regardless of gender.

Opening in the fall of 1956, audiences quickly learn that first-year law student Ruth Bader Ginsberg, portrayed by actress Felicity Jones, is one of only nine females attending Harvard Law School, something that is unheard of today. In fact, for the entering class of 2017 for Cleveland-Marshall, women made up 47 percent  of the class. Even more unheard of is a dean that remind the females of this.

“Welcome to Harvard Law School. Ladies, let’s go around the table and report who you are, and why you’re occupying a place that could have gone to a man,” said Harvard Dean Erwin Griswold, portrayed by Sam Waterson, a man who is no stranger to playing in law-related roles. Unlike Bader Ginsberg, who later in the movie is skipped over several times in class before being called on by her professor, Muster said that she hasn’t been treated like that in law school.

“Not here,” Muster said.

As the movie continues, the audience continues to see sex discrimination as Bader Ginsburg attempts to find a job after graduation from Columbia Law. Despite having sat on two major law reviews –Harvard Law Review and Columbia Law Review – and tying for first in her class, Bader Ginsburg is told at one law firm that because they already hired a woman the year before, they weren’t going to hire another unless it was for a secretarial position.

According to the American Bar Association Employment Summary for 2017 Graduates for Cleveland-Marshall, 81 students found long-term, full-time employment right after graduation.

Later, as a professor at New York’s Rutgers Law School, Bader Ginsberg’s husband, Martin, brings her a tax law case in which Charles Mortiz, a man from Denver, was denied a tax deduction for nursing care for his sick mother. Working alongside her husband and daughter, as well as the students in her “The Law and Sex Discrimination” class, the Ginsburgs and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) file an appeal with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

After a stalemate of settlements from both sides, audiences get to see the oral arguments that showed the moment when Bader Ginsburg found her voice as the lawyer who wants to make a difference. During her argument and rebuttal, Bader Ginsburg said, “We’re not asking you to change the country, that’s already happened without any court’s permission.”
One of the most powerful moments in the movie is near the end of Bader Ginsburg’s rebuttal when one of the three male judges tells her that “The word woman does not appear even once in the U.S. Constitution,” and she replies, “Nor does the word freedom, Your Honor.” Although inaccurate, as the word freedom appears in the First Amendment, “or abridging the freedom of speech…,” this scene showed that Bader Ginsberg wasn’t going to be silenced on a subject she was passionate about.

Titles over closing scenes read that the appellate court found unanimously in favor of Bader Ginsberg’s client, despite giving the audience a feeling that it would be a 2-to-3 vote. The titles also read that she went on to co-found the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU and later was appointed by President Bill Clinton to associate justice of the United States Supreme Court.

The highlight of the movie is when real-life Ruth Bader Ginsberg is shown walking up the steps of the United States Supreme Court.

When asked about the movie as a whole, Muster said that she “really enjoyed the film” and that it was accurate, as she was familiar with Bader Ginsberg and the May 2018 documentary “RGB.” 



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