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On the Basis of Sex: A Portrait of Strength

Supreme Court Judge, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Wikimedia Commons)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg, at 85, is one of only four female Associate Justices to have served on the Supreme Court. She has held office since 1993 and is inarguably an exceptional woman. But her journey to becoming a Justice was not simple.

On the Basis of Sex, a film released on Christmas day, 2018, documents the court case that began Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s career. The title comes from Ginsburg’s renowned case that jumpstarted her advocacy for gender equality: Moritz v. Commissioner.

The case dealt with a tax law concerning section 214 of the Internal Revenue Code. Effectively, a man named Charles Moritz hired a nurse to care for his aging mother and attempted to deduct the cost of the caregiver’s services at the end of the year. The government, however, argued that because Moritz was male and unmarried, he did not qualify for the specific requirements stated by the code.

Ginsburg, who worked alongside her husband, Martin, proved that the gender discrimination displayed in the case was unconstitutional because of equal protection laws. The idea was that if they could prove that the government had discriminated against Moritz on the basis of sex (or gender), a precedent would be established for other court cases involving gender disputes.

This crux of their argument is where the film got its name.

On the Basis of Sex is, in many ways, an awe-inspiring movie. It documents Ginsburg’s struggles through law school and beyond, as well as her attempts to balance family and work. Early in the movie, she attends her husband’s courses as well as her own and takes notes on both while he battles cancer. She also cares for their daughter Jane.

Later, a legal firm hires Martin, and Ruth graduates first in her class at Columbia. Despite her honors at law school and undeniable drive, she cannot find work simply because she is a woman.

One memorable scene highlights what the Dean of Harvard Law reportedly told Ginsburg. In a class of about 500 Harvard Law students, only nine were women. In one scene, the Dean invites all nine to a dinner. He says it is Harvard’s “way of saying welcome” and thanks the women for attending. In the next line, the Dean looks around at a table of some of the first women to go to Harvard’s prestigious law school, and asks why they are “occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man.”

On the Basis of Sex is not a spoonful-of-sugar kind of movie. It lays out the adversity Ginsburg faced in clear and honest terms. It isn’t a perfect film, but it sticks to the story as well as it can, and certainly does its subject justice (no pun intended).

Some critics claimed that the film was unrealistic because Martin Ginsburg (played by actor Armie Hammer) was too supportive. This is representative of what Ruth Bader Ginsburg herself has fought to eradicate: the preconceived notions that men and women have certain roles in society that must be fulfilled.

At the end of the film is a shot Ginsburg herself ascending the steps of the Supreme Court building. In a time when her advocacy and work in justice is revered, On the Basis of Sex reminds us of everything she had to overcome in her search for equality.

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August 18, 2019