Ruth Bader Ginsburg has had quite a year. The Supreme Court Justice has been the focus of a biopic and a documentary, which has been nominated for an Oscar. At 85, and despite frail health, Bader Ginsburg seems to have reached greater influence than she ever imagined.
The 85-year-old is the doyenne of the Supreme Court and one of three women out of nine justices. The major achievement of her career has been opposing sex discrimination and she is generally considered a liberal influence on the bench. Which is why news of her hospitalisation for cancer surgery in December caused concern on the American left. She is now recovering at home.
The two recent films have brought her extraordinary story to a much wider audience. The documentary RBG shows a feisty, highly intelligent and humorous woman.
The biopic written by her nephew is both shocking and inspiring. The title, On the Basis of Sex, is somewhat ambiguous. It is the legal point she made her reputation defending, that it should not be legal to discriminate in law “on the basis of sex”. But as her legal assistant points out in the film, have the word “sex” on every page of a legal brief doesn’t necessarily help it be taken seriously. The assistant suggests substituting “gender”, even though it means she has to retype hundreds of pages. Hollywood clearly felt that “On the Basis of Gender” was a less sellable title.
That said, if a slightly titillating title tempts more people to discover Ginsburg’s story, so be it.
The film tells the story of her life from 1956, when she entered Harvard Law School, one of only nine women in the entire school, which had only recently opened its doors to female students. Far from being dry and focussed on legal argument, the film has plenty of human drama. Ginsburg was already married at that point, with a young daughter. Her husband, a student in the second year, developed a potentially fatal cancer.
Ginsburg graduated top of her class from Harvard and Columbia, yet, the film shows, couldn’t get a law firm to hire her. In a shocking scene, she explains the various excuses she was given, including “women are too emotional”, she was bound to go off and have babies, and in any case the other lawyers’ wives would be jealous. Instead, she taught law and pioneered the study of gender discrimination. She finally got her day in court when she offered to defend a man who has been discriminated against in a tax-law case. He was a single man caring for his sick mother. He hired a nurse to allow him to go to work, but when he tried to put her wages against tax he was accused of fraud. The tax law on caregivers only applied to women, as the legislators didn’t seem to have been able to imagine a man caring for a relative. Ginsburg and her tax-lawyer husband realised that if they could get a judgement that gender discrimination is unconstitutional in a case about a man, it will open the doors to strike down the almost 200 laws that were discriminatory to women.
Head over to our webpicks for a longer clip of the opening scene of the trailer, where the nine female students at the law school are invited to dinner by the dean and asked to give their reasons for taking up a place that could have gone to a man.