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Teaching with Film: Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Posted by Speakeasy News > Tuesday 29 January 2019 > Webpicks


The biopic about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is excellent for discussing gender issues in this class. This short clip should really get students talking.

It’s suitable from B1+, as there is a lot of implicit content.

It’s a scene from early in the film, On the Basis of Sex. It’s 1956, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is newly enrolled at Harvard Law School, probably the most prestigious in the country. The school only began admitting female students six years before.

In this scene, the nine current female students have been invited to dinner by the dean, ostensibly to welcome them. He then proceeds to ask them each introduce themselves and say, “Why you are occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man?”

The scene lends itself to lots of hypothesising. Pupils can imagine what the women may respond. Then, after each of the three answers we hear, imagine how the next person may respond. The first woman to answer explains her father is a lawyer, and she wants to become a partner in his company, of which the dean approves. The second woman says she didn’t want to become a wife, a teacher or a nurse before the dean cuts her off, saying that’s not a good reason.

Then it is Bader Ginsburg’s turn. It’s easy for pupils to imagine how intimidating that would be. She chooses to go for irony, saying in a falsely sweet voice that since her husband is a second-year student, “I’m at Harvard to learn more about his work, so I can be a more patient and understanding wife.” The snorts of laughter from the other women should confirm to pupils that Ginsburg is not being serious.

They could then imagine the dean’s response. Would he find this a good use of a place at Harvard?

This could lead on to discussion about the situation today. Do girls, or boys, feel there is still pressure to conform to a gender stereotype. Could they imagine something similar happening today, or are there other, more subtle forms of discrimination?