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On The Basis of Sex: Why Ruth Bader Ginsburg is my Wonder Woman

Madelyn Grace writes about the timeliness of the biopic On the Basis of Sex.

Simple graphic of Ruth Bader Ginsberg in her judge robes
Image by Claire McCulloch

“My mother told me to be a lady. And for her, that meant be your own person, be independent.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg

The biopic On the Basis of Sex, set for release in 2018, follows the story of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg during a pivotal case in which she challenged the entire system of legal discrimination — on the basis of sex.

The film’s cast includes Felicity Jones as Ginsburg, Armie Hammer as Ginsburg’s husband, Justin Theroux as Mel Wolf and Kathy Bates as Dorothy Kenyon. Mimi Leder, American director and producer known for the movie Pay It Forward and the TV show Shameless, is directing from a script written by Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman. Leder explains the necessity of films that speak to the heart of humanity in such tumultuous times as reminders of “what it means to lead with love and compassion as the way forward.” On the Basis of Sex is currently in production in Montreal and is set to premiere in 2018, coinciding with Ginsburg’s 25th year on the Supreme Court.

The film follows a 1972 tax deduction case known as Moritz v. Commissioner. The case challenges the rejection of a dependent-care deduction granted to women, divorced men and widowers. The deduction is a credit on the federal income tax return for anyone who pays someone to care for their child, spouse or other dependant. Bachelor Charles Moritz, who was caring for his sick mother, wasn’t granted the deduction. This mundane case evolved into a gender discrimination trial. It made its way up to the Tenth Circuit, a tiny court of appeals in the U.S. with the power to reverse jurisdiction in the district courts of Colorado and Kansas, and was later tried unsuccessfully by the government to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. The petition included a list of hundreds of additional statutes that discriminated on the basis of sex, which Ginsburg has continued to work through ever since.

When Ginsburg took the tax deduction case in 1972 she had no idea it would shape the rest of her life. She didn’t go into it thinking she was going to court to fight for women’s rights and, if asked at the time, it’s doubtful she would have called herself a feminist. In fact, in On The Basis of Sex, it’s her 15-year-old daughter who is the feminist in the family — she skips school to hear Gloria Steinem speak. But that case led Ginsburg down a path she continued to pursue throughout her illustrious career.

She went on to co-found the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and became their general counsel. By 1974, the Women’s Rights Project and related ACLU projects participated in over 300 gender discrimination cases. By 1976, Ginsburg had won five of the six gender discrimination cases she had brought to the Supreme Court. She was clever in her pursuit of gender equality, sometimes using male plaintiffs to show that gender discrimination is damaging to both men and women. Her body of work prevented lawmakers from treating men and women differently under the law.

In 2009, from her seat on the Supreme Court, Ginsburg was instrumental in getting the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act passed: a law born from the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. case that allows workers to file equal-pay lawsuits based on the beginning of the discriminatory wage decision (the time of the original decision was to pay one employee less than another), instead of on the most recent paycheque.

Presenting the wage gap as non-prejudicial is dangerous because it presents the problem as “solved,” when the wage gap is still attributed to gender-based discrepancies and discrimination.

The wage gap extends past gender discrimination: in the United States, Black and Hispanic women earn less per hour than white men and women, at 65 per cent and 58 per cent of the median white man’s hourly earning, respectively. That leaves them earning 17 per cent and 24 per cent less than white women. Even Black and Hispanic men are still earning less than both white men and women — 27 per cent and 31 per cent less than white men, and nine per cent and 13 per cent less than white women.

On the Basis of Sex will educate and remind the next generation of what had to be so rigorously fought for and that we, as a society, must all continue to fight for the complete, conceptual and substantive equality that everyone deserves. Even in a time where things might be considered “much better,” it is important to realize that this is an ongoing project. The burden still weighs heavily on women of colour; while white women are earning more, women of colour are still left to fight their own battles. Ginsburg may have made it easier for some women, but until all women can say gender discrimination isn’t a daily battle, the work isn’t over.

Ginsburg brought her first gender discrimination case to the Supreme Court in the early 1970s. That was over 40 years ago and it is a discussion we are still having, and a battle we are still waging.

The timeliness of this film is worth noting, with sexual harassment in Hollywood becoming a major topic in the news, and women's rights at the forefront of national discussion. It is important that this pioneer of women’s rights be applauded, and that we recognize there is still so much work to do.

Why Ruth Bader Ginsburg is my Wonder Woman:

1. She was one of nine females out of 500 people in her Harvard class for law school in 1956.

2. She was the first Supreme Court Justice to officiate a same-sex marriage ceremony in 2013.

3. She is altogether too much: “The traditional law firms were just beginning to turn around on hiring Jews…but to be woman, a Jew, and a mother to boot – that combination was a bit too much.”


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