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Ruth Bader Ginsburg helped change America - but her fight for gender equality hasn't been won

A new biopic about the Supreme Court Justice looks at her early years as a Harvard student and fledgling lawyer.

NY: U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at NY Academy of Medicine Ruth Bader Ginsburg Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

AT 85, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has seen a lot of societal changes. But unlike you or I, she can say she personally had a hand in some of them.

The Brooklyn-born lawyer faced off blatant sexism and prejudice to bring about changes in the law that helped fight against gender imbalance in the US. These changes in turn would go on to inspire people around the world.

Now the early college and career years of Bader Ginsburg are told in the biopic On The Basis Of Sex, which stars British actor Felicity Jones and American actor Armie Hammer . Hammer plays Bader Ginsburg’s husband Marty – a well-respected tax attorney – and Jones plays the woman herself.

The film brings us to Bader Ginsburg’s early days in Harvard, where she was the year below her husband as they both studied law. She was one of just nine women studying law in the university in 1956, among 500 men. During a dinner to welcome the women, the college dean asked why they were at the college, taking the place of a man. It was just one small example of the endemic sexism that a career-minded woman like Bader Ginsburg would face in that era. 

As the saying goes: nevertheless, she persisted. Bader Ginsburg would go on to graduate, though she didn’t initially get a job as a lawyer for reasons connected to her gender, and instead began teaching law as a professor at Rutgers Law School and Columbia Law School. Eventually, in the 1970s she co-founded the Women’s Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and went on to argue gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court. Of the six she brought, she won five.

Interestingly, Bader Ginsburg’s approach was to often take cases where it was men who were discriminated against based on gender. She showed how gender essentialism and stereotyping, where women were presumed to more naturally fit a caring role, was biased against men too. No doubt this helped when she faced down men who did not agree that stereotyping women posed a problem. 

On The Basis of Sex Screening - New York Armie Hammer and Felicity Jones arrive on the red carpet at the 'On The Basis Of Sex' New York screening. Source: UPI/PA Images

Overcoming obstacles

Felicity Jones told TheJournal.ie that the sexism Bader Ginsburg faced was not a surprise to her. “Unfortunately I wasn’t that surprised, which was a little bit disappointing,” she said in an interview in London this week. 

“I think it was what captivated me in reading the script, just how many obstacles she had to overcome to get to the position that she got to and that consistently the odds were stacked against her. And she just did it so much on her own terms, I think that was what I was struck by, her tenacity and her determination and her flexibility.”

She said she admired Bader Ginsburg’s “deftness in being able to change and to adapt, to be able to survive; to finally get to where she wanted to get to”. When someone told her she couldn’t follow a certain route, RBG would find an alleyway to duck down or an alternative path to take. 

The film does have pivotal courtroom scenes, but it’s not a court movie. That is due in large part to the fact it was written by Marty Ginsburg’s nephew, Daniel Stiepleman.

“If anyone else would have written this movie it would have been a courtroom drama more than anything else,” said Hammer. “But this was an opportunity to really see behind the frock – or the apron in Martin’s case – and who these people were and how they led incredibly progressive lives in a time where it was not the done thing.”

On The Basis of Sex Screening - New York Daniel Stiepleman Source: UPI/PA Images

Bader Ginsburg was always completely supported by her husband. The film depicts him as a caring, enthusiastic man, who did not buy into the stereotypes around gender and marriage. He encouraged her in her career, was a better cook and played an equal role in the household. 

“He recognised the capabilities of his wife,” said Hammer. “And what she needed was someone who would be a support system for her to do whatever it would take so that she could go on and change the world – which is what he knew she was capable of. And ultimately what she went and did.”

Hammer – a father of two and husband to businesswoman Elizabeth Chambers – even found himself inspired by Marty’s approach. 

“I would say that getting to be a part of this movie definitely raised the bar in terms of how to be a more equal partner,” he said. “How to be a more supportive husband, how to be a more attentive husband, attentive father, how to really foster and sort of encourage reciprocity and actual gender parity.”

Mimi’s story

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The film is directed by Mimi Leder, whose own story reflects the challenges that women face not just in law but across the career spectrum. In a year where there are no women – yet again – nominated for an Oscar, it’s interesting to note how Leder’s career was stalled (after successes Deep Impact and the Peacemaker) by so-so reviews for her fourth feature, Pay It Forward.

Whereas some of her male contemporaries bounced back from films that didn’t do so well, she found herself in the doldrums.

On The Basis of Sex Screening - New York Gary Werntz and director Mimi Leder Source: UPI/PA Images

But Leder – who began making films at a very young age, encouraged by her father – ploughed on, working on TV series ER, Luck, the Leftovers, and Shameless. Her next series is the much-anticipated The Morning Show, starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon as two morning news show anchors.

As a feminist, she made sure the set on On The Basis of Sex was gender balanced, said Felicity Jones.

“I think I would love to see the industry embrace a more 50/50 split in terms of the crews on film sets and television sets. That creates a much better working environment,” she said. “We were very lucky with On The Basis of Sex that we did have that, and we shot in Montreal and that was a huge priority for Mimi Leder the director, and it made for a much better working environment.”

It is so important that we affect change together. I think that is the key, and with someone like Mimi it is because people who are in a position of being able to dictate who they employ, that they really pay attention to making sure that it is an equal landscape.

Jones wants to see further change in Hollywood, to make it more accessible to people, particularly parents. She also wants to see more women behind the camera. “I think the more [things change] we will see a generational shift, but obviously women have been put off,” she said. “And I hope that with the changes post-MeToo movement, that we’ll see an industry that is more friendly to women going into it.”

Though we are seeing women’s stories told on film – like in recent movies Roma and The Favourite – for Jones “the key is to make sure the woman are the storytellers. And that as we know is yet to shift”.

Notorious RBG

File: Supreme Court Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg President Bill Clinton appointing Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court. Source: SIPA USA/PA Images

Bader Ginsburg returned to the Supreme Court this week after taking time off due to illness. She was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993, and plays a pivotal role on the ‘SCOTUS’ as a woman and a Democrat.

There had been just one woman on the Supreme Court before her – Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Today, there are three women out of seven people: Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Change creeps along slowly. 

Bader Ginsburg has become a major figure for millennial feminists, and is a pop culture icon with her own nickname: Notorious RBG (after the hip hop artist Notorious BIG). To young women, she represents, power, change, and the strength of women. There are books about her, t-shirts with her image, and she even published a workout guide

Source: The Late Show with Stephen Colbert/YouTube

While she recuperated from surgery recently, she was sent a get well soon card signed by names like Lady Gaga, Laura Dern, and Glenn Close. 

But as she ages, there are questions about her possible retirement, and what it could mean for the Democrats in the Trump era. The aim is likely to hope that a Democrat will replace Trump, and this Democrat will appoint a successor for RBG.

On The Basis Of Sex is released not too long after an RBG documentary. The time is ripe for celebrating Bader Ginsburg because of a confluence of events: Trump’s election, MeToo, and a wider discussion of feminism.

What both Jones and Hammer expressed in their interviews was how Bader Ginsburg achieved huge amounts for gender equality in the US – but there is still a lot that needs to change.

“What the MeToo era has taught us is that the fight that Ruth Bader Ginsburg started in the 50s and 60s and 70s still has not been won. It is not done,” said Hammer. “She has given us a trajectory to look forward to and sort of blazed a trail that we can then continue when ultimately she won’t be here anymore to do it. So someone else will have to pick up the mantle, but the battle’s not done.”

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

“I feel we very much stand on her shoulders – she changed the landscape of gender politics in the US, fundamentally through shifting the interpretation of the Constitution, so completely changing the way the law viewed gender rights,” said Jones. 

“And I think what’s important to learn from that is that things can change, that countries have to adapt, societies have to adapt,” she said. Jones is convinced that by harnessing the spirit of RBG, more change can occur.

“We’re in a great period of massive change where we do expect equality between men and women, and we do achieve that by working together ultimately to make the world equal for each other.”

On The Basis of Sex is released in cinemas on 22 February, rated 12A.

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