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Deconstructing Ruth: A Review Of 'On the Basis Of Sex'

Well-intentioned but with only the proverbial ‘one eye on the prize’, On the Basis of Sex would serve as a wonderful introduction to sitting US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but falls short of giving us a strong enough snapshot of this remarkable woman. But it is still a must-see for helping us realize that much of what we take for granted or as societal givens today in the arena of gender equality, are hard-fought legal battles that date back to only 40 years ago. 

If America in the 1960’s was the period of landmark Civil Rights cases, the 70s and 80s were about sex and gender discrimination cases and decisions—the slow but steady emerging of their laws from the ‘medieval’ ages when it came to Women, and then Rutgers law Professor Ruth Bader Ginsburg played a very prominent role in all this. Playing Ruth (RBG) is Felicity Jones, while husband and fellow lawyer Martin is portrayed by Armie Hammer. Directed by Mimi Leder, the film takes up her life story from Ruth’s entering Harvard Law School in the mid-1950s, up to her handling of the Denver tax case, Moritz v. Commissioner, on appeal, in 1970.


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The prejudices and blatant discrimination against the very small minority of women entering Law School in the 1950’s is vividly shown, and the circumstances surrounding Ruth in particular. Married with a baby daughter, plus Martin contracting testicular cancer (he was a year ahead of Ruth at Harvard), and her attending classes on his behalf while simultaneously completing her own year, and still finishing First in her year, are all put on display to establish her sharp legal mind and capacity to take on surmounting work loads. Her transfer to Columbia to be with Martin as he became a New York attorney, and her difficulty getting hired by a law firm, thus accepting a Law teaching position—these are all capsulized on screen, as is the aforementioned Moritz case that ‘made’ for her initial career working with the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union).


My issue would be how the film ends with the Moritz case; and all her substantive accomplishments, plus rising to the highest court are merely referred to in the end-credits. It almost presupposes that one knows about Ginsburg; because otherwise, you’ve only scratched the surface of what she’s stood for and accomplished in her lifetime. For that, I would direct you to the truly wonderful documentary RBG. A nominee for Best Documentary in the Oscars earlier this year, RBG gives us a far more succinct picture of Ginsburg and her contributions to the contemporary world of jurisprudence.  


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And while Armie Hammer gives us a competent Hollywood Martin Ginsburg, go to RBG for footage that shows how special, charming and funny the real Martin was—he passed away in 2010. As Ruth has often said, Martin was the perfect partner who always encouraged her, and he even worked behind the scenes in the 1990s to have her shortlisted for the Supreme Court when others felt she had missed the boat or was too old. 


Showcasing important fragments of her life, On the Basis of Sex delivers, and Felicity Jones is impressive. But to better understand just what Ruth Bader Ginsburg has done, and is still doing, for the cause of gender equality, RBG is worth seeking out.