On the Basis of Sex

 

            1956.  Ruth Bader Ginsburg marches into Harvard Law School, along with bunches of guys in suits.  Oh, there were a handful of other women.  And the school considered itself on the vanguard of open-mindedness by admitting them.  But it was never easy.

            Ruth (Felicity Jones) was married, to an upper classman, Marty (Armie Hammer), and they have a baby daughter.  Not exactly the circumstances conducive to study.  But they supported one another, always.  When he graduated and was offered a job at a New York City firm, she asked the Dean if she could complete her third year in absentia.  He refused.  He suggested she transfer to Columbia.  So Harvard misses out on claiming one of the sharpest, and most tenacious, legal minds of our generation.

            After a health scare of Marty's which could have changed everything, eventually he recovers, and she graduates, but she cannot find a job with a Big Apple law firm.  They won't hire her, telling her that women are too emotional, or that she's going to get pregnant again and leave anyway, or that the wives of the male lawyers in the firm will get jealous.  And, of course, she has no experience actually practicing law.  Yes, the old Catch-22.  How is she supposed to gain that experience?

            Finally, she “settles” on accepting a professorship at Rutgers.  It's not what she thought she wanted.  But over the years you can see her confidence growing in her knowledge of the law, as she leads her students through their discussions of legal precedents.  It sounds dry, but remember that by now we're in the Vietnam War Protest Era.  The social fabric is shuddering with civil rights activists, both for racial equality and, almost simultaneously, gender equality.  And even the staid old judicial system was beginning to pay attention.

            Through Ruth's previous contact with the head of the ACLU, Mel Wulf (Justin Theroux)---they went to summer camp together as kids!---she gets her foot in the door of a potentially precedent-setting case.  A man in Colorado tried to claim his own caretaking services as a tax deduction, because he was caring for his aged mother, rather than putting her in a nursing home.  The IRS wouldn't allow it.  He appealed.  The tax court upheld the IRS.  But now he's appealed to the federal circuit court, and both Ruth and her husband Marty, in his role as a prominent tax attorney, argue the case.  It's about righting a wrong:  the law makes the assumption that only a woman could be a caretaker, which is (reverse) discrimination “on the basis of sex.”  They won.

            The movie stops there, and tells us only in postscript about Ruth Bader Ginsburg successfully arguing gender discrimination cases before the Supreme Court, and then, eventually, becoming a Supreme Court Justice herself.  It's a stirring story of personal triumph in the face of persistent opposition.  But it's also a love story, not only between Ruth and Marty, but their now-teenage daughter, Jane (Cailee Spaeny), and their bonds not only of familial affection but also deep conviction.

            Felicity Jones' performance is terrific, even if she's spotty with the Brooklyn accent.  Armie Hammer shines as the supportive working husband who's not afraid to put on an apron and cook.  Kathy Bates enjoys a nice cameo.  But this is one you want your daughters and granddaughters to watch, because this is important.  This is about equality under the law.  And the determined lady who helped our society recognize its importance.  Bravo.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association