The Modern Relevance of "On The Basis of Sex"

The credits rolled, and the screen went dark with the tiny names of writers, actors, and producers. I turned to my roommate, eyes teary. She looked back at me, mirroring my deep emotion. 

We had just finished seeing On The Basis of Sex, the movie biopic detailing Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's early career and her struggle to get a Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, a case that questioned a discriminatory tax law, to federal court. My roommate and I are both considering a career in law, which makes Justice Ginsburg's narrative especially poignant, but her story is one that many women can relate to. In On The Basis of Sex, viewers look into the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as both a law student and a young wife. While at Harvard Law, Ginsburg, already raising a young daughter, must take care of her husband Marty, who falls ill with testicular cancer during his second year of law school, in addition to taking her own first-year law classes. Further, Ginsburg helped Marty through his law classes, attending his second-year classes in addition to her own and staying awake into the early hours of the morning to finish homework for both her husband and herself. In this regard, her efforts paid off. Marty recovered from cancer and graduated from Harvard law, earning a job at a top New York tax law firm. 

However, Ruth is not so lucky. The dean at Harvard, already having proved himself adverse to the idea of women in law school at the start of the film (in which he hosts a dinner party where he invites the sparse number of female law students at Harvard and asks them why they think they deserve a spot that could have gone to a man), refuses to let Ginsburg finish her third year at Harvard from New York, in spite of extending the privilege to male students in the past. When Ruth presses him, he asks her why she needs to finish law school -- her husband is already a lawyer, and she is a mother to a young daughter. Though Ruth ultimately graduates at the top of her class from Columbia law, she cannot land a job as a practicing attorney, being turned away from several firms on account of her gender. And even when her job as a law professor at Rutgers University leads to her eventual success with the ACLU's Women's Right's Project, Ginsburg still struggles against gender-based discrimination in her efforts to argue her first case,  Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, in court. 

 

Critics of the modern feminist movement might argue that women today are fortunate to have moved past this outright gender discrimination, that women today can be anything they want. However, those who insist that the gender discrimination faced by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (both in real life and as illustrated in On The Basis of Sex) is merely an inconvenient detriment of our long-forgotten past are hopelessly mistaken. During On The Basis of Sex,  I cried not just when the credits rolled, but at the very start of the film. The movie opens with a shot of hundreds of white men walking up the steps of Harvard Law School, a massive sea of black and gray jackets. Ruth slowly appears in the fray, a lone woman in a demure blue skirt-suit among hundreds of men. In 2019, the scene is still relatable. Days before seeing the film, I had walked into my Intermediate Macroeconomics class in bright red rainboots and a coordinating scarf to find myself as one of just two women in the room. In high school, I worked in a construction related field, one of two women within the whole company for my first year. It was the first time I existed as a woman in a male-dominated space, and there that I learned how to behave as such. It was then that I learned that a single woman in male-dominated field was subject to continually having her intelligence questioned, her credibility denied. On the first day of Macroeconomics, I only expected the same form of patriarchal dismissal. 

On The Basis of Sex is an important narrative because it's still a relevant narrative of gender-based discrimination in 2019. Though law is increasingly becoming less male-dominated -- in 2017, 38% of lawyers were women -- Ginsburg's experience is resonant for women in many other male-dominated fields. In 2017, just 33% of first-year doctoral students in Economics (a field in which only 20% of women at my university participate in the undergraduate major) were women. That same year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that only 26% of computer scientists were women, compared to a stark 13% of engineers. Though 2017 was the first year women entered med school at rates higher than men, men still outnumber women in every single area of medicine, according to these statistics. At least for the foreseeable future, the Ruth Bader Ginsburg story is likely to be one that very resonant to high-achieving women everywhere. We can only hope that our daughters won't be able to relate in the same way. 

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