On the Basis of Sex

I watched this movie on the weekend – On the Basis of Sex – based on the USA Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg’s law school years and initial career as a professor, and her first case taking on gender discrimination.

She battled a lot to get through. She already had a baby during law school, and was married to a fellow law student. There were no female toilets at Harvard when she went to law school, because they had only just started catering for women. She had to study and work harder than others, despite also caring for her baby at home. Then her husband got cancer while they were both still in law school.

Thankfully he recovered and he got a job which meant that she transferred from Harvard to Columbia to finish her law degree.

on the basis of sex

No law firm would hire her, so she took an academic role, and didn’t practice law until her challenging now-fifteen year-old daughter called her out about talking and not taking action.

the movie left me wanting to know more about the life of Ruth Ginsburg. However, it served its purpose by focusing on the push of the women’s movement in the early 1970s, and this determined woman’s campaign to change lives with her legal training.

From Wikipedia: In 1970, Martin brings Moritz v. Commissioner, a tax law case, to Ruth’s attention. Charles Moritz is a man from Denver who had to hire a nurse to help him care for his aging mother so he could continue to work. Moritz was denied a tax deduction for the nursing care because at the time Section 214 of the Internal Revenue Code specifically limited the deduction to “a woman, a widower or divorcée, or a husband whose wife is incapacitated or institutionalized”. The court ruled that Moritz, a man who had never married, did not qualify for the deduction. Ruth sees in this case an opportunity to begin to challenge the many laws enacted over the years that assume that men will work to provide for the family, and women will stay home and take care of the husband and children. She believes that if she could set a precedent ruling that a man was unfairly discriminated against on the basis of sex, that precedent could be cited in cases challenging laws that discriminate against women—and she believes that an appellate court composed entirely of male judges would find it easier to identify with a male appellant.

In the film, Ruth Ginsburg left Harvard when Erwin Griswold as dean of Harvard Law School denied her request to complete her final courses at Columbia Law School.

Ruth meets with Mel Wulf of the ACLU to try to enlist their help, but he turns her down. She also meets with activist and civil rights advocate Dorothy Kenyon, who is cold to the idea at first but later meets with Wulf in his office and convinces him to sign on. Ruth then flies to Denver to meet with Moritz, who agrees to let the Ginsburgs and ACLU represent him pro bono after Ruth convinces him that millions of people could potentially benefit. The Ginsburgs and Wulf file an appeal of Moritz’s denial with the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. Department of Justice Attorney James H. Bozarth asks to be the lead counsel for the defense. He does a computer search to find all of the sections of the US Code that deal with gender. His defense will contend that, if section 214 is ruled unconstitutional, that will open the door to challenge all of America’s gender-based laws. Ruth, having no courtroom experience, does poorly in a moot court, and Wulf convinces her to let Martin lead off arguing the tax law, with Ruth following up with equal protection arguments.

The government offers Moritz a settlement of one dollar. Ruth makes a counter-proposal: the government will pay Moritz the sum he claimed as a deduction and make a declaration that he did nothing wrong, and also enter into the record that the gender-based portion of section 214 is unconstitutional. The government declines this proposal because of the constitutionality element. At the oral argument in the Court of Appeals, Martin takes more of their side’s allotted time than he had intended. Ruth is nervous but makes several key points and reserves four minutes of her time for rebuttal. Bozarth frames his side’s argument as defending the American way of life, implying that the Ginsburgs and ACLU want “radical social change” and maybe Moritz “just doesn’t want to pay his taxes”. In her rebuttal, Ruth is much more confident. She states that societal roles that existed one hundred years ago, or even twenty years ago, no longer apply. She does not ask the court to change society, but to keep the law up with social change that has already taken place. To a judge’s objection that the Constitution does not contain the word “woman”, she responds vigorously that neither does it contain the word “freedom”.[7]

Outside the courthouse, judgment being reserved, Wulf, Moritz and the Ginsburgs celebrate that, win or lose, Ruth has finally found her voice as a lawyer. Titles over the closing scene indicate that the Court of Appeals found unanimously in Moritz’s favor. Ruth went on to co-found the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU, which struck down many of the gender-based laws Bozarth identified, and in 1993 the Senate voted 96 to 3 for her to become an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court. 

on the basis of sex

It was interesting for me to note all the changes that have occurred since the 1970s, albeit in the USA system, for women. In 1970, a woman couldn’t have a credit card in her own name, married women couldn’t report a rape at the hands of their husbands, women couldn’t work overtime, women couldn’t attend military academies, and women couldn’t serve on juries in some States!

By |2019-09-01T13:32:25+10:00September 1st, 2019|Gender|