'On The Basis Of Sex' Follows A Fiery Young Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Jan 10, 2019
Originally published on January 10, 2019 5:06 am

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is having a moment. For the past couple of years, she's transcended her role on the Court, becoming a liberal pop culture icon.

CNN made a much-hailed documentary about her life, titled RBG. There have been several biographies. She wrote her own memoir in 2016. There's even a coloring book.

Now, her story is being told yet again, in a new film starring Felicity Jones.

On the Basis of Sex is inspired by the story of a young Ginsburg, plowing through law school as one of only nine women in her Harvard class. Despite a stellar academic career, she couldn't find a job after graduating. So instead of starting her career in the courtroom, she went to the classroom, teaching at Rutgers University with a focus on sex discrimination law.

The film is directed by Mimi Leder, and she joined Felicity Jones to speak with Morning Edition host Rachel Martin.


Interview Highlights

Jones on preparing for the role

Initially, I was very very intimidated. It's nerve wracking playing such a beloved woman, and I, myself, am a huge fan of her. But I had to put the fandom away, and play the truth of this woman's experience, and really get into the mind of who this woman was when she was younger, when she was much more, in many respects, open to the world and show how does someone get to that position.

Leder on the tax law case at the center of the movie

[Marty Ginsburg] brings her this case. First of all, she didn't teach tax cases. She never even read them ... He was the tax lawyer and became one of the preeminent tax attorneys in our country. So, it's a case about a man who is a caregiver, who files for a tax deduction ... and is denied the tax deduction because he is a never-married man. And in those days the law read that only a woman is in the home, and only a widower can receive this tax deduction.

So they used this man, Charles Moritz, to argue gender discrimination, and they won this tax case, and what it did was it overturned 178 different laws that discriminated on the basis of sex and were found unconstitutional.

Jones on the sexism Ginsburg faced even from her supporters, like Mel Wulf of the ACLU

I think he's very much a creature of his time. He's very representative of the sexism of those constant ... patronizing comments, those dismissive remarks, the putdowns, the low expectations. Mel Wulf is not immune to that, and it just shows that Ruth was fighting on so many fronts.

Jones on Ginsburg's relationship with her daughter Jane and inter-generational feminism

Ruth was very much at the mercy of time in many ways. You see that sort of 1950's patriarchy at play, and she's having to conform to that on so many levels, and she's having to be so sophisticated in how she pushes against it, because to her the most important thing is that she wins. And then what you see with Jane is Jane doesn't have to do that. The times have shifted enough that Jane can get angry and she can be more outspoken.

Reena Advani and Victoria Whitley-Berry edited this interview for broadcast. Victoria Whitley-Berry and Petra Mayer adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is having a pop culture moment - more than a moment, really. For the past couple of years, she has transcended her role on the court to become a liberal icon. There's a CNN documentary, a podcast, various biographies. She wrote her own memoir in 2016. There's even a Ruth Bader Ginsburg coloring book.

Ginsburg's story is told yet again, this time in a new film starring Felicity Jones. In it, we see a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her husband, Marty, plowing through Harvard Law School. But Ruth is one of only nine other women in her class. Despite a stellar academic career, after graduating, she can't find a job. So instead of starting her career in the courtroom, she goes to the classroom, teaching at Rutgers University and focusing on sex discrimination in the law.

The film is directed by Mimi Leder. I talked with her and Felicity Jones about bringing Ginsburg's story to the screen. Here's Felicity Jones.

FELICITY JONES: Well, initially, I was very, very intimidated. And it's nerve-wracking paying such a beloved woman. And I, myself, am a huge, huge fan of her. But I had to put the fandom away. And I had to play the truth of this woman's experience and really get into the mind of who this woman was when she was younger, when she was, you know, much more, in many respects, open to the world and show, how does someone get to that position?

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you to do the hard work for me and explain the tax law case that is at the center of this particular story, Charles Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. This is the case that Marty actually brings to Ruth. He sees something in there. He sees potential in this case. Mimi, can I put you on the spot to try to explain that?

MIMI LEDER: I'll try. You know, he brings her this case. And first of all, you know, she didn't teach tax cases. She never even read them.

MARTIN: He's the tax lawyer, yeah.

LEDER: He was the tax lawyer and became one of the pre-eminent tax attorneys in our country. So it's a case about a man who is a caregiver who files for a tax deduction for $196 and is denied the tax deduction because he is a never-married man. And in those days, the law read that only a woman is in the home, and only a widower can receive this tax deduction.

So they used this man, Charles Moritz, to argue gender discrimination. And they won this tax case. And what it did was it overturned 178 different laws that discriminated on the basis of sex and were found unconstitutional.

MARTIN: But it was interesting. You talk about how it brought down all of these different laws that had gender discrimination baked into them. But, Felicity, even her allies are not so keen on making it so big, right? I'm thinking in particular about Mel Wulf, the head of the ACLU at the time, who, you know, is her champion, and the ACLU has signed onto this suit. But he's always kind of trying to circumscribe the suit and trying to lower Ruth's expectations, isn't he?

JONES: Yeah, absolutely. I think he's very much a creature of his time. He's very representative of the sexism of those constant - and as Ruth said, you know, they can be small - those sort of patronizing comments, those dismissive remarks, the put-downs, the low expectations. But they build up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ON THE BASIS OF SEX")

JONES: (As Ruth Bader Ginsburg) First, you took half the argument away from me.

JUSTIN THEROUX: (As Mel Wulf) Nobody took anything away from you, Ruth. You weren't robbed in the middle of the night, all right? I was giving you this opportunity for the good of the cause.

JONES: (As Ruth Bader Ginsburg) You think you gave this to me?

THEROUX: (As Mel Wulf) In fact, I did. And get your emotions in check.

JONES: (As Ruth Bader Ginsburg) You first.

Mel Wulf is not immune to that, and it just shows that Ruth was fighting on so many fronts.

MARTIN: And can I ask you about the relationship with her daughter? This is, in part, about this intergenerational definition of what it means to be a feminist. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg has one idea, and she's fighting these really big fights. And, Felicity, can you talk about how her daughter Jane sees the fights, just, like, on the street level on a day-to-day?

JONES: Yeah. I mean, absolutely. Ruth was very much at the mercy of the time in many ways, and you see that sort of 1950s patriarchy at play. And she's having to conform to that on so many levels, and she's having to be so sophisticated in how she pushes against it because, to her, the most important thing is that she wins.

And then what you see with Jane is Jane doesn't have to do that - is that the times have shifted enough that Jane can get angry, and she can be more outspoken. And you see that moment in the street when they're in New York, and she shouts at those guys in a way that Ruth would never have thought of doing that.

MARTIN: The guys were, like, catcalling at her, yeah.

JONES: Yeah. Catcalling.

MARTIN: Her mom brushes it off, and Jane's, like, no.

JONES: Yeah.

MARTIN: You can't do that.

JONES: Yeah. She says, no, you got to confront it. You got to fight back, you know, instantly. And you can see that the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's work - that actually what she's doing is she's providing this freedom where you can be more vocal and you can be more outspoken. And it's wonderful in those scenes Jane provokes her mother. She says, don't sit back. You got to keep fighting. She's a catalyst as much as Marty is.

MARTIN: Right. Marty was exceptional for the time, wasn't he?

LEDER: He was. He was a Renaissance man. He was very progressive. He did the cooking, and Mommy did the thinking.

(LAUGHTER)

LEDER: A quote from Jane Ginsburg.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Oh, really? Did she say that?

LEDER: Yeah.

MARTIN: I do want to catch myself on language, though. Calling Marty Ginsburg exceptional - I mean, he was exceptional for the time. But it is amazing how we give men a lot of kudos just for doing half the work.

JONES: Yeah, I know. And it's also interesting this sort of amazement as well. I think even now...

MARTIN: Right.

JONES: ...It's sort of like, isn't this the norm?

MARTIN: Right.

JONES: Is this how it is? You know, it's 50-50, isn't it?

LEDER: But then we've heard comments, you know, wasn't Marty emasculated, you know, doing this?

MARTIN: Really? Have you heard that?

LEDER: Yeah. We have heard that - those questions.

JONES: Well, I think there's a lot of taboo around those roles, you know, and that's what Ruth was arguing against - these gender stereotypes. You know, that for men to be looking after the children, to be in a domestic sphere - I think even now, there's a lot of fear of men acting in that way.

MARTIN: And that was really what that case was about. What is the natural order of things? And her critics said it is the natural order of things for women to be the nurturers, for women to be the caretakers always. And as demonstrated, it wasn't that.

JONES: And it shows - yeah - how important it is to argue against that because when you dismantle those stereotypes, it's a much healthier society for everyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That was actress Felicity Jones and director Mimi Leder talking about their new film. It is called "On The Basis Of Sex." The film releases widely tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.