WASHINGTON — As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg watched Focus Features and Participant Media’s “On the Basis of Sex” for the first time at a National Archives screening in Washington, D.C., she got big applause for how she described her wellbeing after suffering a fall last month.
“I’m feeling just fine, and I am meeting my personal trainer tomorrow,” Ginsburg told NPR’s Nina Tonenberg in a Q&A session before the movie.
Last month, Ginsburg, 85, was hospitalized with three broken ribs from a fall, but she has recovered quickly, having appeared at the White House for the National Medal of Freedom ceremony just a couple of weeks later, and then at the funeral of George H.W. Bush at the National Cathedral last week.
“On the Basis of Sex,” directed by Mimi Leder and written by Ginsburg’s newphen Dan Stiepleman, depicts how Ginsburg took her first gender discrimination case to federal court in the 1970s. Felicity Jones stars as Ginsburg and Armie Hammer plays her husband, Marty, who became her greatest champion at a time when women seeking a career in law were subject to blatant discrimination.
It was Marty Ginsburg who first came to Ruth with the case of Moritz vs. IRS, which involved an unmarried man who was denied a tax deduction for caregiving expenses because of his gender.
“When Dan came to me with this idea [for the movie], I said, ‘Well, if you want to spend years of your life, it is your choice, if you want to do it,'” Ginsburg told the audience. “And I asked why did he pick the Moritz case? Why did you pick that case instead of one of the Supreme Court cases? And Dan’s answer was, ‘I want this film to be as much story of a marriage as the development of a legal strategy.'”
Marty Ginsburg first alerted Ginsburg to the tax case, in an instance that is depicted in the move.
“Marty came into my little room, he worked in the bigger room, and he said, ‘Ruth, read this.’ And I said, ‘Marty, you know I don’t read tax cases,” Ginsburg recalled. “[He said] ‘Read this one.’ About 10 minutes later, I walked into his big room and said, ‘Marty, let’s take it.'”
The case ended up launching Ginsburg’s work on a series of gender discrimination cases, and led to the creation of the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project.
“Pauline Murray and Dorothy Kenyon were the women who pressured the ACLU to get into the gender discrimination business,” Ginsburg recalled. “And one of Dorothy Kenyon’s missions was to put women on juries in every state of the union. The young people in this audience probably think it is inconceivable that women were automatically exempt from jury duty in most states. I thought we were standing on the shoulders of those women, they had said the same thing in the ’40s in the ’50s into the ’60s that we were saying in the ’70s. The difference was society was not yet ready to listen. In the ’70s, things had changed so we could prevail.”
The movie also shows the discrimination that Ginsburg faced, particularly in the 1950s at Harvard Law School. Dean Erwin Griswold, played by Sam Waterston, is shown asking Ginsburg how she could justify taking the place of a man.
Ginsburg said that even at Rutgers, where she taught, she feared that when she became pregnant, her contract wouldn’t be renewed because there were no law prohibiting such treatment.
“I borrowed my mother-in-law’s clothes,” she said. “She was one size larger, so it was perfect. I got through the semester. I had my contract renewed, and the last day of the term I told my colleagues, when I return in September, there will be one more in our family.”
Ginsburg said that she reviewed three renditions of the script before handing off the reading duties to her daughter Jane. “And she and she read script four, five, six and I don’t know how many more, till it was done,” she said.
Totenberg noted that Ginsburg “argued” with her nephew about a scene at the beginning of the movie in which she is shown wearing heels as she entered Harvard. She didn’t wear them. But she didn’t object to a how the final climatic final oral argument was portrayed, in which Ginsburg at first freezes up before the three judge appellate panel and then recovers in her rebuttal.
Totenburg said that she asked Stiepleman, “Is that true? Did she freeze up in the beginning of the argument?’ And he said, ‘Ruth Ginsburg never flubbed an argument in her life.'”
“There was no rebuttal,” Ginsburg responded. “Marty had the first 12 minutes, and I had the rest. I think questions continued beyond the half hour allotted to the two of us, but there was no rebuttal time.” But she doesn’t mind the sequence. “It fits in very well the way it is portrayed in the film,” she said.
Tonenberg also asked her what she thought of one scene in the movie, which she called the “sex scene,” showing Ginsburg and her husband having intimate relations.
“My response to that is, ‘Marty would have loved it,'” Ginsburg said, to great laughs in the audience.
The screening was the first time Ginsburg saw the completed project. As she left, she stood and clapped to the cast and crew.