On the Basis of Sex is not only a powerful biopic about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (played by Felicity Jones), it’s a love story worth rooting for. The film starts with Ruth as a young wife and mother determined to graduate from Harvard Law School — despite the soul-crushing patriarchy that was even more thoroughly institutionalized at the time — and change the world one legal case at a time. Though she’s up against overwhelming odds, it’s her husband, Martin (played by Armie Hammer), who’s her biggest supporter as we watch Ruth rise through the ranks to become a formidable lawyer. He champions his wife’s career goals and actively works to help her achieve them. On the Basis of Sex is a refreshing biopic to watch that subverts expectations and adds to the film’s overall message of empowerment.
The movie starts in the 1950s — a time when women were expected to stay at home and raise children, not pursue a law career. But Ruth and Martin decide to do things differently. The opening shot of the film is a pair of Ruth’s high heels among a sea of men’s loafers. She is one of a handful of women to attend Harvard Law School, and sexism is rampant. Ruth’s determination to be as good as, if not better than, any man makes her a strong role model for women today.
Despite them having young children at home, Martin champions his wife’s studies even when her professors don’t. Martin is also the family’s main cook since Ruth doesn’t quite have a knack for it. Cooking for the family is a good example of how Martin eschews traditional gender roles and simply does what’s best for the family instead of getting caught up in foolish machismo like so many men of that time period, who believed a woman’s place was in the kitchen.
Their marriage has its first big test when Martin develops testicular cancer while in law school. Martin is too sick to attend class, so Ruth attends all his classes for him (in addition to her own) and types up notes from the classes so Martin can write his papers. It is an enormous amount of work, but Ruth sees it as an investment in the family.
With Martin supporting her, Ruth knows she can accomplish anything, even if the dean, Erwin Griswold (Sam Waterston), degrades her by asking, “Why are you occupying a place at Harvard that could have gone to a man?”
Her answer is genius. Completely deadpan, she says, “My husband, Marty, is in the second-year class. I’m at Harvard to learn more about his work so I can be a more patient and understanding wife.”
Ruth’s wit is a powerful resource and brings levity to the daily humiliation she faces. But Martin is her rock, and when she complains to him back at home, he tells her not to worry, saying, “You’re the smartest person [at Harvard] and you’re going to be the most prepared, so just stand up and say what you know. In a place like this, that’s all that matters.”
It’s as if Ruth believes she can do it because Martin believes she can. They sincerely have faith in each other, making them two truly equal partners creating a beautiful symbiosis not always seen in marriage.
When they both graduate law school, Martin easily finds a job at a law firm. Every law firm Ruth meets with, however, rejects her. She’s frustrated that no one will hire a female lawyer but doesn’t give up; her resolve only becomes stronger, taking us deeper into the story as we wonder how she’ll ever break through the glass ceiling.
Ruth bides her time as a law professor until she hears of a man who claims he’s the victim of gender discrimination because he was denied a caregiver’s exemption from the IRS (the exemption is only for women). This is the perfect case for Ruth because she knows the all-male court system will surely want to hear about a man whose rights have been violated. But as a woman, Ruth knows she won’t be taken seriously if she tries the case alone, so she asks her husband to try it with her. Their work is a triumph for both men and women, and also for Ruth and Martin, who further cement the love and respect they have for each other.
It’s refreshing to see a film where a marriage is the star, and it’s even better when that marriage is actually depicted in a way that resembled what truly happened. In real life, both Ruth and Martin constantly demonstrated their devotion to each other. When President Bill Clinton nominated Ruth to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, Martin became the very first male spouse to campaign for a potential Supreme Court Justice, which he did with joy.
In an interview with Katie Couric in 2014, Ruth said, “I had a life partner who thought my work was as important as his, and I think that made all the difference for me.”
Speaking to People in 2018, their son, James, remarked just how smitten the two of them were when they first met. “Mom said Dad was the only boy who dated her who cared that she had a brain,” he said, continuing, “He was smitten pretty quickly. It might have taken my mother a little longer.”
To us, it’s inspiring to see a film that accurately depicts a timeless love story, and one that’s fueled by mutual respect and encouragement.
On the Basis of Sex opened in theaters Tuesday.