#FemaleFilmmakerFriday: The Real RBG; Secrets from Her Daughter and Nephew

Author Irin Carmon, Jane C. Ginsberg, producer Julie Cohen, and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman after the screening of On the Basis of Sex at the Athena Film Festival, 2019.
Photo © Joe Fusco

Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a name you’ve all heard. If you haven’t, I’m going to need you to pull yourself up from under that rock you’ve been hiding under or check you out for signs of time traveling.

Daniel Stiepleman was at the funeral of his uncle, Marty Ginsberg, when he heard the story of his aunt Ruth and knew he needed to write a screenplay.

On the Basis of Sex, a biopic directed by Mimi Leder, is essentially the origin story of how one of eight women attending Harvard Law School became the legendary Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

The Notorious RBG, as many prefer to call her.

Justice Ginsberg had some input regarding the script that Mr. Stiepleman had written. “In those days,” she told him, “I used to walk to school so I wouldn’t have worn heels.” Stiepleman proudly stated that his aunt’s only requests for the script were that “she wanted the law to be right and she wanted Uncle Martin to be right. And never did she give me a note that came from a place of ego.”

Ginsberg’s daughter Jane also has a significant role in the telling of the story. The film depicts a beautiful moment showcasing the generational differences between the reserved nature of women in the 1950’s versus the more outspoken generation that gained confidence in the 1970’s. When Jane tells off a group of men after they speak profanities towards her mother on the street, she yells back, “You kiss your mother with that mouth?” And Ruth (played by Felicity Jones) looks on in awe as her eyes fill with pure hope for the impact that the next generation of women could have on gender equality. The film showcases the struggle Ruth had in showing affection towards her daughter because her mother always taught her that she needed to be tough in order to be taken seriously as an ambitious, working woman.

At the film’s Q&A, however, the real Jane Ginsberg shook her head and muttered, “No. I am not the Jane character in this film. The Jane character evolved but the character in the movie is far more politically engaged than I was as a teenager. In real life I was much more petulant and resentful than the character in the movie.”

Stiepleman piggybacked on Ginsberg’s comment, saying “The next generation really influenced her (RBG’s) work, so Jane is symbolic of that entire generation.”

Despite the conflict of stubbornness between mother and daughter depicted in the film, Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed on positive life lessons to her daughter, one of which was about men. The film portrays Marty Ginsberg as being a significant support system and cheerleader for Ruth as she was rejected from jobs despite being overqualified, resorted to teaching college law instead of being a lawyer, and fought her first case about sex-based discrimination when the law denied a single, unwed man a tax deduction on the money he’d spent on a caretaker for his ailing 89-year-old mother, when single women would be entitled to that tax break. Ginsberg took on the case, seeing it as the perfect opportunity to begin her fight for gender equality and prove herself as a lawyer by supporting a man’s case. She was always one to say that gender equality will only be fully realized once men are allowed to stay at home and take care of their families, and Marty Ginsberg knew this would be the perfect case for his partner to take on. “My mother always said that what made my father different from all the other men she knew at the time was that he was the only one that cared–that she knew of–that she had a brain. And that he didn’t have the ego and didn’t think of her as a wife or mother but as his partner.”

Producer Julie Cohen jumped in, speaking about her experience filming the documentary RBG. “The relentless optimism with which your mom views life, which is-it just feels so evident in so many stages of her life, including watching her doing her workout. It was much more inspiring than I expected. She just walked in there like we weren’t there, which is usually so hard with a documentary. Actually, she didn’t want us to film her stretches and her tying her shoes. She wanted it to be good.”

Cohen went on to explain that, “because of the history of the women’s rights cases she was arguing as a lawyer… we made a conscious choice that we were going to take on that arch of women’s rights laws. We wanted people to really learn something about how women’s rights were really established in the United States and also come out feeling really good.”

Stiepleman admitted that although Ruth Bader Ginsberg is such an iconic name by now, it wasn’t particularly easy to get this film made, especially with it being his first experience screenwriting and filmmaking. “The beauty of Hollywood is that you walk into a room and say you want to make a period drama about a woman in law and they just jump at you,” he uttered sarcastically, now able to laugh about the difficult process of finding funding and distribution. Stiepleman found success after submitting his screenplay to the Athena Lab for the 2014 workshop as well as the Black List.

Stiepleman added, “It became about the fact that Ruth changed the world, but she did it by convincing people to agree with her by not destroying the people who disagreed with her.”

It seems like there will never be an end to what we can learn from Justice Ginsberg; more and more inspiring lessons and advice from the legendary Supreme Court Justice continue to be brought to the forefront in each film that is made about her. On the Basis of Sex shares an important history lesson about the fight for gender equality and how far we’ve come, while using the younger generation of women through Jane Ginsberg’s story to prove that there will alway be more that will need to be done to reach a fully-realized world of gender equality. When the character of Jane tells her mom that she’s going to to a rally where another legend, Gloria Steinem, will be speaking, it depicts parallels to the generations of women today in the Women’s March era who are constantly going out to protest the human rights of women, people of color, immigrants, etc. The fight for equality is ever-evolving and because of that, there may never be a day where we won’t need to use the inspiration of the courageous women who have come before us to continue speaking out for what we believe in.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg referenced Dorothy Kenyon and Pauli Murray as two influential feminist lawyers she looked up to, and now women have Justice Ginsberg to add to that list.

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