On the Basis of Sex:

‘Wife’ is not a job title

By REBECCA TOOK | May 6, 2019

Mimi Leder’s On the Basis of Sex is a biopic depicting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s fight for gender equality to be recognized in American law. This is not an exceptional film, but it does sensitively depict the life of an exceptional woman.

As a lawyer, feminist, and still-sitting US Supreme Court justice, the 86-year-old Bader Ginsburg is nevertheless an icon of modern progress and the promise of equality. Yet while the film highlighted how far we’ve come, it reminded me just how far we still have to go.

When Ruth Bader Ginsburg entered Harvard Law School in 1956 at the age of 22, only six years had passed since women were first granted admission. She was one of nine women in a class of 500 men and the film depicts her being asked by her male professor why she was taking the place of a man.

After graduating at the top of her class, Bader Ginsburg later struggled to find employment in a law firm because of her gender. Reflecting the reality for many women in professional fields, Bader Ginsburg had to turn to teaching. Teaching is a vital and noble profession, but there is still a gendered expectation that while women teach, men do.

The 86-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as lawyer, feminist, and still-sitting US Supreme Court justice. Rebecca Took / The Amsterdammer

We’re not given the same opportunities. Though she was by all accounts excellent, it took years of teaching before Ruth Bader Ginsburg had the opportunity to put her own education into action. In the case Moritz v. Commissioner, which fought against the ruling that an unmarried man could not apply for carer’s tax deduction, Bader Ginsburg defended a male client against the patriarchal assumption that it is women who are default carers, thereby inversely opening an avenue for her fight for gender equality.

In the film, Ruth expresses her frustration at having to go home, “sit in my corner and write a lesson plan to inspire the next generation of lawyers to go forth and fight for equality.” To which her husband Martin replies, “What could possibly be more important than that? I don’t understand why you’re acting like it’s a punishment. You’re teaching young people to change the world!” But Ruth explosively responds, “Because that’s what I wanted to do!”

Nevertheless, the Ginsburgs’ relationship was deemed ‘remarkably supportive.’ While at Harvard, Martin was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Ruth not only attended her own and her husband’s classes, taking notes for both of them and typing his dictated papers, but did so while caring for Martin and their infant daughter. She managed all of this while being the first woman to make both the Harvard and Columbia Law Reviews. When being treated for cancer herself in 1999, she did not miss one day of work.

Remarkable indeed: however, it apparently isn’t Ruth’s superhuman work ethic or intelligence which made the Ginsburgs remarkable, but her husband’s support for his wife. A husband doing his share of childcare and housework, while also working and encouraging his wife’s career is considered exceptional. But when a wife does the same – in addition to literally changing history – it is taken for granted. Not only this, but Ruth Bader Ginsburg was penalized for working while married, being paid less as a professor purely because she had a husband.

I agree with feminist writer Judy Syfers: I Want a Wife. In her searingly ironic essay, Syfers writes, “I want a wife who will not bother me with rambling complaints about a wife’s duties. But I want a wife who will listen to me when I feel the need to explain a rather difficult point I have come across in my course of studies. And I want a wife who will type my papers for me when I have written them.”

Syfers is referring to the phenomenon of the academic wife, the anonymous women who for centuries enabled male academic careers. While in the Ginsburgs’ case, the husband happily and supportively enabled his wife’s career, academia has been sustained across the world by the unacknowledged labor of forgotten women. According to Brian Martin, “the work of women and minorities is used to further the careers of those already in privileged positions, thus maintaining and justifying the hierarchy.”

Women typing men’s essays is indicative of a larger problem with the way women’s labour is devalued – quotidian work is simultaneously considered necessary and menial; men consider it below them, or too dull, to be done by themselves.

Mileva Marić, wife of physicist Albert Einstein, was a brilliant scientist herself. The only girl allowed to attend male-only physics lectures, she was admitted to the physics-mathematics section of the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich in 1896, along with four other students – one of whom would later become her husband. Mileva outperformed Albert Einstein in the applied physics class. However, Albert was the only student to be granted a degree.

Despite this, in a letter to Mileva dated September 1900, Albert wrote, “You must now continue your research – how proud I will be to have a doctor for my spouse when I’ll only be an ordinary man.” Yet their combined work was published in articles bearing only the name of the ‘ordinary man.’ After they married in 1903, Mileva assumed full domestic duties, despite also working with Albert on his work late into the night. They had a son in 1904, and the following year Albert published five articles, one of which would see him be granted the Nobel Prize.

They divorced after Albert Einstein started an affair with his cousin, following which, Mileva was forbidden from talking about her contribution to her ex-husband’s career and success. She was repeatedly blocked from the scientific community due to her gender, and was prevented from claiming credit for the work she did. Mileva was Einstein’s proofreader, editor, advisor, collaborator, partner, wife, and domestic servant. In a 1909 letter, she wrote, “With all his fame, he has little time for his wife […] What is there to say, with notoriety, one gets the pearl, the other the shell.” 

While men have been taught that they are entitled to dominance in all dominions beyond the domestic – laundry, childcare, and cooking are women’s business – when a woman rightfully and deservingly earns a place, her entrance is hastily and forcefully blocked. And so come the choruses of men, patronisingly chanting “just don’t do it, then.” If housework is getting in the way of your career, just don’t do it. If laundry is distracting from your academic work, just don’t do it. If having babies might destroy your body, your relationship, and your career, just don’t have them.

The thing is, most women don’t have wives. And for those who do, the labor balance is generally more equal. While Martin Ginsburg cooked, cleaned and supported his wife in her – very successful – career, too often, men don’t see the invisible labor of women because they don’t have to. And too often, if women don’t do it, it won’t get done.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg took on a male-dominated system, and secured rights for women across America. But the recognition of her success, intelligence and drive, as illustrated by On the Basis of Sex, is a rarity. Where is Mileva Marić’s biopic? Where are the films about the millions of forgotten wives, without whom their well-known husbands would likely be as anonymous as women.

Women seeking professional success are expected to do the work of a woman and a man, a husband and a wife, and will probably be lambasted if they complain. This enforced duality gets a little bit exhausting.

I don’t really want a wife, nor do I really want to be a wife. I just want ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ to be optional relationship descriptors, rather than career titles. And I’d also quite like to be as badass as the notorious RBG.

Rebecca Took is a student at the University of Amsterdam. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Amsterdammer.

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