There’s an extraordinary scene in the new Ruth Bader Ginsburg biopic, On the Basis of Sex, in which crusading civil rights attorney Ginsburg takes her rebellious teenage daughter Jane to a rundown street somewhere in Manhattan sometime in the ’70s to meet with civil rights attorney Dorothy Kenyon, played Kathy Bates–ishly by Kathy Bates. The two women have a grudging exchange outside Kenyon’s rundown office about whether law or political movements can change history—a conversation that, as Michael S. Rosenwald has pointed out, never actually happened.
The extraordinary part is the scene that follows: Ginsburg, played by Felicity Jones, and Jane, played by Cailee Spaeny, leave the office and find themselves on a street, under a huge billboard featuring a sexy woman selling something that has nothing to do with sex; the billboard was likely racy in the 1970s, but today it looks like an ad for Mennonites. A group of construction workers begin to catcall and harass the women and Ruth freezes—her brainy superpowers have no purchase here. It’s left to the fiery teenage Jane to ream them out, and pack her gobsmacked mom into a taxi, in the rain.
As a metaphor for women struggling between open rebellion against the patriarchy and genteel systemic change, the scene packs a wallop: Here are Ginsburg and Kenyon debating strategies for making unconstitutional sex discrimination comprehensible to male judges. And here is the real world, chock full of breasty posters and harassing construction workers. In the scene, even Ginsburg the character seems to recognize that sometimes, the feral screaming rant is the only play there is.
In the real world and present day, we are currently entering Week 2 of Democratic women taking over the House of Representatives in all its gorgeous multicultural, multireligious, and multivoiced glory. And an unnatural amount of attention has been directed at two freshman Democratic representatives: Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib who said, upon being sworn in, that the new Democratic House majority would “go in there and impeach” Trump, who she called a “motherfucker.” And New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been drawing fire all week for the assorted crimes of dancing, calling for a massive tax increase for the very rich, and saying Trump is a racist. While we can—and seemingly will—spend a whole week debating matters of women and civility once again, I think it’s more interesting to consider how the new young women in the House of Representatives are actually the perfect hybrid of the Ruth vs. Jane dichotomy from the 1970s.
What these women, and the other vocal, aggressive new faces in the House, are doing lives right on the seam between Ginsburg’s lawyerly legal reform project and the teenage Jane’s hunger for furious public protest. And that’s exactly why Republican men find them so terrifying. It’s why Ocasio-Cortez was dismissed as a “little girl” by Ed Rollins, and why Donald Trump (the swearing-est president in history) condemned Tlaib for being a mother who cursed in front of her sons.
These men aren’t afraid of these women because they’re part of a movement, although they are. They’re terrified because these women are empowered professionals who have parlayed careers in institutions of power to become formidable political actors. Calling them uncivil or bad mommies or child-like isn’t effective when women are legitimate holders of high office—and yet, as we see, it continues in ever-more comically depressing forms. As Virginia Heffernan notes, “These moth-eaten virgin-whore tropes have become self-satirizing. If you think misogyny has faded since ‘Mad Men’ days, you’re wrong. In fact, as women pack the halls of power, it seems more virulent than ever, as conservatives convulse in fear at losing their old rubrics of control. They lash out more than Don Draper ever did.”
The result, as we saw last week, is a bizarre news cycle that centers around the stunning revelation that a congresswoman danced when she was in school and that another congresswoman said a bad word.
Fueling the parodic effect of the male hysteria around these women is that it comes at precisely the moment when the men in control of government are openly and demonstrably giving up on the whole idea. Donald Trump is defending his shutdown-slash-tantrum with claims that most of the hundreds of thousands of unpaid federal workers are Democrats; that all furloughed federal workers want his wall; and also that all federal workers are “making adjustments” to handle not being paid. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham has said negotiations to end the partial government shutdown will not begin in earnest until Democrats put someone “that’s not crazy” (i.e., legitimately elected and confirmed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) in charge of the talks. And Sen. Mitch McConnell is seemingly made out of air—he has all but vaporized as the shutdown wears on.
In the meantime, Pelosi is working to put forth new legislation aimed at reopening the parts of the federal government that are shuttered. Ocasio-Cortez is proposing tax policies that are actually quite reasonable. Sit with that image for a moment: Men in government are fussing and fuming about all the ways in which the government they run doesn’t actually matter much, while criticizing women in government for attempting to govern. It’s almost as if they are smashing up the toys of political leadership just as women are finally being allowed to move on the game board.
One of the revelations that emerges from On the Basis of Sex (I interviewed the screenwriter here) is how much of RBG’s early career was devoted to explaining, again and again and then again, to powerful men that women deserved a seat at the table. Indeed, the whole film is a meditation on her efforts to jolly important men along to her view of formal legal equality. She did that rather successfully while still living in a world in which men catcalled and hissed and talked to your boobs with near-impunity. But that was her work for an extremely long time.
The women in Congress now have a seat at the table. They don’t have to explain anything to anyone. They aren’t here to importune men for anything. They don’t have to beg for empathy. And they certainly don’t look inclined to apologize. Fights over tone and civility tend to be less relevant when both sides have institutional authority behind them.
To the extent On the Basis of Sex is dispiriting, it’s because it’s painful to be reminded that women have been fighting the same stupid fights for four decades. It’s frankly unbelievable that we have to do it yet again, and probably again and again after that. But to the extent On the Basis of Sex is a reminder of how much has changed, it underscores that we don’t have to convince men to make room, we simply need to take a seat. These women in the House are, well, in the house. They don’t have to ask for permission to be there. It’s still going to be a long haul, with more pointed fingers and cries of “witch.” But somewhere along the way, as the bell bottoms were traded in for pinks hats, something changed. Women don’t have to choose between being Jane or Ruth anymore. They can be both. The revolution is coming from inside the House.
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