'On the Basis of Sex'

Posted on 09/21/2020

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1977. Credit: Wikimedia Comons/Lynn Gilbert
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1977. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Lynn Gilbert

In the movie, “On the Basis of Sex,” which portrays Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s (RBG) life—one of four female judges to ever hold a position on the US Supreme Court, there is an argument between actresses Felicity Jones (who plays RBG) and Kathy Bates (who plays Dorothy Kenyon, a female lawyer that supports RBG’s pivotal case of sex discrimination which is ironically, against a male caretaker) as to whether law or culture sets the precedent for social change. In the movie, the exchange, which is shortened here, goes as follows:

Dorothy Kenyon: You should look to [your daughter’s] generation. They’re taking to the streets, demanding change, like we did when we fought for the vote. Our mistake was thinking we’d won. We started asking, “please”, as if civil rights were sweets to be handed out by judges.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Protests are important, but changing the culture means nothing if the law doesn’t change. As a lawyer, you must believe that.


Dorothy Kenyon: Well, sorry, Professor Ginsburg. Maybe someday, but the country isn’t ready. Change minds first, then change the law.

I’ve found this exchange to be a powerful reflection of the work many of us have done to support women’s empowerment globally. In the last several decades, there has been greater acknowledgement that work has to be done at both levels—at the level of laws, policies and institutions, but also at the societal level where minds and behaviors have to be changed. In many countries across the globe, women’s equal rights are stated in the law, but it is the interpretation of these laws by society—culture—that continue to limit women’s equal rights to property, financial services, and protection from gender-based violence and femicide.

Grameen’s role in the Women and Girls Empowered (WAGE) consortium is an effort towards a holistic approach to women’s empowerment and equality. Grameen works with community-based organizations and financial institutions to design and deliver gender-sensitive interventions, products, and services. Our partner American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA-ROLI) works to influence women’s legal barriers while the Center for International Private Enterprise joins Grameen Foundation to support women’s economic empowerment but at the level of Chambers of Commerce and business associations. Search for Common Ground works to fully integrate women’s roles in the peace and security decision-making in post-conflict societies. While we’re just at the beginning of this work, we collectively work with the hope that these efforts empower not only women, but benefit the low-income households we all seek to serve.

Yet, there is a long way to go, until, as Ginsburg argued, “Women [are] in places where decisions are being made” and equally represent other women in leadership positions and until culture changes, we will not see true equality. UN Women estimates that gender gaps cost economies approximately 15 percent of GDP. When people live their lives on equal footing and culture truly reflects the law (or vice versa), it is not just women who benefit, everyone benefits.

In honor and memory of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. May the legal precedents you’ve established for women’s equality and voice—and your influence on culture—be carried forward to benefit future generations of women and men.

"Protests are important, but changing the culture means nothing if the law doesn’t change."  
— Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Empower smallholder farmers to lift themselves out of poverty.
Give Now