What the RBG Biopic Is (and Isn’t) About

In July, when Focus Features began ramping up promotion for its forthcoming film On the Basis of Sex, many news sources reported that Felicity Jones would play a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg as she went to court in Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld. In that 1975 case, a father whose wife had died during childbirth fought for the Social Security survivor benefits that he needed to raise his son in her absence.

Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld challenged laws that were stuck in a pre-feminist past, one that made those benefits available to widows but not widowers, as if all marriages were between a man as breadwinner and a woman as homemaker — and only the latter would need to see an income replaced after a spouse’s death.


RBG understood early on that men, too, were hurt by gender discrimination.


It may be a fitting testament to Ginsburg’s role in many important gender discrimination cases that when those news sources looked for clues from a trailer and other promotional materials, they made a false match, concluding incorrectly that Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld would provide the plot for On the Basis of Sex. Vanity Fair, the Washington Post, and Teen Vogue were among the media companies that made the understandable mistake.

In an interview in February, Ginsburg herself had told Forward that the film would focus on another landmark case, Charles E. Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue. Focus Features confirmed as much when the need for corrections in other, later articles became apparent.

The Moritz and Weinberger cases have a lot of similarities. Both involved male plaintiffs who challenged laws that were based on antiquated ideas of gender roles, notions that were quickly becoming less relevant and less realistic as more women entered the workforce, often turning single-earner households into dual-earner households, and at other times becoming their household’s sole income-earner. Both cases deserve a look — even if it was only by accident that a Ginsburg biopic brought renewed attention to one of them. Continue reading

The Clash of Population and Prejudice in Madrigal v. Quilligan

Mural (detail) in Boyle Heights, East L.A. Photo: Mictlan Murals

In August 1973, Guadalupe Acosta was admitted to the county hospital in East Los Angeles. She had been suffering from labor pain for hours, but she would soon endure even more misery in the delivery room. She recounted later how the attending physician worked aggressively to induce labor, pushing down forcefully on her abdomen — even hitting her stomach when he was caught in the swing of her flailing arms. In the end, all the torment she endured culminated in the death of her baby in birth.

Acosta later said she was “very inattentive” in the aftermath of the experience. “People sometimes have to tell me things twice. It’s not that I don’t understand them, it’s that I’m not there.” For Acosta, it was not just the loss of her baby that devastated her but also the loss of her ability to have children in the future. She found out, months later, that the hospital physician had decided to sterilize her. At the time, she had been too traumatized to understand what was happening.


Just as the right to access birth control and abortion should be defended, so should the right to have children.


The University of Southern California – Los Angeles County Medical Center (USC-LAC Medical Center), as it was officially called in the 1970s, was a hospital that many in East L.A. tried to avoid. It was a place they would only visit out of necessity if other hospitals weren’t affordable. For Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, who worked there as a resident in obstetrics and gynecology, it was not hard to see how his own department reinforced that reputation.

Acosta’s traumatic experience was similar to other cases Rosenfeld witnessed — cases that showed a disturbing pattern of subjecting women, especially Spanish-speaking women, to sterilization without their informed consent. According to Rosenfeld, insistent medical staff would push sterilization on patients “before they go home” — often while they were still in pain or exhausted — so that they wouldn’t “change their mind by the time they come back to clinic.” Patients who had limited understanding of English were often uncertain of what was happening. Shocked by the unethical practices, Rosenfeld secretly copied hundreds of medical records to document what was happening at USC-LAC Medical Center. Continue reading

The Racial and Reproductive Justice of Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall, 1967. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration

On January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as America’s 45th president, almost half a million people descended on Washington, D.C., in what the Washington Post called “likely the largest single-day demonstration in recorded U.S. history.” The Women’s March was held to protest the election of a highly unpopular president, who had been exposed in the months leading up to the election as someone who insulted the appearance and intelligence of women, boasted of his aggressive sexual advances toward others, and vowed to nominate a Supreme Court judge who would roll back women’s access to abortion. In D.C., and at solidarity marches around the nation and the world, people arrived for a massive show of support for women’s rights and reproductive justice.


Thurgood Marshall was a “great champion of intersecting struggles against racism and sexism.”


Actor Chadwick Boseman, who was on the set of Marvel Studios’ Black Panther, a movie based on the first black superhero featured in mainstream comics, took a break from filming that morning to tweet, “Shooting Black Panther on a Saturday. But my heart is at the Women’s March.” It was a fitting sentiment for an actor who had also been cast to star in Marshall, the recently released biopic about the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

While Marshall was known foremost for his role in important civil rights cases like Brown v. Board of Education, as well as for becoming the first black U.S. Supreme Court justice some 50 years ago this month, he was also an influential figure in the history of reproductive justice. While the biopic focuses on his early career, when he handled a 1941 case involving a black defendant facing racially charged allegations and a prejudiced criminal justice system, it was not until more than three decades after that case — and more than five years after his swearing in to the Supreme Court — that Marshall became a fixture in the history of abortion rights in the U.S. Continue reading

The Family Revolution and the Egalitarian Tradition in Black History

Sadie T. Alexander

In the interview with Stephanie Coontz featured earlier this month, we discussed the many changes in American households that have occurred in the 50 years since Betty Friedan published her landmark book, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan’s book was a literary catalyst that helped usher in a family revolution, in which the norm of one-earner households was replaced by the norm of the two-earner households we know today; a change that gave many women more equality in their marriages.


A strong egalitarian tradition has long been a part of black history.


What might surprise some readers is that we could have also discussed the many changes that had occurred already, even as Friedan was still writing her manuscript. Among black Americans, much of what Friedan wrote was not prescient, but dated. As Coontz wrote in A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, “Long before Betty Friedan insisted that meaningful work would not only fulfill women as individuals but also strengthen their marriages, many African-American women shared the views of Sadie T. Alexander, an influential political leader in Philadelphia, who argued in 1930 that working for wages gave women the ‘peace and happiness’ essential to a good home life.”

While sorting out the book’s legacy, Coontz wanted to explain what The Feminine Mystique had gotten right and wrong about American families and women’s domestic roles in the 1960s. A particular problem Coontz addressed was how The Feminine Mystique ignored the experiences of black and other minority women — an omission cited by many critics since the book’s publication. A book Coontz found invaluable in addressing that omission was Bart Landry’s Black Working Wives: Pioneers of the American Family Revolution (University of California Press, 2002). Landry did not write his book as a critique of The Feminine Mystique. Rather, it was while looking at historical statistics on wives’ employment that he decided to write in greater detail about an intriguing difference he noticed between black and white wives: “the employment rates of black wives were about ten years ahead of those of white wives.” Continue reading