The Working Woman in ‘Erin Brockovich’ and ‘On the Basis of Sex’

Assertive women are a nuisance, or at least that’s what the male-dominated world often suggests. Especially ones trying to take down corrupt corporations or outdated laws like the protagonists of Erin Brockovich and On the Basis of Sex. Both films are based on real women, set during the 1990s and 70s respectively, when women had a hard time being taken seriously in anything other than a mother’s role (and, let’s be honest, still do). Besides, who would be looking after their kids if they were out there working?

In Erin Brockovich, it’s pretty clear what a woman’s place is supposed to be. Opening in a job interview, Erin (Julia Roberts) sits with her permed hair and low-cut top, explaining that she might not have experience but she learns fast. Oh, and she has three kids to support by herself. Typically, she’s turned away. ‘I don’t need pity, I need a paycheck,’ she argues with another potential employer. ‘And I’ve looked, but when you spend the past six years raising babies its real hard to convince anyone to give you a job that pays a penny’. But she’s a mother who kisses her children goodnight and tucks them in, who puts them first even if it means she has to spend time away from them. Somehow the patriarchal ideals of motherhood makes her both the icon and the failure.

The landscape of On the Basis of Sex almost feels like another world. It begins at Harvard Law School, where infamous Ruth Bader Ginsberg (Felicity Jones) walks the hallowed halls amongst a tsunami of men. The pressures appear differently (class can be just as big a disadvantaging factor as gender), but it doesn’t take long to notice they’re still there. At a dinner held especially for the nine female students to ‘welcome’ them, the Dean asks them to explain why they are occupying a place that could have gone to a man. One says she didn’t want to get married or become a teacher, so- ‘that’s not a very good reason,’ the Dean interrupts. When it gets to Ruth, you can see her hesitation. So, she lies. Her husband also studies law, so she wants to learn to be ‘a more patient and understanding wife’. Cut to Ruth kicking her shoes off at home, ranting to her husband while her fourteen-month-old baby sleeps in the next room. ‘We came to Harvard to be lawyers! Why else?’

After years of studying for both herself and her husband when he falls ill, Ruth is in New York, interviewing at every law firm she can find. But she’s told to interview for the secretarial pool, she’d be too emotional, assertive, might have her next baby too soon. ‘One interviewer told me I had a sterling resume, but they hired a woman last year and what in the world would they want with two of us?’ Defeated, and desperate for a job, she accepts a position as a professor, despite her husband’s (now recovered and at the top of his game as a tax lawyer) disappointment. ‘You can’t quit,’ he insists. But the obstacles she faces are different to his, even if they’re in the same game. And she’s tired. That’s the thing, the ‘little’ dismissals are so exhausting, and there’s a point where taking even a small, ‘second best’, victory feels like the only option. ‘I got a job!’ she says. ‘Just open the champagne’.

At the other end of the spectrum, but arguably in a similar state of mind, Erin sneaks her way into a law firm, and ends up landing a job. ‘I’m smart, I’m hardworking and I’ll do anything,’ is her argument. ‘And I’m not leaving here without a job’. But despite her assertive personality, she still gets embarrassed when everyone stares. ‘If it doesn’t work out, fire me,’ she concedes. Finally with a job and able to support her family, Erin has to leave her kids with neighbours and expects to be judged by every stranger. She’s a working woman now, but she rarely gets to spend time with her kids, and she still dresses provocatively for a law firm. But at the end of the day, Erin doesn’t care what other people assume about her, so when she begins investigating a case she stays up with her baby on her lap, flicking through convoluted documents filled with scientific jargon without hesitation.

These women’s biggest obstacle, however, isn’t necessarily their intelligence being doubted or their emotions scrutinised, but something far more personal; their kids. Society has always made a point that a woman’s top priority should be her children – and motherhood is a wonderful thing. But not when it’s used as a weapon to keep women from doing anything other than raising their kids. Erin Brockovich is an interesting example because it dramatises the way many women have to be away from their children to provide for them, even before you get to their right to a career as well as motherhood. Investigating the pollution case takes Erin away from her kids more and more, left in the care of her boyfriend (which he’s totally fine to do – for a time). Arriving home one evening to her eight-year-old son still awake, upset at her constant absence, Erin tries to help him understand that she’s doing it for them. But he can’t understand, and that’s not his fault. But social conditioning then pins the blame on Erin herself.

Jump forward ten years in On the Basis of Sex, and Ruth is running a diverse class of law students. It’s not what she wants to be doing, but she recognises the value of empowering her students to fight for equality through the law like she wants to. Only her teenage daughter is a little more brutal. Raised to have opinions, Jane is just as sharp and assertive as her mother. Which is why Ruth is so hard on her. After skipping school to attend a rally, Ruth blows up at her daughter, leading to an argument where Jane cuts her down pretty simply: ‘if you want to sit around with your students and talk about how shitty it is to be a girl, fine. But don’t pretend it’s a movement, okay. It’s not a movement if everyone’s just sitting’. Jane is trying so hard not to fall into the same trap she’s convinced her mother did, despite knowing Ruth is still fighting against it; she encourages her work to criticise gendered laws and tells her to ‘go kick ass’ frequently. But her expectations are high, and sometimes society cuts Ruth off first.

Ultimately, society often villainises the working woman. Who can balance everything? Well, no one. But why should it only be women who work in the home, and the men who work out of it? I could put forward all the ways in which society looks down on women for not taking their ‘mother’ role in the traditional way. The final court sequence from this film is the perfect example, since the judge argues that the reality of most mothers staying at home in the 70s suggests ‘the natural order of things’. But instead, I want to talk about the ways these films give that the middle finger. In a meeting to dismiss Ruth’s case, ironically held by her old Dean at Harvard, she’s asked how her children are. ‘I’m sure they keep you busy,’ he says. ‘Yes,’ Ruth replies pointedly. ‘Both of us’. Female empowerment is vital, but so is showing that both genders can live alongside each other equally, doing the same jobs.

Erin Brockovich is a little different, because her boyfriend does leave her for a variety of reasons. But, in the end, it still feels about pride. ‘For the first time in my life, I got people respecting me,’ she tells him. She can list names, medical conditions, family relationships and phone numbers of her clients by heart, even under the pressure of high-class lawyers with the formal education she lacks. ‘Please don’t ask me to give that up’. He doesn’t, in the end, but he doesn’t stay either. So, let’s talk accessibility. Class is a big thing factor in Erin’s struggles, and feminist activism has to take it into consideration because it influences the issues faced by women (as well as other factors). And while Ruth can afford to have her kids taken care of while she and her husband are working, Erin actually has to take them with her to work when her boyfriend leaves.

At first, they’re bored of sitting in waiting rooms and driving across the country, uninterested in their mother’s job. But her son finally understands why his mum works so hard when he picks up a file of a girl his age, sick because of the polluted water. He asks if she’s helping the girl. ‘Why can’t her own mama help her?’ he questions. ‘Because her own mama’s real sick as well’. The understanding of the child seems to be a key moment in these narratives, because it symbolically unites the efforts and successes of both the woman’s career as well as her role as a mother. She isn’t failing either by taking both on. Look, being a mother is a massive thing to choose to take on and should be respected and praised. But it shouldn’t be the end of their abilities. These films make the point that, despite being shoehorned or villainised into matriarch or career women, Erin and Ruth can do their jobs well and be good mothers at the same time.

In On the Basis of Sex, Ruth’s reconciliation with Jane is ultimately what pushes her to take her case to court, to fight for the idea that differentiating based on gender is unconstitutional. While on the street, mother and daughter are wolf-whistled by construction men, and while Ruth tells her to ignore it, Jane shouts right back at them. Staring in shock, Ruth has an epiphany: ‘Twenty years ago, you couldn’t have been who you are today’. From then on, Jane and even some of Ruth’s students help her father her case, and when her daughter finds her ripping her work off the wall in anguish, ‘destroying your life’s work,’ as Jane calls it, she’s the one who stops her. The fact that Jane walks up the steps to the final court scene in the frame right beside Ruth is very significant (note that the real-life Jane Ginsberg has gone on to become a professor of law herself).

One of these films very obviously addresses the prejudice against working women, and the other isn’t quiet in its representation either. In On the Basis of Sex, Ruth is asked how to persuade a federal court that gender differentiation is wrong, and she replies ‘one case at a time’. I’ll point out that the particular case the film follows is one in which a man is disadvantaged, and there’s something to be said for the fact that it has to be a man suffering for a court to listen, but that’s why these stories are useful. Because they accept the sorry state of the world, and the heroines acknowledge that they have to work within the system to break it. That’s honestly more useful than optimistic but unrealistic hope. When Erin is asked if she’s a lawyer, she scoffs. ‘Hell, no. I hate lawyers. I just work for them’.


by Daisy Leigh-Phippard

Daisy studied film production at Arts University Bournemouth and freelances in the industry with the aspiration of becoming a director and screenwriter. A lover of independent and foreign film with female perspectives, her favourites include Pan’s LabyrinthThe HandmaidenFrida and anything that has ever come out of Hayao Miyazaki’s brain. You can see her work on her website and follow her on TwitterLetterboxd and Instagram.

2 replies »

  1. Amazing blog! I’m doing an English connection on these two films and I’m so impressed you wrote an article on both!!


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