About halfway through “On the Basis of Sex,” the Hollywood version of Ruth Bader Ginsburg takes her daughter Jane to a decrepit building in downtown New York in search of a forgotten hero.

It’s sometime in the early 1970s. Ginsburg, played by Felicity Jones, is on a mission. The script reads:

As they come DOWN A LONG HALLWAY, Ruth grabs Jane’s wrist, holding her back. Awestruck.

In front of them, a woman is locking an office door, with the paint spelling “Attorney” peeling off it.

She’s slender, with a white bob beneath a broad-rimmed, floppy hat. Her eyes are vivacious; they can flash from humor to fiery passion without blinking. Door locked, she turns.

It’s Dorothy Kenyon.

The moment, according to Ginsburg’s daughter, is pure fiction. The future Supreme Court justice, now 85 and newly released from the hospital after undergoing surgery for lung cancer, never visited Kenyon, portrayed in the film by Kathy Bates.

Felicity Jones stars as young Ruth Bader Ginsburg during her early days as a lawyer fighting for women's rights.

Yet, in the narrative arc of the movie — a legal drama depicting early courtroom fights in the women’s rights movement — the scene is pivotal, just as Kenyon was a pivotal figure in the arc of Ginsburg’s legal career.


Back to the script:

You ladies look lost.
Ruth watches her a long beat.
Well, spit it out.
Ms. Kenyon. We’re here to see you.
I tried to make an appointment.
Here I am. I don’t have all day.
... It’s about Gwendolyn Hoyt.

In real life, Ginsburg spoke about Hoyt on the first day of her Supreme Court confirmation hearing.

In 1957, an all-male Florida jury convicted Hoyt of killing her husband, who allegedly beat her. At the time, only men were lawfully bound to serve on juries. If women wanted to serve, they had to volunteer. Hoyt and her lawyers argued that this was unconstitutional because she was not judged by a jury of her peers.

One of her lawyers was Dorothy Kenyon.

Born in New York during the winter of 1888, Kenyon’s father was a patent attorney — a progressive one, too. She asked him once, according to her obituary in the New York Times, “ ‘Can girls be lawyers, father?’ And he answered, smiling, ‘Why not my dear?’”

Kenyon graduated from Smith College, where she played hockey. In 1917, she earned a law degree from New York University, one of just a handful of U.S. law schools enlightened enough to enroll women. Kenyon emerged from there as a crusading human rights attorney and endearing gadfly.

She penned frequent letters to the editor in the New York Times, speaking out forcefully against discrimination and for the expansion of civil rights, particularly for women. Among her many titles and honors, Kenyon was the first delegate of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

Kenyon was also a fearsome verbal brawler.

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When Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy labeled Kenyon a communist, this was her response: “He’s a lowdown worm, and although it ought to be beneath my dignity to answer him, I’m mad enough to say that he’s a liar and he can go to hell.”

As one of the first board members of the American Civil Liberties Union, Kenyon wrote important legal briefs on behalf of clients, including Hoyt.

Her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously against Hoyt.

In the decision, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote that women are “the center of home and family life. We cannot say that it is constitutionally impermissible for a State, acting in pursuit of the general welfare, to conclude that a woman should be relieved from the civic duty of jury service unless she herself determines that such service is consistent with her own special responsibilities.”

The case frustrated Ginsburg.

She believed Hoyt “had been denied by an unenlightened judicial system the opportunity to be tried by a jury of her peers,” wrote historian Jane Sherron De Hart in her new biography of Ginsburg. “Why was it so hard to comprehend that women had to serve on juries on the same basis as men for Hoyt to have a fair trial? she wondered.”

Kenyon’s loss in the case, as the movie (and history) makes clear, informed the intellectual and emotional underpinnings of future legal arguments, including landmark gender-equity cases Ginsburg argued in briefs to the Supreme Court.

One crucial case was Reed v. Reed, in which the court unanimously struck down an Idaho law stipulating that “males must be preferred to females” in administering estates.

It was 1971. Kenyon, then in her early 80s and dying from cancer, was still fighting for women, though the mantle had clearly been passed to younger lawyers such as Ginsburg.

When Ginsburg took up the case for the ACLU, she honored Kenyon’s legacy, listing her and another civil rights hero, Pauli Murray, as co-authors on the brief she submitted to the court.

Though Kenyon was too early in the struggle, Ginsburg later said, Kenyon, like so many others, “kept the idea — and the hope — alive.”

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