'On the Basis of Sex' Writer Daniel Stiepleman Recalls Growing Up With Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Stiepleman and his wife, Jessica Hawley, being married by Ginsburg. Though nephew and aunt were "comfortable" with each other before, Stiepleman says after writing the film he has a "deeper understanding of where she came from and how she accomplished what she has." Courtesy of Daniel Stiepleman

Pretty much everyone agrees that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg is a horrible cook. "She was the worst," says her nephew, Daniel Stiepleman, who wrote the screenplay for On the Basis of Sex. "She shared with me a recipe she used that involved a can of Campbell's soup and green beans." Thankfully for the family, her husband, Martin, handled 100 percent of the food.

While Stiepleman was growing up, Ginsburg was the one who, "every year, from ages 5 to 12, brought me a copy of the U.S. Constitution for Hanukkah," he says. Later, when he heard stories about the amazing things she had done for the women's rights movement, he looked at "my quiet aunt and thought, Really? Her?"

Eventually, he saw the light. And when he married Jessica Hawley, above, a Columbia University oncology fellow, they saw something else in his aunt and uncle, the brother of Stiepleman's mother: "Role models for what a marriage was supposed to look like," he says. "They both had incredible careers, but they shared equally the load at home. That's how we wanted to be."

Ruth Bader Ginsburg with her husband, Martin, at a gala opening night dinner following a Washington Opera performance in 2000. "Their love and relationship became a metaphor for the film and for equality,” says director Mimi Leder of the Ginsburg marriage. Karin Cooper/Liaison/Getty

But it wasn't until he wrote the film in August 2012, two years after Martin died of cancer, that Stiepleman gained "a deeper understanding of where my aunt came from and how she accomplished what she has." Some of her stories were revelations, such as her daughter Jane's rebellious streak. "We had a friends-and-family screening," says Stiepleman, "and my cousin Clara, Jane's daughter, said, 'Mom, was that really what you were like as a teenager?' Jane hesitated and said, 'Well...,' and everyone else said, 'Yes!'"

In speaking to Jane for the script, Stiepleman admits his first instinct was to ask whether she felt neglected with two career-focused parents. "She said, 'I would have killed to feel neglected.' She had the kind of childhood where both parents would read her papers. Ruth is so smart and so logical that I can imagine—well, I don't have to imagine," he adds. "I handed her drafts of this screenplay and got her notes back. That informed a lot of what it must be like to get her to read your papers!"

The greater intimacy Stiepleman now shares with his aunt was the best part of the experience. "We were comfortable with each other before," he says, "but the joy of writing this was that now I feel we have a very affectionate relationship. I only wish I had done it when Uncle Martin was still alive." ​