Feminist Films Before the 1960s

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We often assume that feminism didn’t really take off until the 1960s and before that time, women basically were portrayed as happy housewives, submissive damsels in distress, innocent ingenues or evil women who led their men astray. These are the basic images of women in old movies that tend to come to our mind as well as the notion that gender roles were observed without question before the 1960s. However, these notions are dead wrong since feminism has always been apparent throughout history and there have been people who’ve questioned the notion of gender roles for centuries. Old Hollywood is no exception for many old movies have a great treasure trove of strong female characters as well as featured movies which challenged notions of gender roles and relationships between men and women. Here’s a short list of what I considered to be old movies that even a feminist would approve of:

1. Gone with the Wind

You wouldn’t think I’d put this movie on here since fans tend to watch it for the romance between Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler while critics and detractors would cite the historical inaccuracy, negative racial stereotypes, lack of good male characters, complain that it’s four hours long, or dismiss it as a mere chick flick. Some may not think that Gone with the Wind isn’t a feminist movie since it won a bunch of Oscars, holds the distinction of highest grossing movie of all time, was made in the 1930s, and is regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Surely a movie with these distinctions and flaws can’t be feminist. Well, that’s where you’re wrong since I would very much regard this movie as a highly feminist film as well as a one of the most ground breaking movies for women. For one, this is a film about the experiences of women in the South during the American Civil War and the early years of Reconstruction and how such events affected their lives. It depicts women playing a role in history at a time when professional historians seldom wrote about women or before the concept of women’s studies even existed. Not only that, but it also shows how the American Civil War was also a woman’s war as much as a man’s whether it be on the home front or on the front lines. And this is back in 1939. Second, it features a strong and well developed female protagonist in Scarlett O’Hara who isn’t entirely a saint but certainly no damsel in distress. Not to mention, she eventually challenges the conventional notions of how a women should act at the time and does morally dubious things, isn’t universally liked, is very much a realistic character for her time, and is actually a strong female character feminists would approve of (even a lot of today’s action girls don’t amount to her rich characterization). I mean despite that she’s selfish, amoral, immature, materialistic, she’s very intelligent and later emerges as a strong and driven young woman ever determined to do what she can to avoid starvation or being a burden to others. Of course, this movie was based on the book by Margaret Mitchell, yet nevertheless, Gone with the Wind is a great feminist film which shows that a movie which features women’s experiences as well as a strong female protagonist with moral ambiguities could break records at the box office, win 8 Academy Awards, and be well regarded as one of the greatest films of all time. Of course, it’s not 100% relevant, but it’s still a timeless classic that holds up in so many ways. If there is a feminist film before 1960 which deserves a spot on this list, then Gone with the Wind is the gold standard.

2. Peyton Place

I place this film on this list since it portrays almost every character as three-dimensional entities who don’t necessarily come off as entirely unsympathetic (with the exception of Lucas Cross but I’ll get to him later). Yet, whatever their flaws, viewers are encouraged not to judge these people no matter but only to understand them as people. It’s also noteworthy to point out of how certain female characters don’t seem to conform to your 1950s standards. For instance, Allison Mackenzie puts her deceased father on a pedestal, mostly finds herself on the receiving end of her mother’s insecurities, and has a lifelong aspiration to be a writer. Her mother Constance (played by Lana Turner) is has managed to succeed both as a mother and businesswoman but can’t really leave her secret past behind which proves detrimental in her relationships with her daughter and new boyfriend Michael Rossi, the new high school principal. Allison’s best friend, Selena Cross is seen as a good girl whose stepfather Lucas makes her life at home the closest thing to hell on earth. Her motivation in the film is to achieve financial independence so she and her brother could escape from their godforsaken home. She’s an interesting case since she’s still seen as a sympathetic character despite having an abortion and later committing murder. Of course, Lucas raped her so who could blame her for killing him but she barely gets off (since the doctor almost didn’t testify). Then we have Betty Anderson who likes dress in sexy clothes, drink alcohol, behave in scandalous ways, and is much more forthcoming about her sexuality but still genuinely loves her boyfriend and does make peace with his father. Peyton Place is also a relevant film which condemns sexual abuse for how should be depicted as well as make Selena’s abortion and murder seem justified. The film always shows Lucas’ conduct to Selena as unwanted and never holds her responsible for Lucas’ actions.

3. I Was a Male War Bride

I put this film on the list since it’s one that specifically addresses sexism with a very interesting twist. Still, unlike most of the movies I have on this list, this one features a male protagonist played by Cary Grant. However, I included this movie on here because it addresses how sexism can negatively affect men. Set in Europe right after World War II, this movie is about a French officer who marries an American servicewoman and decides to spend his married life in the States. However, what him and Ann Sheridan have to go through is a bureaucratic nightmare through the War Brides Act, which is seen clearly as sexist US government policy. To the US only the men took foreign spouses and the military and red tape stacked against American servicewomen marrying men from another country. Of course, being an American servicewoman, it’s Ann Sheridan who’s being discriminated against on account of her sex. However, it’s Cary Grant who has to suffer for it firsthand since he has to endlessly explain that he’s married to an American soldier and entitled to shelter and transportation in a system that doesn’t recognize his gender as compatible with his situation. For one, Grant has to pass as a war bride in order to go back to the United States with his wife since all the spousal regulations seem to be for brides. Of course, he puts through a lot of shit and humiliation being a “war bride” such as having to fill out a form reserved for women, spending most of a night looking for a place to sleep, and having to board a boat in drag. On a further note, this is loosely based on a true story so there probably were a few “war brides” who just happened to be dudes. And they probably had to go through similar shit. Of course, while there may be plenty of movies that address men defying traditional gender roles, I Was a Male War Bride is one of few films that promotes the issue of feminism to a male audience.

4. Mildred Pierce

Of course, I had to include this Oscar-winning film since it’s one of early movies that centers around a successful self-made woman and single mother who despite her hard work and efforts to please her daughter, still gets no respect. It’s a very bleak look at what women can expect if they live and work alone in a man’s world, beset by men who want to exploit them, sexually or otherwise. She starts as an ordinary housewife driven to working as a waitress after her unemployed husband takes off and later starts her own restaurant and chain. Mildred Pierce is a woman is both a victim of circumstance as well as herself as well as a strong female protagonist with real flaws and assets. She is a hard worker with good business sense as well as a devoted mother. Of course, being a devoted mother to Veda is her biggest flaw, not due to bad parenting (she ain’t perfect), but how Veda is just one of the most ungrateful brats in movie history. Still, though she may be a woman in a man’s world, she’s still someone we sympathize with and want to succeed since she kind of reminds women of themselves in many ways. Not only that, but as a businesswoman, she becomes a victim to the same mistakes as any man would. Of course, Mildred met her downfall, but at least she made it to the top despite great odds.

5. A Letter to Three Wives

This is perhaps one of the most relevant films for women since it pertains to an issue that all women face, which is the struggle for perfection. Yet, it also tells women that they don’t have to be superwomen in order to be loved and appreciated by the men in their lives. All three women protagonists are each imperfect in their own way and have very imperfect lives and marriages. All three somehow feel inadequate when compared to their “friend” Addie Ross who their husbands see as a goddess and is probably the closest thing to a superwoman in her time, though she really is a complete bitch. Not to mention, all three think that the the strain on their marriages is their fault. And adding insult to injury, she sends them a letter telling these three women that she ran off with one of their husbands. It’s also interesting to note these women lead very different lives from one another, struggle with very different issues, and are portrayed in non-stereotypical fashion. You got Jeanne Crain who left the farm to serve her country only to come back having a difficult time adjusting to her husband’s world which is so different than the one she left behind. She sees herself as hick who wears cheap mail order clothes worrying that she wouldn’t be able to impress her upper class husband’s friends with her man being completely blind to what she’s dealing with. Ann Sothern is a working mother and breadwinner whose schoolteacher husband (Kirk Douglas) isn’t much thrilled with. It’s not just that she’s earning more money than he is but that she’s earning a living writing for a radio soap opera and how her job interferes with their lives. However, Kirk Douglas knows full well and accepts his situation since Sothern is just as smart as he is and that her status as a breadwinner allows him to have the career he wants without having to worry about the bills. Yet, Sothern doesn’t seem to know what Douglas wants from her. Then we have Linda Darnell who’s from the wrong side of the tracks and sees herself as a gold digger who married her boss just to escape her working class light. But Darnell and Paul Douglas’ marriage gives the two of them exactly what they need. Yet, she wonders whether she’d miss her husband if he was gone. Of course, the ending is rather ambiguous but  we can be sure that at least Sothern and Darnell have husbands who surely care for them despite their own flaws and that whether Crain’s husband left her or not, she’s willing to survive without him and at least has friends.

6. Adam’s Rib

Of course, this is another comedy which is said to feature a battle of the sexes between Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Yet, unlike most movies that feature a battle of the sexes, this one doesn’t insult the intelligence and rationality of either party. And in some respects Hepburn and Tracy both make valid points about sexism and treatment of those in the criminal justice system, particularly when a crime of passion is involved. Of course, Hepburn is the feminist who thinks men and women are equal, notes the double standard that exists for women and men regarding adultery, and humiliates Tracy in court in order to prove that he’s not immune to sexism as any man. Of course, Hepburn may have her sympathies with Judy Holliday who’s accused of shooting her asshole husband after catching him having an affair, but she knows it since she’s also a woman and sees why her client would snap. Furthermore, she’s very aware on how women were treated by society at the time and strives to make sure her client gets as fair a treatment as any man would in her place. On the other hand, though Hepburn is right to acknowledge sexism, this doesn’t mean that Tracy is completely in the wrong. Rather, though Tracy may have his own biases, he’s certainly no male chauvinist pig nor does he have anything against women, but quite the contrary. Actually, he’s a more progressive man for his time who’s perfectly fine with his wife’s force and ambition. He’s just not happy about her using the case for her own selfish purposes. To him, Judy Holliday’s gender and situation are practically irrelevant is as far as his job as a prosecutor goes. In Tracy’s eyes, Judy Holliday is guilty of attempted murder and showed disregard for the law as there should never be an excuse for such behavior regardless of gender. If Judy Holliday had been a man, it would be very clear that Tracy would’ve judged her no differently. Unfortunately for Tracy, though he may be on the side of the law and have no special affection for Holliday’s husband, he’s nevertheless working in his interests. And we’re very much instructed to sympathize with Judy Holliday since her husband is a man with no redeemable qualities and should never have custody of the kids.

7. All About Eve

Of course, this film may have it’s flaws but it’s an essential feminist film nonetheless because it shows the sexual bias and the entertainment industry and how such makes women become rivals instead of friends. Of course, it says that a woman isn’t complete without her man, but so did many Hollywood films at the time. Still, Margo Channing is an aging actress who plays roles of younger women and is insecure about growing older and settling down with her boyfriend Bill Sampson. She sees newcomer Eve Harrington as a threat to her career and goes through a diva meltdown which is dismissed as an overreaction until Eve tries to seduce Bill. However, the reality is that though aging, Margo is a highly talented actress at the height of her career as well as a star with legendary status who’s probably in a more secure position than many of her peers. Not to mention, she’s still very pretty and is dating a man who’s eight years younger than her who loves and respects her for who she is. However, Margo’s flaw is that she views her career as the most important thing in her life and knows all too well that her line of work where aging can be career killer. Yet, though Eve Harrington is a genuine threat, it’s age that triumphs over youth in this one and in some ways is a better female role model because of it. Margo may be a bitch but sometimes her whining can be seen as perfectly justified. Even though Margo learns to accept getting older, settles down with Bill, and decides not to play younger women, she loses nothing letting Eve play Cora and become a star. Sure Eve Harrington may be young, pretty, and talented, but she’s a sociopath who will do whatever it takes to get whatever she wants. And she manages to fool almost everyone in the cast except Birdie and Addison. Margo is a woman of integrity with supportive and sincere friends and has some genuine humanity in her. Eve is just a cold and manipulative bitch willing to use people as tools and cares only for herself. And since Margo’s willing to accept the direction of her career and start having a life outside of the theater, she survives Eve Harrington as well as many of the young actresses who come after her. Eve submits to critic Addison DeWitt, selling her soul to all her fans and the media since she has nothing but her career.

8. The Barefoot Contessa

This is more of a cautionary tale pertaining to the objectification of women and the price they pay for it. The film unfolds as a fairy tale turned tragedy as we see Ava Gardner as a person like Humphrey Bogart does, but is viewed by the rest of the male cast as an object to be exploited for their benefit without any account for her whether it be by looks, talent, status, or what not. In some way, this is what objectification really is and Ava Gardner ultimately suffers for it. Ava Gardner is a woman who is smart as she is beautiful whose main motivation is to enjoy the challenge and escape that a Hollywood career might offer a woman who will nevertheless value the simpler things in life. However, she’s also a woman who’s known to have sex with multiple men (known as her “cousins”) and has a mind of her own. And in every fairy tale there has to be a Prince Charming as in the Count Favrini or so Gardner assumes he is. Yet, once she marries him, you realize he’s just willing to use her as much as most of the other male characters. But in this case, it’s because she’s a glamorous celebrity whose marriage to her will work in his plans to bring his family to a memorable end. And it doesn’t end well for Gardner.

9. Roman Holiday

Of course, this is a romantic comedy, but it’s one that encourages women to do what’s best for themselves for a change. Of course, the man who’s stifling Audrey Hepburn’s life in the beginning isn’t a romantic interest but her dad who’s a king, which makes her a princess. And as a princess, she has royal duties which consists of going on diplomatic trips as well as having her schedule filled with PR activities all day long. Soon all the stress catches up with Hepburn that she takes off in the middle of the night and spends the next day doing whatever she wants such as living a day without her crushing responsibilities. And she does this only to the benefit of herself. Of course, Hepburn eventually has to return to her life as a princess but she does as a more assertive young woman who’s willing to accommodate her own needs alongside her duties and more able to think for herself.

10. Now, Voyager

Kind of has a similar message to Roman Holiday yet, Charlotte Vale’s path to empowerment and learning to think for herself doesn’t completely solve her problems. However, the domineering force in her life is her emotionally abusive mother who tried to control her all her life and lets her know that she is unwanted and unloved. Not to mention, Mrs. Vale doesn’t want her daughter to have much of a life either and does all the decision making for her. That is until Charlotte suffers a nervous breakdown and is confined to a sanitarium and later emerges out of her shell, goes on a cruise where she meet the unhappily married Jerry, and falls in love with him. Though adulterous, their relationship would have a positive impact on both their lives. When she returns, she confronts her mother and finds that she’s no longer scared of living for herself. After her mother dies, Charlotte returns to the sanitarium where she becomes a surrogate mother to Jerry’s daughter Tina. Also, unlike many women in old movies, Charlotte is perfectly all right to live without a man, doesn’t need to settle down for just anyone, and is willing to be happy with what she has, which is a lot but still.

11. Giant

Of course, this doesn’t start out as a feminist film since it begins with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor’s whirlwind courtship and marriage. However, once they start their married life in Texas, Taylor starts turning Hudson’s world upside down. For one, she treats the  Mexican workers on Reata as human beings, doesn’t see anything unfeminine with discussing politics, and has no qualms about defying tradition. Still, I think what makes this movie as a feminist film is how it depicts femininity. This is expressed through Elizabeth Taylor  in relation to Mercedes McCambridge. Taylor is perfectly comfortable with being a woman and isn’t ashamed of her femininity. Yet, she’s still a strong woman who isn’t afraid to do what she thinks is right or speak her mind whenever she feels like it. She may be a woman but she’s also her own person and refuses to conform to her gender’s expectations. In the end, her life with Hudson helps change him into a better man though it takes a long time. On the other hand, McCambridge sees her femininity as something to be ashamed of and denies it in order to be one of the boys in order to feel dominant. She’s a misogynist and hates Taylor with an instant passion. She is butch and violent and thinks that only these two traits can be a show of strength. Of course, her harshness and violent demeanor are what causes her downfall after falling off Taylor’s horse that she treated so badly. In some ways, these two women show the difference between being a strong female character and being a female character just acting macho.

12. The Three Faces of Eve

This is a film that depicts a woman with multiple personalities superbly played by Joanne Woodward (best known for her marriage to Paul Newman) who received an Oscar for her performance that year. Of course, the afflicted woman is a quiet, mousy, and unassuming housewife named Eve White who suffers from headaches and occasional blackouts, from which emerges the wild party girl Eve Black. However, though Eve had this problem since childhood, this mental illness persists as a way for her to act out in an unhappy marriage with a man who doesn’t understand her condition nor cares to. In many respects, he’s an abusive jerk who later dumps her and later abandons their daughter. And Eve begins to recover as a third personality of the stable Jane emerges who gathers strength once Eve starts living as a single woman. In some ways, Eve’s personality disorder fed off of her unhappiness in a life she was reluctant to leave. Yet, when she does, Jane becomes stronger since she’s the most healthy personality as two Eves decline and starts leading a new life better than the one she left. May not be a feminist film, but it works out like one as far as I’m concerned.

13. Pinky

I know this one is the least known movies on the list about a black girl who can pass for white but don’t ask why she’s played by white girl Jeanne Crain. Then again, the Jeanne Crain portrayal makes sense. Anyway, she comes home from nursing school with a white boyfriend who she’s all set to marry and start a new life with him in Colorado. However, her grandmother isn’t too happy and asks her to take care of former boss Ethel Barrymore who’s on her deathbed. Crain reluctantly abides but thinks Barrymore is an unpleasant old woman to work for. Yet, when she dies, Crain finds out that this woman left everything to her in order that her estate would serve as a black clinic and nursing school (this is in the South during segregation). And when Barrymore’s will becomes contested by family members, she decides to fight and wins. May seem like a career vs. man story but is far more complex since the issue of race in involved. For Crain, marriage not only means being with the man of her dreams yet this would mean she’d have to live as a white woman for the rest of her life. Yet, she chooses to risk her relationship so she can fulfill the old lady’s wishes and help her community as well as brave the rampant climate of racism. It may not be the easiest choice to make but it was one that would make Crain a much happier woman because of it. And in a time when women were being encouraged to be happy homemakers, this movie is a breath of fresh air.

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