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14 January 2013

Feministing the Classic Hollywood Starlet

Attempting to categorise classic Hollywood stars as feminist or anti-feminists is basically a futile exercise. 

In the first place, the term "feminist" or "feminism" didn't come into wide usage until the late 1960s, when the "2nd wave" was in full swing. In fact, when the term did become popular, many of our most influential leading ladies rejected the term. When talk show host Dick Cavett asked Bette Davis if she would mind if he light her cigarette for her she responded, "Oh, no, I'm not woman's lib." During Katharine Hepburn's interview with Cavett, he asked her if she was inspired to support the women's movement, to which she replied in the negative: "No, because we did that, you know, a very very long time ago."
Bette Davis gets a light from Dick Cavett
Secondly, the level of an actress's feminist tendencies is not inherently indicative of her strength of character. Nor does it in any way quantify or qualify her abilities as a performer. For example, some may call Joan Crawford a feminist because she worked so hard to earn a fantabulous career, while others can only see her as a complete witch-with-a-capital-B. At the opposite end of the spectrum other stars, like Judy Garland, may seem like nothing more than vulnerable victims of the studio system, and yet their inner strength of character still bedazzles audiences decades later.

So, what is the point of trying to label actresses as either feminist or not?

Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope in
Current feminists, those who support the "3rd wave" feminist movement, are always looking for female historical, literary, political, and social figures for this generation to look to as examples of women's potential - role models, if you will. In order for gender equality to progress, we must first establish the abilities of each gender to take on the traditional roles of the other gender. For example, we have to prove that men can take care of young children, and take care of them well, before we can place that expectation on the whole of society. We need examples of healthy women prospering at university before we can argue that higher education is acceptable for all women. Etc, etc.

Katharine Hepburn in STAGE DOOR (1937)
One of the reasons I chose to study history and English literature in college was so that I could fill my days with fascinating people. Reading books and watching movies all the time, I have met some of the most wonderful people! Hollywood princesses run the gamut of personalities. Some of them are real "ball-breakers," while others enjoyed the prissy sissy life. It is true that the women who inspire me might not inspire my best friend, or her friend. But as we examine those character traits that we find admirable in our heroines, we will be able to better promote a progressive world view of womanhood.

There are a number of ways I look at a Hollywood film actress's career in order to determine whether she would be considered a feminist by today's standards:
  • Films: In her films, does she portray "progressive" women? These are women who push against the gender status quo. They are often ambitious women who choose traditionally male roles in society, like Jo March in LITTLE WOMEN.
  • Career: How does she manage her career? Is she fiercely independent, like Bette Davis who went to court to battle studio-system injustices? Or does she let her husband/boyfriend make all her career choices for her? Or is she a victim of the Hollywood system, helplessly taken advantage of by her agents, producers, directors, and studio bosses?
  • Personal life: is she constantly moving from one man to another? Does she maintain a healthy, long-term, monogamous relationship? Does she chose to remain a single career woman? The answers to this question do not necessarily define an actress's feminism, but they can offer insight into 
  • Interviews: As I mentioned before, many of these stars publicly denied feminism in interviews. However, a lot of what they say about women and gender in these interviews reveals a more progressive side to their thought, especially in terms of their own career and life choices.
  • Education: Has she earned her college degree or did she leave school to become a model or chorus girl? If she did go to college, what did she study? This is a bonus point - not a deal-breaker, but I find this criterion most interesting, considering how few film stars did continue their education after high school. Did you know that Mary Wickes (below) studied political science at Washington University in St. Louis?
Mary Wickes visits her alma  mater
Washington University
I would be very interested to hear what aspects of womanhood you value in your role models. How do you define feminism? Which Hollywood starlets do you find best represent your feminist ideals? Which do not? I look forward to hearing from you!


  1. You know who my feminist ideal is... I find it really interesting to analyze how most of the female movie stars of the golden era are a product of their time like all of their contemporaries. For instance, Adele Astaire, Fred Astaire's sister, apparently was quite the dancer herself but stopped to "get married". I find it difficult to adjust my thinking to the mindset of the past and understand why getting married is a reason to stop what could be a brilliant career. I think the role expected of women then to be housewives and mothers was very difficult to reconcile with a career, hence the percentage of actresses with failed marriages or no marriage at all, like Kate. I do think today a woman who chooses her career over a family life is less looked down on.

    1. I think the expectations for being a wife made it a full-time occupation, much in the same way a servant position has been replaced by household appliances. It's easier now for men and women to share the workforce because they are both sharing household duties as well. Thanks for reading, Marcie!

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  3. I think a great example is Ida Lupino, after co-producing and co-writing "not wanted" 1949, she went on to direct, produce and write her own films becoming the first actress to do so, as well, as the fisrt woman to direct a film noir "the hitch-hiker" 1953. She went on to direct television and is highly respected as a female pioneer in filmmaking.

    So, I guess for me it's a woman who works with what she has (intelligence, tenacity, etc) and lives her life on her own terms.

    1. That's a great example. I know Mary Pickford did much the same thing, along with a handful of other women writers and directors, in the silent era. Thanks for commenting!

  4. I am a 54 year old woman who grew up with Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn as role models. I am a straight single girl who has never considered herself a feminist. I am independent and have had (and still do have) a good solid career. I think there are characteristics in me and in people like Davis and Hepburn that others might label as feminist but why label? Generally, the label breeds negative thinking for so many and it involves behavior and action I am not a part of. I suppose I am more like Davis--when in college I watched every one of her films and read everything that had been published about her--she loved men but couldn't get along with them, was fiercely independent and was defiant about doing things her way. I am thankful for Davis, Hepburn, Fonda, et al....they paved with way for so many--
    I recently read what a brilliant businesswoman Heddy Lamar was...another real beauty and excellent actress as well.

    1. I don't think that the feminist label needs to have the negative associations it has had in the past, many of which were misunderstood in the first place. "Feminism" is simply a conglomeration of qualities contributing to the progression of female potentials. Feminism is not inherently aggressive, though some people who are feminists chose extreme measures to get their voices across. But we can reconstruct a more positive view of feminism - it is not a static term that must always mean what it meant 50 years ago.
      Thank you so much for commenting. You have mentioned some of my favorite strong women from classic Hollywood!

  5. I never knew that about Mary Wickes! She's always been one of my favorite character actresses.

    Regarding feminist role models, I personally look for strength of character. Naturally Katharine Hepburn comes to mind, but so too does Olivia de Havilland. Despite having to play a slew of seemingly helpless ingenues, she infused them with great strength - the Lady Marion's speech in Robin Hood comes to mind as an excellent example. She also leapt at the chance to play Melanie in "Gone with the Wind", for the very reason that this was a character with a spine of steel and a script with meaty scenes to play. (Gone with the Wind is an interesting project for a feminist, methinks, as it portrays a wide spectrum of female role models - and I would argue that Melanie, not Scarlett, is the true feminist, despite the latter going against more societal normals.) Finally, de Havilland was one of the first to take the studio system to court for its unjust contract system, and her win had massive repercussions throughout Hollywood, including the beginning of the dismantling of the entire system ( Now there's a feminist!

    1. Emily, thanks for your comments. I agree that GWTW would be a good project for a feminist, but it's rather a tall order, to be sure! There is no doubt that de Havilland's suit against Warner's was a gutsy ordeal (Bette Davis had attempted and failed to win a similar suit some years before de Havilland). Because she was at Warner's I don't know very much about her - I shall have to expand my reading to include the fair Olivia! Thanks for reading!

    2. Always. :) Would love for you to get passionate about dear Olivia - she's a tiny, lovely firecracker!

  6. Yay, Mary Wickes! She has always been one of my faves but she's even more so now, after reading this post.

    In terms of feminism, I have long been an admirer of many Hollywood women and of Bette Davis in particular. It was a gutsy move to go up against Warner Bros, which likely increased Olivia de Havilland's chances of success.

  7. what i find strange is that, to me, feminism is nothing more than a woman trying to be respected for her actions and choices in the same way a man is respected or accepted. yet, when a woman simply acts like the female version of a man, it seems strange, outlandish, and it gets labelled as a "movement."

    1. The reason it is a movement is because people still think it is strange. For example, fighting for upper-class white American women to have the right to go to college is no longer part of the movement because it is no longer strange. However, there are still a lot of actions and choices which are traditionally "okay" for men but not for women - these are still part of our movement, or our progression forward, if you will.

      The actions themselves don't necessarily constitute the movement - it is only if the action contributes to breaking down stereotypes of what is normal. Some women nowadays will say they are feminists because they believe that women have the right to work and have children. I would say this is now generally accepted, so if you now consider yourself part of "the movement," you should be pushing for more - like perhaps the right to have your children at or near your work. Or for men to have equal paternity leave, etc.

      I hope this makes sense. Thanks for commenting!

  8. I'm concerned about the use of the word "starlets," the failure to analyze whether Hollywood produced scripts worthy of feminists, how much the studio system had to do with actors' private lives, and also how much is image and how much reality, e.g., Katherine Hepburn is said to have let Spencer Tracy get away with beating her up.


Can't wait to hear your thoughts!