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12 June 2012

The Most Radically Feminist Films of Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn has been called a feminist film persona and a 20th century feminist icon, but few have really delved into the sources and manifestations of the term “feminist” as it relates to this great star. Is she called a feminist because she insisted on wearing pants in a time when most women were expected to wear skirts and high heels? We all know the story about the time the studio, in an effort to force her into dresses and skirts, stole the trousers from her trailer and Hepburn paraded around the studio in her underwear until her slacks were returned. Her feminism was also manifested in her choice of a career over marriage. Although these aspects of her life choices contribute to our image of the feminist, it is within her films themselves that the strength of her feminism is most prevalent.

M. Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr
Hepburn’s feminist choices and tendencies can be traced back to a couple different sources, but I believe that the major feminizing influence on Katharine Hepburn is Bryn Mawr College, one of the Seven Sister’s colleges on the East coast. Not only did Hepburn herself go there, but the major female influences of her childhood also attended, including her mother, her Aunt Edith, and her mother’s friends from college, “Aunts” Mary Towle and Bertha Rembaugh (prominent lawyers living in Greenwich Village). At Bryn Mawr, Hepburn’s mother’s generation adopted the feminist principles of the college’s president M. Carey Thomas. Katharine Hepburn was raised in the midst of the Bohemian society that these early feminist created for themselves - a female society of free thought, speech, and action. The Hepburn feminist persona is a product of the feminism she experienced first-hand as a child.

Although many of Hepburn's films contain themes of feminism, her most radically feminist films can be divided into three categories: those in which communities of women are central to the plot/story, those in which Hepburn portrays strong female characters from literature and history, and those films which directly address the "woman issue." 

Hepburn as Jo from
In a previous post, I described the nature of films in which communities of women are featured the way in which such films break down stereotypes about female professionals. The Hepburn films that follow the "communities of women" structure are LITTLE WOMEN (1933), QUALITY STREET (1937), STAGE DOOR (1937), DESK SET (1957), THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT (1969), and THE TROJAN WOMEN (1971).

Hepburn plays women from literature and history a number of times: LITTLE WOMEN (1933), MARY OF SCOTLAND (1936), SONG OF LOVE (1947), and THE LION IN WINTER (1968). As you can see, these women are characteristically  independent and freethinking individuals. In two of these films, Hepburn is portraying women of power, women in leadership roles.

Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in
ADAM'S RIB (1949)
Only a couple of Hepburn's films directly address the question of woman's equality, or gender issues generally, but these films are the most significant because of the pertinence of their message: LITTLE WOMEN (1933), SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935), A WOMAN REBELS (1936), WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942), ADAM'S RIB (1949), and ROOSTER COGBURN (1975). One could argue that a couple of these films don't meet the qualifications for the category, but the gender stereotypes are so central to the thrust of the story, I chose to include them in this group.

The films listed here make up more than 25% of the movies Katharine Hepburn made in her 60-year career. Even in those films that didn't qualify for these categories, Hepburn carries the standard of female autonomy high. LITTLE WOMEN is the only film that overlapped in these three divisions, which goes to show how significant the Jo March character is to the feminist ideal. M. Carey Thomas herself used to sign her diary as Jo when she was a girl. George Cukor, who directed Hepburn in that film and many others, often remarked that LITTLE WOMEN was Hepburn's seminal film because she actually was Jo, in more ways than one!

As Eleanor of Aquitaine in THE LION IN WINTER (1968)
(with Peter O'Toole)
If I were to compose a canon of Hepburn's most feminist films, I would choose only a couple from each of the groups listed above. Clearly, LITTLE WOMEN would make the top of the list, closely followed by ADAM'S RIB, in which Hepburn and Tracy play husband and wife lawyers on opposite sides of the courtroom - she defending the female position, he the male. The two films which best embody the manifestation of female autonomy are STAGE DOOR and DESK SET, not because the Hepburn character is radically feminist, but because the film text as a whole supports a feminist agenda. The last film I would add to the canon would be THE LION IN WINTER, because Eleanor of Aquitaine was a feminist in her own right long before there was a fancy word for it. Hepburn really did her research for that part and felt an immediate affinity for the queen who had lived hundreds of years before her. There is no doubt she deserved the Oscar she won for that role.

I hope you enjoy watching these films! I always love to hear what you think about Katharine Hepburn as a feminist persona. Do you agree with my list? What changes would you make? What films would you add or take away? Thanks for reading and happy viewing!


  1. I would certainly add 'The African Queen' as a film in the 3rd group, addressing female equality. Her character of Rosie insists on sharing equal duty with Charlie Allnut in running the title boat, as well as in sharing the dangers of both the river crossing and confronting the German enemy ship. It's also a film that frames the issue of equality in a 'meta' sense, in that Hepburn and co-star Bogart pretty much carry the film all by themselves - it's essentially a 2-person show, the actors sharing the stardom equally.

    A rather fascinating anomaly in the Hepburn oeuvre is the 1947 film noir 'Undercurrent' - about the only movie of hers I can think of in which Hepburn plays a terrorized, and terrified, woman. Her character is that of a strong, single woman who lives with her father, and then falls madly in love with a man (Robert Taylor) who turns out to be psychotic and tries to kill her (hence her terror). Hepburn's performance tries, to me at least, to balance between these two poles of independent strength and helpless fear, and not always successfully. It was an atypical role for her. She's not an actress associated with film noir, nor is she convincing as a helpless heroine (quite the opposite). It would make an interesting comparison with her other 'strong-woman' film roles.

  2. THE AFRICAN QUEEN falls into a category with those films which contain many feminist values, but which do not acknowledge a clear feminist argument up front. Hepburn's characters inevitably argue for some sort of gender equality because that is the nature of her persona, but the film text, the story and the structure of the films message, do not always support this feminism. Hepburn is more often than not much more radical than the film text can allow. AFRICAN QUEEN is almost identical in form and structure to ROOSTER COGBURN in this respect - that film shouldn't really be in my list except that more of the dialogue between Wayne and Hepburn is explicitly about gender roles. Charlie and Rosie's discussions are more about their roles within the relationship, rather than an overt challenge to the gender roles of society. In LITTLE WOMEN, Jo is distinctly and continuously rebelling against the traditional gender roles she is expected to embrace. In A WOMAN REBELS, Hepburn plays a woman who actively participates in the suffrage movement. The whole basis of the tension that propels the story of WOMAN OF THE YEAR is centered on the debate of assigning and defining gender roles. In ADAM'S RIB, Hepburn uses the feminist argument in court in order to prove that her female client would be found innocent if she were tried in the same manner as a man in the same position.

    The observances you've made about UNDERCURRENT are very astute. You have identified distinct characteristic of the Hepburn persona, that special blending of her vulnerable sexuality and her radical autonomy. Very often the Hepburn persona is more radical than the film text can allow - her characters are often more liberated than the argument of the film text, which often leads to the film somehow mediating the Hepburn character either through matching her with a significantly masculine partner, or (unfortunately in some cases) taming her to deny her independence and embrace a traditional female role. I hope my ramblings make sense. Thank you for commenting!

  3. I love this article! Katherine is probably one of the most vocal representations of a strong female in film history (to me at least). There's really no actress who stick by the need to portray females accurately. Hell, the only feminist I know in film currently is director/screenwriter Joss Whedon and even then he's taking some flack for Avengers. I wish we had more positive actresses like Hepburn in film today. Even Angelina Jolie, the go-to "strong" female, has made her share of stereotypical anti-feminist garbage. Great article!

  4. I can't resist the urge to ponder, shouldn't something be said about the other side? !!!!!!THANKS!!!!!! Popcorn time


Can't wait to hear your thoughts!