This post was originally written and published by Margaret Perry on The Great Katharine Hepburn.
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.”
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?
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.
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 one can look at a Hollywood actress’s career in order to determine whether she would be considered a feminist by today’s standards… (continued)