Celebrating #WomensHistoryMonth with Strong Women in the Movies

So…given the fun I had compiling a list of Memorable Movie Murders recently I thought I’d try to come up with a list of women characters in the movies worthy of admiration as a way to celebrate Women’s History Month.

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Before I get to the list I must offer special mention to several groups of movie women who I am purposefully (for the most part) excluding from this list.  There are simply far too many strong women notables in each of these groups or inherent in the genre to list here.  SO, I salute the women of pre-code, the femmes of film noir, Hawksian women, the screen power personified by Bette Davis, the films of Katharine Hepburn, Mae West for calling the shots, Dietrich for being Dietrich, the roles of Maureen O’Hara, Barbara Stanwyck‘s strength in everything…

…and since I am publishing this on the anniversary of her birthday, the ever-powerful Joan Crawford.

Joan Crawford - by George Hurrell 1935

And now to my list – a few memorable women characters in film that represent what we as women are capable of – from ordinary greatness to supreme power and all in between. Listed in random order I start with…

 

Although I mentioned I’m excluding noir from this list, I can’t leave Mildred out.  She makes a zillion mistakes when it comes to mothering, but she overcomes incredibly difficult odds to make it as a successful business woman.  You gotta respect that – even if her motivation is a duplicitous, hard-slapping brat.

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Not only does Mrs. Younger deal with difficult financial situations, she also deals with racism and two children who whine more than they understand or appreciate her struggles.  She demands respect and runs a tight ship in a crowded two-bedroom apartment.  For her faith and spine, which defy the odds here’s to Lena Younger.

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A most enjoyable Hawksian woman, Hildy is best among her peers in the cut throat world of newspapers when the medium was the public’s lifeline to the news of the day.  She gets the scoop right under everyone’s noses and spars with the best of ’em.  We should all aspire to claim a bit o’ Hildy in ourselves.

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  • Ripley in ALIEN (1979)

For my money the greatest female action hero in the movies.  She’s cool, she’s smart, she’s brave and she kicks Alien ass after all the guys have failed.

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Most comment on this extraordinary film celebrating the journey of the men who return from the war to face the trials and tribulations associted with their attempt to assimilate into their ‘ordinary’ lives once again.  But we rarely give kudos to the women whose struggles go unspoken – Milly Stephenson, Peggy Stephenson, Wilma Cameron and Mrs. Parrish.  These women go to extraordinary lengths to adjust to their new reality after having to sacrifice for the war in a myriad of ways in their own right.

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Pam Grier came to symbolize sexy, cool strength in blaxploitation movies and in the process brought to life characters with long-lasting appeal well beyond the films’ budgets.  As both Coffy and Foxy Brown Grier is bold, powerful, smart, assertive, afraid of nothing and feminine.  Killer combinations.

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An ordeal she doesn’t survive, but then we barely do either.  Unforgettable film, performance, journey and woman.

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At the age of 25 Elizabeth took the throne of a Catholic country and declared it Protestant.  She fought off assassination by the French, the Spanish, her rivals and the pope, and ruled for 45 years.  All beautifully portrayed by Cate Blanchett in this post-classic entry.

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Beating insurmountable odds is this woman’s forte.  She reaches the very core of a soul set aside by all others.  If that’s not worthy of admiration I don’t know what is.

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This is probably the unlikeliest of entries on this type of list, but Lucy’s a role model in several ways.  When she loses the love of her life Lucy doesn’t fall apart – instead she makes lemonade outta lemons.  Without losing a beat or her sense of humor this woman sets forth to do what she must to get her man back – with style, grace and hilarity.  Well, I admire her in any case.

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I know no one should aspire to be evil, but who could argue Mrs. Iselin doesn’t have strengths to admire?  She orchestrates her husband’s political career and a son’s assassination attempt.  Eleanor is a force to be reckoned with in worlds women usually play no role in – or certainly not in 1962.  The Queen of Diamonds has spoken and you can’t help but listen.

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This movie is replete with strong women characters who – I might add – actually support each other.  But Celie’s journey, her growth, her survival instincts and her strength are beyond compare.

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I always think of her as the superego in GONE WITH THE WIND.  Mammy is the voice of reason and the spine in what many consider the greatest of all classic films.  Plus, she wins the heart and admiration of the cynical Rhett Butler.  What more is there to say?

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  • Thelma Ritter as everywoman in every movie she ever appeared in.

Character actor extraordinaire – who doesn’t admire the salt of the Earth, the one everyone else can rely on?  And who also happens to have no problem at all speaking her mind to the greats and the powerful.

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She has a style all her own and is a rebel who refuses to conform with the norm in her situation – an arranged marriage.  She shall have the freedom to choose for herself or perish.  Not to mention that with just a mere few moments of screen time she becomes legend and stands alongside the big boys of classic horror.  Forever.

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The great Kate played so many strong, memorable characters that she merited a notation above, but I couldn’t leave out Amanda Bonner.  ADAM’S RIB is not only a smart story in which the female lead is a true equal, but it addresses head on the double standard in the battle of the sexes.  Amanda fights for equality defying convention and her husband in the process – bold for the times and still daring today.

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“I’m a strong tree with branches for many birds. I’m good for something in this world and I know it too.”  Thanks to Rachel children abide and they endure.  She brings down Harry Powell, arguably the greatest villain the silver screen has ever seen.  THAT. IS. ALL.

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Those are my picks, the first 17 that came to mind.  As such I know I’ve not mentioned many notables – let me know your picks in the comments.

This is for strong women everywhere and for the triumph of the human spirit.

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4 thoughts

  1. Great list! There are so many amazing women roles in classic film. The two that first came to mind were Garbo in Queen Christina and Dietrich in The Scarlet Empress. I’ll also say the obvious Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd.

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