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Vintage Movies and Early Feminist Icons

Believe it or not, strong female characters were alive and kicking in the movies of the mid-20th century.

It is often rightfully said that vintage movies feature a lot of sexism in them, which, although expected due to the cultural beliefs of the time, can be irritating. However, there are female characters of whom we can be proud for being early feminists.

  1. Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

The movie was filmed in the 1940s, but is set in 1903, which makes this character’s feminist approach to life even more poignant. Despite the assigned role of a meek and humble creature that a girl was supposed to play in those times, Esther is not afraid to know what she wants and take the matters into her own hands to get it. She pursues the boy she falls in love with, helps her older sister figure out her romantic relationship, and stands up to a boy who bullies her younger sister.

Esther is talented, beautiful and smart, and she is never too shy to know her strengths and use them to her advantage. When told that nice girls shouldn’t let men kiss them until they’re engaged because “men don’t want the bloom rubbed off”, she answers with the iconic line: “Personally, I think I have too much bloom.”

When she falls in love, she does not win men over by shyly batting her eyelashes, but by discussing political issues with them and giving them thoughtful advice.

  1. 2. Tracy Lorde in The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Katharine Hepburn, who portrayed Tracy Lorde in this movie, was famously a feminist and caused an uproar in the 1930s by playing strong-willed women who would not be controlled by men. Tracy Lorde is arguably the best example of that; she is someone who doesn’t feel like she needs a man’s approval to do anything. She encourages her mother to separate from her cheating husband, saying that it is important for a woman, just like a man, to keep her pride intact. She is not afraid to stand up to her father despite the expectation at the time for women to obey and love their fathers blindly.

Tracy never fails to stand up to a man, such as her ex-husband and her future fiancé. When she falls in love, she does not win men over by shyly batting her eyelashes, but by discussing political issues with them and giving them thoughtful advice. Furthermore, she does not feel the need to cling onto a man who is too jealous and controlling and doesn’t trust her enough. Most importantly, this character prefers to be without a man than in a toxic relationship or one that doesn’t make her happy.

She is smart and independent and never stops believing in her own strengths, even if others doubt her.

  1. 3. Iris Henderson in The Lady Vanishes (1938)

This movie was directed by the amazing Alfred Hitchcock and features a lot of strong female characters, but the most important is Iris Henderson. She is a confident woman and a loyal friend, believing in her own intelligence and strength. When she wakes up and finds that her friend mysteriously disappeared, despite having just suffered a concussion, Iris spares no effort to find and help her, even though all the men surrounding her just stand and watch, refusing to help.

Iris takes part in an investigation to find her vanished friend, comes to the aid of a man in a fight, and does not let society pressure her into a marriage with someone she doesn’t love. She is smart and independent and never stops believing in her own strengths, even if others doubt her.

“Overall, she brings the image of a strong, independent woman to life in the movie.

  1. Laurey in Oklahoma! (1955)

Considering the fact that the story musical is set in rural Oklahoma in 1906, Laurey presents a lot of very feminist ideas more than once during the course of the movie. When Curley McLain tries to manipulate her with jealousy, she quickly collects herself and tells her friends that they will never see her crying over a man because she doesn’t think that a man she lost is “the only man among men”, and that there is always a possibility of finding a new love.

She also has a lot of pride and doesn’t let Curley take her for granted. When Curley waits until the last moment to invite her to a party, she turns him down, saying that she is not going to be waiting around for him to remember her. Overall, she brings the image of a strong, independent woman to life in the movie.

Kateryna Vine

Featured image courtesy of Noe Alfaro via Flikr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here.

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