The post is written in honour of International Women’s Day 2015. Scroll to the bottom for more information about how you can be part of the fight against sexism and gender inequality.
A WOMAN REBELS (1936) is about a Pamela Thistlewaite (Katharine Hepburn), a young woman in Victorian England who must raise her illegitimate daughter as her dead sister’s child. Because she is unmarried and doesn’t wish to live with her domineering, unfeeling father, she decides to find work and raise her child on her own. Hepburn’s character is like Hepburn’s own mother, who must rebel against the Victorian gender roles imposed upon her by her older male relatives in order to pursue her way as an autonomous woman. Hepburn’s character has two love interests in the film, both of whom have very few scenes and lines in comparison with Hepburn’s character. Neither relationship is particularly romantic, and it’s hard to believe Hepburn’s complete submission to the man in the final scene.
The New York Times review of the film praises Hepburn for her portrayal of Pamela in a significant way. It is quite clear that the writer of the review considered the feminist movement over and won when he says:
Pamela made her way. It seems a placid enough way today, when women follow their careers blandly, unquestioned, without loss of masculine or feminine prestige. But it was rebellion, and Miss Hepburn has played every rebellious scene of it with fire, courage and a resolute spirit which kindles our admiration for Pamela, even though we are conscious that her Hepburn counterparty is crusading in a cause that was won before she was born. (Frank S. Nugent, New York Times, October 30, 1936)
These observations are ignorant of Hepburn’s background as the daughter of a suffragist leader. The cause in question was not won before Hepburn’s birth. Rather, the fight not only took place during her lifetime, but around her dinner table and in her parlour. It is not in the least bit curious therefore that Hepburn was able to play the part with “fire, courage and a resolute spirit which kindles our admiration.”
“[Hepburn] was certainly involved in setting up a number of projects which explicitly address feminist politics (A Woman Rebels, Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib, for example), and it would be as absurd to fail to honour this achievement – unique in its time – as it would be to ignore its limitations.” (Britton 8)
Despite the limitations of A WOMAN REBEL’s romantic narrative, the film has a quantity of salient qualities to be celebrated.
The Hepburn character is allied with the other female characters.
Rather than being bound to other women in the film by destructive resentment and animosity (Dueling Divas), Pamela values her relationships with them higher than her romantic relationships. So many Hollywood films position the female characters in opposition over a man, structuring the narrative on passionate jealousy. A WOMAN REBELS joins HOLIDAY (1938), SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935), STAGE DOOR (1937), and CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933) in the canon of Katharine Hepburn films in which the Hepburn character chooses to commit herself to her would-be rival by rejecting the man in favor of female friendship/sisterhood. We are given yet another example of how Hepburn’s star persona is defined by her relationship to communities of women in her films.
Pamela fights her father for the right to real education:
Pamela: I want to know things, Father. The only way to learn anything is by reading.
Father (Donald Crisp): Really? Continue, pray.
Pamela: You see, I can’t learn anything worthwhile from Miss Piper, because all she knows is amateurish water colour painting, and needlework, and childish piano lessons…
Father: And anything that you consider worthwhile in your limitless wisdom can be learned, of course, only by reading forbidden books?
Pamela: But that’s just it, Father. Why are they forbidden? It’s absurd to be treated as a little child without a mind of my own. If the earth moves around the sun, why shouldn’t I know it?
Miss Piper (governess): “As women, the first thing of importance is to be content to be inferior to men, inferior in mental power in the same proportion that she is in physical strength. A really sensible woman feels her dependence. She’s conscious of her inferiority and therefore grateful for her thought.” Mrs. Ellis’s ‘Daughters of England’ is the true guide of every lady. It is the bible of English womanhood and every sentence is a holy command.
Pamela: I don’t believe it. I don’t believe in the book or anything in it. It’s nonsense.
Pamela calls out the double standard of men’s expectations of women:
Thomas (Herbert Marshall): There’s nothing helpless about you!
Pamela: Don’t you think that helpless myth about women is one that men create for their own protection?
Pamela takes a stand for women’s right to earn a living in the workforce:
Pamela: No, I’m going to live in London. I’m going to live alone. Don’t be tactful, say it – a girl can’t live alone. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?
Thomas: Well, I – what are you going to do?
Pamela: Why not? You do. I’ll tell you a secret, Mr. Lane: even though I’m a woman, I have brains. I intend to use them.
Businessman: But I advertised for a secretary, for a man. You are a…
Pamela: I’m a woman, yes. But I have very neat handwriting, and there’s no reason that my work shouldn’t prove just as satisfactory as any man’s.
Businessman: My dear young lady, a girl as a secretary? Why, the whole idea is so startling, so new.
Pamela: Steamboats were once new, Mr. Williams, and you accepted them.
Businessman: But a girl as a secretary – no no. Why bless my soul, I’d be laughing stock of London.
Shopkeeper: Sorry, it can’t be done. A sales girl in a shop? Unthinkable. My customers wouldn’t tolerate it.
Although these scenes of Pamela trying to find a job were clearly designed to show 1930s audiences how far things had come in 100 years. By 1936, not only could women get a job as secretaries and shopgirls, but these proffessions had become almost exclusively female – a trend that has not been reversed by the latest waves of the feminist movement. In 2014, women still earned only 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, due largely to the fact that women fill most of the minimum- and lower-wage jobs in America.
Pamela leans in Sheryl Sandberg style to negotiate a position for herself at a ladies’ magazine:
Pamela: Of course, I’m not sure that I can write at all, Mr. White.
Mr. White: You can, you have a very nice style, a very nice style, indeed. Now, this of course, we couldn’t use, not possibly, it wouldn’t do at all. The Ladies Weekly Companion is accepted in the best of families, and articles on the emancipation of women and rubbish of that sort, wouldn’t do at all.
But this – this is an entirely different matter. Couldn’t corrupt the morals of anyone. I mean to say, it wouldn’t give women ridiculous ideas, if you know what I mean. A simple little story of Italian peasant life – very edifying, very edifying indeed. Be glad to publish it.
Pamela: You mean it? You’ll buy it? I’ll earn something?
Mr. White: Why naturally, naturally. I said I’d publish it, didn’t I? Now, how about some more? Could you write any more of these little pastorals?
Pamela: Oh, yes, every day, as many as you like.
Mr. White: Pastorals – good word that. Yes, yes, I’ll use that in the description. Of course, we couldn’t pay you much, you know. We’re not a rich magazine, not like the London News, you know. Nothing of the sort. We’re just a women’s paper. Just a women’s paper.
Pamela: I’ll write them for nothing, Mr. White.
Mr. White: What’s that?
Pamela: I said, I’ll write them for nothing, Mr. White, if you’ll give me a position.
Mr. White: What’s that!? A position? But it’s preposterous. A woman? Working?
Pamela: Why not? Isn’t this a women’s magazine?
Mr. White: “Yes, yes, but it sets a very dangerous precedent. There’s no knowing where it may lead.”
Pamela: Yes, then you’ll do it. [gets up to leave]
Mr. White: Well, there’s no reason why you couldn’t correct proofs, I suppose. But mind, it’s a dangerous precedent. I wouldn’t want it known.
Pamela: No, I’ll keep your secret, Mr. Job – uh, White – if you’ll give me the job.
Pamela passes the Bechdel Test, not only by communicating with other women in the film, but also by leading a movement based on women helping women.
When the mother of an illegitimate baby comes to the magazine for help, Pamela is more than ready to offer what assistance she can. But when she gets a letter indicating the young mother has committed suicide because of her baby’s death, Pamela realizes that there is a wider problem to be addressed. She uses her position at the magazine to write articles encouraging women to band together and fight for their rights. The editor Mr. White is terrified that such radical action will bring the downfall of his little paper, but on the contrary – women are trampling each other to get their hands on a copy. Some of the headlines include:
“The Shame of Civilization” by Pamela Thistelwaite “A nameless woman went to her death in the Thames yesterday because of cruel and intolerant persecution.”
“Woman: A woman if Queen of England – why bar women from intelligent professions?”
“A Woman Can Be A Mother and Still Have A Career: With the admission of a number of women to the learned professions a furore has been created as to whether women may pursue a career and still have time for the proper upbringing of children.” [cut to Pamela being a good “Auntie” to Flora]
“Women’s Clubs Unite in Campaign Against Child Labour: Yesterday at a combined meeting of the heads of representative women’s clubs throughout the country a campaign was instigated to wipe out child labour.”
“Why Must Women Be Denied Benefits of Healthy Exercise?” [cut to Pamela playing archery with Flora. Flora is later seen playing tennis against a boy – and winning!]
Despite the film’s necessity that her feminism be destroyed – completely and utterly destroyed – by her eventual yielding to marriage, Pamela is still able to claim with conviction that her activities have helped womankind:
Pamela: It’s time you learned that women are human beings, have feelings, get lonely. It’s because you wouldn’t make allowances for that that this has happened.
Father: Now you’re blaming me for your foolheardiness… I did no differently from any other father.
Pamela: Perhaps not. Perhaps it was your generation to blame, not yourself. I can only say that now, when everything else is gone, I will have only one satisfaction: that children are beginning to be raised more intelligently. For that I can claim some small credit. Women are beginning to have some standing – not enough, but some.
A WOMAN REBELS, like WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942), has a rotten ending that attempts to undercut the feminist agenda of the film. Hepburn’s persona, and her personal desire to create film projects with a strong female purpose, is more radical than the film text can allow. Since Pamela’s independence and activism was motivated by the birth of her illegitimate child, the industry standards force the film to retract her radicalism in exchange for the legitimacy of a romantic conclusion. That is to say, in order to prevent the film from appearing to condone unwed motherhood, the happy ending requires her marriage. The feminism is killed off by association to the illegitimate, not because the film sees it as evil in and of itself.
This phenomenon occurs all too frequently in films of this period, which were wholly unable to articulate the incomplete nature of the feminist movement due to their failure to perceive the movement as incomplete. As is evident with the chuckle-inducing interview scenes in A WOMAN REBELS, 1930s audiences were only able to comprehend the movement in terms of how far they had come since the Victorian era – they are still blind to how far they have to go.
The seven feminist qualities of A WOMAN REBELS (1936) continue to be issues women face today.