Here’s to International Women’s Day and to the Biopics that Never Were


“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights” (Gloria Steinem)

International Women’s Day has been observed since the turn of the 20th century, back when the early feminist movement was working tirelessly for women’s suffrage. Now, 100-and-something years later, women are still fighting to be recognized on equal grounds as men in all fields of endeavor. The film industry has some of the worst statistics concerning gender inequality. Not only are films not being made by women, but comparatively few movies tell women’s stories.

women in film

When considering film roles Katharine Hepburn never played for the Imaginary Film Blogathon, I got to thinking about how few biopics there are about female historic figures. Not only do movies about the lives of our significant citizens teach us about the great men of history, they also give us role models and teach us how much a human being can do with a single lifetime. We’ve seen dozens of pictures about the world’s famous statesmen, sportsmen, and military men, but as Abigail Adams once entreated to her husband:

“remember the ladies, and be more generous and favorable to then than your ancestors… If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”

I have put together a list of notable women whose stories should be told on film. Some of these women do make cursory appearances in our history textbooks, but it is very difficult to grasp the enormity and significance of their contributions without the full narrative arch of their stories. A lot of these women can be found in the National Women’s Hall of Fame. If you would like to submit names to this list, let me know in the comments section below and I will add your contributions as they come in.

MBEMary Baker Eddy

Only American woman to found a lasting American-based religion, the Church of Christ, Scientist (not Scientology). Mary Baker Eddy overcame years of ill health and great personal struggle to make an indelible mark on society, religion and journalism. Not only was Eddy a prolific writer and theologian, but she also founded a publishing society, and monthly journal, and weekly magazine, and The Christian Science Monitor newspaper, all of which are still in publication. Val Kilmer has been working on a film project about the complex relationship between Mary Baker Eddy and Mark Twain. Kilmer says of Eddy:

“Mary Baker Eddy is a spiritual genius. Fearless, stunning, tenacious, she has achieved fame and fortune as a best-selling author and sought-after healer. Her most outspoken critic and admirer is the sharp-tongued and irreverent Mark Twain who calls her ‘garrulous, ungrammatical and naively and everlastingly self-contradictory’ but concedes that she is ‘the most daring and masterful woman that ever lived, and the most extraordinary.'”

Feminism; Feminists; women's liberation; women's lib; equality; gender issuesGloria Steinem

As one of the central figures of the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s, Steinem’s life seems written for the big screen. Her skills as a journalist led her to co-found Ms. Magazine and the Women’s Media Center. She worked alongside Jane Fonda and other activists to bring an articulate voice to the women’s movement.

“A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

friedanBetty Freidan

Middle-class housewife turned feminist activist, Betty Friedan’s 1963 “The Feminine Mystique” rocked the very foundations of how western society viewed the role of women. Friedan is responsible for sparking the second wave feminist movement, founding the National Organization for Women and fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

“A woman is handicapped by her sex, and handicaps society, either by slavishly copying the pattern of man’s advance in the professions, or by refusing to compete with man at all.”

pankhurstEmmeline Pankhurst and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia

Manchester-born Emmeline Pankhurst was a key figure in the fight for women’s suffrage. The women in Britain fought longer and harder for their right to vote than did their sisters in America. The daring and controversial measures the Pankhursts and their compatriots took to have their voices heard would make for a very dramatic movie indeed! What audience wouldn’t want to see a film about the demonstrations, the parades, the arrests, the chaining to railings, the hunger strikes, and the force-feeding, that were all part of the Pankhurts’ struggle for suffrage?

“We are here, not because we are law-breakers; we are here in our efforts to become law-makers.”

tubmanHarriet Tubman

There have been a number of biopics in the past year about notable black men: 42 (Jackie Robinson) and 12 YEARS A SLAVE (Solomon Northup) among them. The world is fascinated by the work of Harriet Tubman to smuggle slaves out of the South to freedom in the northern states. Yet her life story has yet to be made into a film. Why, I ask you!?!?!? Why!?

“I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say; I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”

Amelia EarhartAmelia Earhart

Again, we’ve seen movies about famour flying men, from Howard Hughes in THE AVIATOR (2005) to Charles Lindbergh in THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS (1957), not to mention THOSE MAGNIFICENT MEN IN THEIR FLYING MACHINES (1965). Katharine Hepburn played one heck of an aviatrix in CHRISTOPHER STRONG (1933). Now, I know there is a movie called AMELIA (2009 starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere, but I wanted to know if it is any good. I haven’t seen it and hadn’t even heard of it until I started this list. So I’m going to leave Amelia Earhart on here for the time being.

“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others.”

Juliette Gordon LowJuliette Gordon Low

The founder of the Girl Scout movement had a fascinating life, from her well-to-do upbringing as the daughter of a Confederate Civil War captain in Savannah, Georgia, her childless marriage and divorce, her life in England and travels abroad, to her  acquaintance with the founder of the Boy Scout movement, Sir Robert Baden-Powell. Actually, a 1952 TV movie was made entitled “Juliette Low and the Girl Scouts” and starred Lucille Watson in the title role (perfect casting, if you ask me).

“I’ve got something for the girls of Savannah, and all America, and all the world, we’re going to start it tonight!”

“To put yourself in another’s place requires real imagination, but by doing so each Girl Scout will be able to love among others happily.”

babeBabe Didrikson Zaharias

Baseball had its Babe Ruth – every other sport had Babe Didrikson Zaharias. As the daughter of Norwegian immigrants, Zaharias raised herself out of an impoverished childhood in Texas to an international sports sensation. In an age when women were strongly discouraged from participating in a any type of sport, Zaharias broke down boundaries and blazed a trail for women in every sport, including basketball, gold, and track and field (in which she won gold in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics). Zaharias has a significant cameo in PAT AND MIKE (George Cukor, 1952; written by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon), but I think this girl needs a film of her own!

“It’s not just enough to swing at the ball. You’ve got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it.”

kingBillie Jean King

Another sportswoman, tennis champion Billie Jean King proved to the world that women could not only be as good as men, but better, when she beat  the undefeated chauvinist Bobby Riggs in the now-famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in 1973. King fought for many years for women to earn as much prize money as the men in the same sport. She herself was one of the first women to become successful and wealthy as a professional athlete.

sapphoSappho

There are scores of films about Greek and Roman men, Spartans, gladiators, statesmen, gods, philosophers, adventurers. But again, we must remember the ladies! Little is known about the poetess of Lesbos, but imagine what could be done in a film about her legend! Here poetry expresses love for both sexes – was she homosexual or heterosexual? We know she was exiled at some point of her life from Lesbos – was she a political renegade? Did she commit suicide for the love of the ferryman Phaon or because her art was misunderstood by a patriarchal society? There is so much meat in this film! And while we’re about it, let’s make a movie about Terpsichore, the muse of ballet and dramatic chorus. All right, we can do all nine muses, since you insist.

“You may forget but / let me tell you / this: someone in / some future time / will think of us” (The Art of Loving Women)

guy-blacheAlice Guy-Blaché

We all know how much the movie industry like to make introspective films about its most notable contributors. Alice Guy-Blaché is simultaneously one of the most significant and one of the least-celebrated film makers. She was one of the first people to make a narrative film at age 23 – earlier films were just moving images of trains and street scenes. She also built and operated her own film studio. She made the earliest known movie with an all-African American cast. She was one of the first innovators to synch sound and moving picture. She directed more than a thousand films, 22 of which were feature-length movies. Luckily for us, there is a project in the works to tell her story. Support Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché on Kickstarter. Watch this hilarious short film featuring some poignant, if funny, gender role reversals à la 1906: THE CONSEQUENCES OF FEMINISM.

rooseveltEleanor Roosevelt

We know enough about Eleanor Roosevelt, and we revere her words of wisdom and humanity enough, to know that a movie needs to be made about this woman. Like, yesterday. Or now. Like, right now. Let’s get on it, people!

“A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”

chopinEdna Pontellier

I’m going to conclude my list with a fictional character – forgive me. Someday I will right a post about books that should be movies, but I thought I’d kick things off with Kate Chopin’s feminist masterpiece “The Awakening.” This novel takes place in early-20th century New Orleans and revolves around the life of Edna Pontellier, a dissatisfied wife and mother. Edna makes alterations to her lifestyle after a summer fling awakens her to a new sense of herself as a human being and as a woman. This movie would be absolutely delicious to cast and I can only dream of the miraculous costumes! In a world that loves costume dramas so much as to permit such soap operas as Downton Abbey (yes, I said it), surely there is a studio who would leap at the chance to bring Edna’s story to the silver screen. (*Since writing this, I have learned of GRAND ISLE (1991). But their Edna is too old and it’s not the way I imagined it. Let’s make it again.)

“I would give up the unessential; I would give up my money, I would give up my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself. I can’t make it more clear; it’s only something I am beginning to comprehend, which is revealing itself to me.”

blanchettWho would you add to this list of notable historical women. I might add Eleanor of Aquitaine. Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale. Marie Curie. The list could go on and on – there are so many because so few films have been made about female historical figures. Let us all remember what our beloved Cate Blanchett said during her Oscar acceptance speech this year:

“Those in the industry who are foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women in the centre are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them. In fact they earn money.”


4 thoughts on “Here’s to International Women’s Day and to the Biopics that Never Were

Comments are closed.