Katharine Hepburn has been called a feminist film persona and a 20th century feminist icon, but few have really delved into the sources and manifestations of the term “feminist” as it relates to this great star. Is she called a feminist because she insisted on wearing pants in a time when most women were expected to wear skirts and high heels? We all know the story about the time the studio, in an effort to force her into dresses and skirts, stole the trousers from her trailer and Hepburn paraded around the studio in her underwear until her slacks were returned. Her feminism was also manifested in her choice of a career over marriage. Although these aspects of her life choices contribute to our image of the feminist, it is within her films themselves that the strength of her feminism is most prevalent.
In a previous post, I described the nature of films in which communities of women are featured the way in which such films break down stereotypes about female professionals. The Hepburn films that follow the “communities of women” structure are LITTLE WOMEN (1933), QUALITY STREET (1937), STAGE DOOR (1937), DESK SET (1957), THE MADWOMAN OF CHAILLOT (1969), and THE TROJAN WOMEN (1971).
Hepburn plays women from literature and history a number of times: LITTLE WOMEN (1933), MARY OF SCOTLAND (1936), SONG OF LOVE (1947), and THE LION IN WINTER (1968). As you can see, these women are characteristically independent and freethinking individuals. In two of these films, Hepburn is portraying women of power, women in leadership roles.
Only a couple of Hepburn’s films directly address the question of woman’s equality, or gender issues generally, but these films are the most significant because of the pertinence of their message: LITTLE WOMEN (1933), SYLVIA SCARLETT (1935), A WOMAN REBELS (1936), WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942), ADAM’S RIB (1949), and ROOSTER COGBURN (1975). One could argue that a couple of these films don’t meet the qualifications for the category, but the gender stereotypes are so central to the thrust of the story, I chose to include them in this group.
The films listed here make up more than 25% of the movies Katharine Hepburn made in her 60-year career. Even in those films that didn’t qualify for these categories, Hepburn carries the standard of female autonomy high. LITTLE WOMEN is the only film that overlapped in these three divisions, which goes to show how significant the Jo March character is to the feminist ideal. M. Carey Thomas herself used to sign her diary as Jo when she was a girl. George Cukor, who directed Hepburn in that film and many others, often remarked that LITTLE WOMEN was Hepburn’s seminal film because she actually was Jo, in more ways than one!
If I were to compose a canon of Hepburn’s most feminist films, I would choose only a couple from each of the groups listed above. Clearly, LITTLE WOMEN would make the top of the list, closely followed by ADAM’S RIB, in which Hepburn and Tracy play husband and wife lawyers on opposite sides of the courtroom – she defending the female position, he the male. The two films which best embody the manifestation of female autonomy are STAGE DOOR and DESK SET, not because the Hepburn character is radically feminist, but because the film text as a whole supports a feminist agenda. The last film I would add to the canon would be THE LION IN WINTER, because Eleanor of Aquitaine was a feminist in her own right long before there was a fancy word for it. Hepburn really did her research for that part and felt an immediate affinity for the queen who had lived hundreds of years before her. There is no doubt she deserved the Oscar she won for that role.
I hope you enjoy watching these films! I always love to hear what you think about Katharine Hepburn as a feminist persona. Do you agree with my list? What changes would you make? What films would you add or take away? Thanks for reading and happy viewing!