Old Hollywood doesn't exactly strike the casual observer as particularly feminist. Femmes fatales, blondes inspiring lust and sin, wise-cracking about female morals, playing off harassment as a joke: it can get a bit uncomfortable as viewing for modern women. But there were certain old Hollywood feminist movie stars who fought like hell to make both Hollywood in general and their own careers gender-equal, from political activism to taking creative control in a male-dominated industry to the roles they chose to portray.
The '20s, '30s and '40s were an interesting time for women's rights: the first wave of feminism was over, women had the vote, World War I had passed and the flapper figure of sexual liberation would eventually be superseded by other feminine models, from fast-talking Howard Hawks heroines to the women who took factory jobs while men were at war. Hollywood challenged, codified, and pushed the boundaries of the acceptable female role. And stars, then as now, provided models of behavior, even if what they got up to wasn't covered with such breathless detail by paparazzo (the press of the time was a lot more, well, controlled).
Here are some of the most feminist women of the Golden Age of Hollywood, on and off the screen.
Bergman was both one of classic Hollywood's finest actors and one of its most unusually forward-thinking women. Pilloried and dismissed by Hollywood for daring to divorce her first husband for the director Roberto Rossellini, she refused to be bowed, and defied the critics to make even greater successes. Rossellini himself told the New Yorker years later, "A lot of people have asked me, ‘Was she an early feminist?’ She was an artist. She had to do what she had to do. It happened that she did it at a time in which women’s roles were changing. She was punished for her independence. It was society that wasn’t feminist.”
She was drawn to what John Grassi at PopMatters calls "morally ambivalent women who defy social conventions," which, he says, "reveals a feminist impulse before it was fashionably or politically safe." She herself noted the age problem in Hollywood, explaining, "Until 45 I can play a woman in love. After 55 I can play grandmothers. But between those ten years, it is difficult for an actress."
To understand women's roles in classic Hollywood, you need to understand The Hays Code. Before 1934, Hollywood's stories were allowed to become edgier, reflecting the new independence of women in particular, and Norma Shearer was right up there with them; in films like The Divorcee, she portrayed the sexually liberated and independent new woman. It was a revelatory time, and Shearer was at the forefront. "Pre-code women," one historian explains, "held powerful jobs, had affairs with married men, birthed babies out of wedlock, and those were the comedies!"
After Hays massively restricted what could be shown in films, though, things became massively more conservative; and Shearer managed to reinvent herself and flourish as an actress in period films. Her first legacy was as "the first American film actress to make it chic and acceptable to be single and not a virgin on screen;" her second was as a survivor. She'd fought to make many of her pre-Hays films despite the initial disapproval of her husband, producer Irving Thalberg, and after his death won a legal battle with his studio for his estate.
Hattie Daniels represented a lot: she was the first woman of color to win an Academy Award, for Gone With The Wind, and had fought to make the film better before its release by demanding that all incidences of the n-word were struck from the script (she won). As a heroine of intersectional feminism, she was also a groundbreaking activist for black women throughout Hollywood; she took the stereotypical role of Mammy in the belief that it would open up more doors for people of color, fought against laws that prevented her from owning houses in white neighborhoods, and took a role in the radio and later TV show Belulah originally made for a white male. Her struggles for success were massively constricted both by her race and by her gender. Certainly, there would have been more women of color on this list if Old Hollywood had let them be stars in the first place.
Nobody did blonde bombshell like Jean Harlow. Before her untimely death at 26, Harlow was one of the biggest silver screen stars of the '30s. She was also apparently a firm believer in women's equality, according to an interview done by a Hollywood correspondent in 1937. In it, she declared that "in many businesses, women who have proved they can do men's work as well as men, if not better, are paid less and worked harder," noted that "I don't know any reason why women can't be automobile designers or research chemists if they want to," and reveled in her friendships with female doctors and lawyers, as "the competition from women is doing the men good."
She also mourned the gender inequality of Hollywood itself. "In the motion picture field," she said, "there is room for more women directors. And why aren't women entirely suited to be cameramen, with their sense of balance, proportion, composition, lighting, and more important, color appreciation for the coming trend of color films?" She once noted that she wasn't a feminist, probably for the same reason that Taylor Swift once did; but it certainly seems she believed in its fundamentals.
Never heard of Theda Bara? She was the first cinematic sex symbol, the Vamp, showing her dramatic beauty in silent films as vampires, Cleopatra, and other terrifying, sexual figures. And she also had a strong feminist streak. "I am in effect a feministe," she said in the 1910s, and it wasn't exactly surprising. This, after all, was a woman playing riotously sexual parts; a studio acting instructor of the time noted that "most girls are good, but good girls do not want to see other good girls on the screen … through the medium of Theda Bara they can do her deeds and live her life.” Unfortunately, Bara reportedly grew rather too famous and too expensive, and movies were shifting rapidly to color and "talkies," a situation that left her behind.
Hepburn didn't just take on some fairly spectacular strong-woman parts all the way through her career (Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion In Winter, for instance); she also walked the walk. She was the woman who popularized trousers as female fashion in the '40s, prompting a famous interview in which Barbara Walters asked if she even owned a skirt. (Hepburn, notoriously acid, responded that she'd wear one to Walters' funeral.) She played sports, was the daughter of suffragists, and embodied both personal success and private emotional fulfillment. She was also a savvy businesswoman who demanded her due, fighting for a hefty pay rise for her first film and solving a career stall by buying the rights to the stage play The Philadelphia Story, which she then made into a film that won her another Oscar.