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No longer is the modern feminist movement an indistinct, shapeless cloud that has spontaneously erupted over the course of decades. A human being is a part of it. We will never be able to do credit to the bravery, tenacity, and outright demand for equality and justice of women and their allies who organize, research, demonstrate, and demand it.
However, filmmakers still give it a go.
However, there is a dearth of high-profile films depicting those who have fought for women’s equality in the mainstream, although some very good ones have been made. Fighting for gender equality has produced numerous cinematic moments that ought to be honored onscreen in all of their splendor, from a youthful Ruth Bader Ginsburg taking on sexism in court to the factory workers’ strike that changed UK labor law.
Despite the fact that these films are based on or inspired by historical persons and events, the fight for equal rights for women is plagued with blind spots. Intersectional representation, for example, and the stories that Hollywood has historically chosen to convey, require a great deal of work. Without a doubt, the vast majority of documentaries devoted to women’s rights pioneers focus on white cis women, leaving out or marginalizing the contributions of women of color and non-binary individuals to the movement. There are many outstanding documentaries out there, but c’mon, Hollywood, you’ve got to do something about this.
As a matter of fact, these bold, history-based films cast an interpretative light on the tales of actual women: mothers and daughters and sisters and everyday revolutionaries who often paid enormous personal consequences fighting for our right to live equally under the law. The least we can do is spend a few hours listening to their stories, appreciating their struggle, triumph, and sacrifice.
1. On the Basis of Sex
As a tribute to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s early life and career, On the Basis of Sex is a look at the landmark case that helped Ginsburg become one of the most prominent women’s rights advocates of her generation.
While Ginsburg was still a young lawyer in the mid- to late-1950s, the film depicts her as a tenacious opponent in Moritz v. Commissioner, the first federal case to declare gender discrimination unconstitutional. Ginsburg and her husband Marty are both prominent characters in the film. Against a backdrop of widespread, institutionalized discrimination in places like Harvard Law School lecture halls and the U.S. Court of Appeals, Felicity Jones is terrific as the youthful RBG.
As a group of working women, the Suffragette (a name more widespread in the UK versus the US, where “suffragists” is more acceptable) battled for the British women’s right to vote in 1912 and endured imprisonment and beatings as a result of their efforts. Emmeline Pankhurst (acted with passion by Meryl Streep) has called for a countrywide campaign of civil disobedience after decades of peaceful protest for the right to vote has been disregarded by the political establishment. Maud Watts (a fictitious character played by Carey Mulligan), a laundry worker and mother, provides a window into the local movement’s terrible working conditions. Activist Emily Davison, whose self-sacrifice made global headlines and history, is shown in the film as well as fictional characters based on real activists.
“Suffragette,” written and directed by Abi Morgan and starring Sarah Gavron, provides an insight into the ways in which women secretly organized and gained attention for their rights after silently agitating for 50 years. One of the most important things the film achieves is show the abuse and harassment suffered by suffragettes and their families, husbands, neighbors, and coworkers, in addition to police enforcement. In addition, the film’s marketing campaign sparked debates regarding racism against women of color in the movement and the omission of women of color from the film.
3. Hidden Figures
The film Hidden Figures, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, sheds focus on three Black women who played key roles at NASA during the 1960s Space Race. With Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, the mathematician behind the Mercury-Atlas 6 orbital mission that changed the course of history between the United States and the Soviet Union. Janelle Monáe portrays Mary Jackson, NASA’s first female black aeronautical engineer; Octavia Spencer portrays Dorothy Vaughan, NASA’s first black supervisor.
In the midst of apparent sexism and bigotry, all three women earned their positions while segregation was still legal (though the film downplays the racism significantly in the actions of the white lead characters). As a result, they were able to use their platforms to help other women, even if they were targeted by white women’s prejudice while doing so. It was at NASA’s Langley Research Center in 1979 that Jackson took a demotion from her position as an engineer in order to become the federal program manager for women’s issues at NASA. A strong champion for women mathematicians, Vaughan led the segregated West Area Computing Unit. The innovative Analysis and Computation Division was run by Vaughn and many of her coworkers, as depicted in the film (ACD).
“So yes, Mr. Johnson, they do allow women do some things at NASA, and it’s not because we wear skirts,” Johnson, then Goble, conclude in a smooth rebuttal in the film to a sexist criticism about their profession. Those of us with spectacles are to blame. Wishing you all the best for the day.
4. Made in Dagenham
Factory workers at Ford Motor Company’s Dagenham plant in London went on strike in 1968, demanding that sexual discrimination be eliminated from workplaces across the country. In response to the “regrading” of their employment skill level (and income) relative to their male co-workers, car production slowed down. In 1970, the Equal Pay Act was signed into law thanks to the publicity generated by the walkout.
This year, Sally Hawkins, star of The Shape of Water and inspiration for the fictional Rita O’Grady in Nigel Cole’s 2010 film adaptation of the events, leads the charge as the fictional Rita O’Grady based on real-life women who fought for equal compensation for their labor and changed the history of working women in the United Kingdom.
5. Battle of the Sexes
Battle of the Sexes stars Emma Stone as Billie Jean King, the legendary tennis player and advocate for women’s equality. A 2017 film by Simon Beaufoy depicts the 1973 tennis match between King and Bobby Riggs, a highly sexualized opponent (played perhaps with too much charm by Steve Carell). In this film’s dialogue, if you can avoid striking a wall, you’re doing well. Back in the 1970s, having equal prize money for men and women in tennis events was a joke at best. For their protest, King and Gladys Heldman (a brilliant Sarah Silverman) formed the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973, which eventually led to the US Tennis Association raising the salary for female players.
That women and men tennis players aren’t on equal footing in terms of skill or popularity is a recurring sexist theme that runs throughout the film, and one that Riggs himself reiterates in his boasts that he can beat any woman on the court even at 55 years old. In the infamous “Battle of the Sexes” bout, King volunteers to face Riggs in order to disprove the latter’s accusations.
6. Iron Jawed Angels
Katja von Garnier’s 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels examines the U.S. women’s suffrage campaign in the 1910s and World War I through an anachronistic early 2000s soundtrack.
Suffrage leaders Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, both played by Hilary Swank, join the National American Woman Suffrage Association at a period when tensions were developing between the established members and the newer blood on strategy. In 1913, Paul and Burns organized the first women’s suffrage parade in Washington, D.C., as part of their crusade for a constitutional amendment that would grant women the right to vote. The old guard, on the other hand, wanted to keep campaigning in each individual state. Emmeline Pankhurst, a British suffragist best known for founding the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), served as an inspiration to both Paul and Burns. So, they formed the National Woman’s Party in response to NAWSA’s radical strategy. Despite the film’s age and cringe-inducing romance plot, it’s nevertheless a significant piece of cinema.
There was also racism in the US suffrage campaign, which was notable. To please southern suffrage groups, Paul instructs Black women to march in the back of the segregated parade, which is performed by Adilah Barnes in the film. Ida B. Wells, a women’s rights activist and early civil rights pioneer, is played by Barnes. Wells defies Paul and Burns’ insistence on equal rights for only some (white) women, and we later see her marching with the delegation of her state in defiance of their insistence. This is the only way I’m going to march: alongside my peers or not at all.
7. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
One of two documentaries we’ve smuggled onto this list because no one has yet made a feature film about Marsha P. Johnson. Filmmaker Victoria Cruz’s investigation into the mysterious death and broader look at New York City’s transgender rights movement in The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is included in Netflix’s documentary series The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson.
STAR (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries) was founded in 1970 by Johnson and the legendary activist Silvia Rivera under the direction of David France. Director David France has been accused by trans filmmaker and activist Tourmaline of using her research for the film. The film revolves around Cruz’s never-ending quest to unearth incidences of abuse against trans women that have been overlooked or only half-investigated.
8. The Glorias
The Glorias, a surreal biopic by Julie Taymor, has four different portrayals of Gloria Steinem (Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson, and Ryan Keira Armstrong). The film, which is based on Gloria Steinem’s memoir My Life on the Road, tells the story of Steinem’s career as a feminist activist and activist for women’s rights during the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond. Ms., America’s first national feminist magazine, was launched at this time, as was the momentous 1977 National Women’s Conference, which took place in Houston.
An intersectional feminist movement impacted Steinem’s work and is portrayed in the film, many of whom are prominent figures in the movement. Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez), and Bella Abzug (Bette Midler) are just a few of the notable women featured in the film.
Although Selma concentrates on the 1965 marches for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel, John Lewis, and Hosea Williams, we’ve included it in our list. With this stunning film, Ava DuVernay brings to light the trailblazing women who stood at the forefront of the civil rights struggle and set the framework for this important time.
Despite the scary, violent, and institutionalized bigotry that they endure, Tessa Thompson plays Diane Nash, Oprah Winfrey portrays Annie Lee Cooper, Carmen Ejogo takes on the role of Coretta Scott King, and Lorraine Toussaint portrays Amelia Boyton.
10. North Country
Inspired by Lois Jenson and the landmark lawsuit that transformed sexual harassment law in America, North Country tells a harrowing and inspiring tale of perseverance. A class action lawsuit against a northern Minnesota iron mine where women workers, including Jenson, were routinely exposed to harassment, intimidation, and other forms of abuse, resulted in Jenson becoming the first American woman to win a case alleging sexual harassment and assault.
Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) is a fictionalized depiction of Jenson in the 2002 novel by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler about the case. Despite the personal sacrifice, she changed the course of American history for women in the workplace.
If you’re in Australia, you can now watch North Country on Netflix, and it’s also available to rent or buy on other platforms including Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.
11. He Named Me Malala
Because there are so many, but also because no feature film has been created about Nobel laureate, Oxford graduate, activist, author, and fierce advocate for girls’ education Malala Yousafzai, we only included two documentaries on this list. As a result, this picture is included on the list.
He Named Me Malala, directed by An Inconvenient Truth’s David Guggenheim, follows the life of Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head by the Taliban at the age of 15 for advocating for the education of girls. Also included are interviews with young women and girls who speak about the significance of Yousafzai’s life and the use of amazing animation.
When and where to watch: You may now see He Named Me Malala on Hoopla in the United States, or you can rent or buy a copy on Amazon, iTunes, or Google Play if you’re in another country.
When Anita Hill testified in 1991, she accused Clarence Thomas, her former supervisor, of sexual harassment, a claim he denies. She earned a name for herself in the annals of history. People watching the hearings were surprised to learn that sexual harassment was an issue that could be taken to court.” In the wake of the #MeToo movement, Hill told the New York Times, “They had no notion what the concept was about. That’s how things had changed for us.” As time passed, however, this altered.
A superb performance from Kerry Washington as Hill in Confirmation recreates this hearing and the events surrounding it (a performance, critics noted, that dug deeper than the movie itself). The New York Times notes that complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission regarding sexual harassment rose 73% in the year following Hill’s testimony. Many people attribute the year 1992’s “year of the woman” to Hill’s testimony and treatment by the all-male judiciary committee panel. A courageous person’s impact on others is incalculable, as the film demonstrates through its depiction of the fortitude required to come forward.
13. The Divine Order
Only in 1971 did women in Switzerland gain the right to vote. Why is it taking so long to get back to me? Because of Switzerland’s form of direct democracy, any change to the country’s constitution must be approved by referendum, which could only be cast by men. For the Divine Order, the suffrage movement of Switzerland is shown as a fictional housewife and town leader (played by Marie Leuenberger). Small, seemingly inconsequential deeds can have a big impact on the movement for equality.