9 feminist movie heroines from less-feminist eras

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This week, we marveled at just how sexist Jurassic World turned out to be — especially in comparison to the progressive gender politics of Jurassic Park, the movie's predecessor by 22 years.

The bad news, of course, is that Hollywood is still consistently failing women in 2015. But there's something to be optimistic about here, too. If you feel like panning for gold, you can find plenty of fantastic, full-bodied female characters in movies released much earlier than 1993: think five, six, or even more decades ago.

For your consideration, here are nine deeply compelling, highly watchable fictional women, all of whom made their debuts on the silver screen before the dawn of second-wave feminism in the early 1960s.


Nora Charles in The Thin Man (1934)

Myrna Loy’s socialite is, to paraphrase her husband Nick (William Powell), a lanky brunette with a wicked jaw. She and her ex-detective mate enjoy an enviable marriage of equals, with Mrs. Charles just as capable of solving murders and delivering sparkling one-liners as Mr. Charles. In our favorite scene from this classic mystery, she meets Nick at a bar and learns that he’s six martinis deep, so she orders half a dozen for herself to catch up.

Lucy Warriner in The Awful Truth (1937)

Lucy (Irene Dunne) and Jerry Warriner (Cary Grant) divorce after both spouses discover that the other has been unfaithful. The freshly-single protagonists pursue new relationships (for her, a profoundly boring oil man; for him, a show girl), despite the fact that there’s still a great deal of love between them.


After Jerry — who has visitation rights to their dog, Mr. Smith (Asta, who also played the Charles' dog in The Thin Man) — tries and fails to win her back, it’s ultimately Lucy who engineers their reunion: she foils her would-be ex’s courtship with a stuck-up, insufferable heiress by pretending to be Jerry’s bawdy sister, lovingly tormenting him into her arms.

Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940)


Ace reporter Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) is about to leave New York City for domestic bliss in Albany with her sweet-but-dull fiancé (Ralph Bellamy, who also played romantic second fiddle as that boring oil man in The Awful Truth). But first, Walter Burns (Cary Grant), Hildy’s editor ex-husband, lures her into staying at the paper with one last story, about a murderer’s imminent execution. As it turns out, Hildy can resist the pull of neither a juicy scoop nor Walter, her preferred verbal sparring partner.

Hildy is intelligent, independent, and wickedly funny. She thrives in the boys’ club atmosphere of the newsroom, which is unsurprising, considering this character was originally written as male in The Front Page, the film adaptation of a play that His Girl Friday is based on. But as a heroine, she’s even more of a hero.


Jean Harrington in The Lady Eve  (1941)

Barbara Stanwyck plays a slick, sexy con artist with her sights set on Charles Pike (Henry Fonda), the comically shy heir to a beer fortune. The man she calls “Hopsie" quickly succumbs to her estimable charms, and to Jean’s surprise, she falls for her mark, too. But when he uncovers her gold-digging plot, he rejects her.


Jean is livid. “I need him like the ax needs the turkey,” she says. Harrington reinvents herself as the elegant Lady Eve Sidwich to win Hopsie’s heart again — and to teach him a lesson.

Charlie Newton in Shadow of a Doubt (1943)


The badass women of classical Hollywood weren't restricted to screwball comedies — take this disturbing Hitchcock thriller, for instance, the director's favorite of his own movies. Teenage Charlotte "Charlie" Newton (Teresa Wright) couldn't be more excited when her beloved namesake, Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten), comes to visit her sleepy small town.

Charlie gradually realizes that her uncle is the "Merry Widow Murderer," wanted for robbing and strangling a number of elderly women. She threatens to turn him into the authorities if he doesn't leave town. But when another suspect, killed while fleeing police, is presumed to be responsible for her uncle's crimes, Charlie's leverage over him disappears. Now, he intends to murder his niece before she can reveal the truth — unless, of course, she can get to him first.


Mildred Pierce in Mildred Pierce (1945)

This Joan Crawford feature — part melodrama, part film noir — sends mixed messages about family and motherhood, but there's no denying that the title character herself is an impressive entrepreneur, even by today's standards. After divorcing her first husband, Mildred, a housewife with a gift for baking, becomes a waitress, then opens a restaurant, then opens a chain of restaurants. Too bad she's stuck with social-climbing Veda (Ann Blyth), her sociopathic nightmare of a daughter.


Amanda Bonner in Adam's Rib (1949)

From The Philadelphia Story to Woman of the Year, most of Katharine Hepburn's film roles probably belong on this list, but none more than her starring turn in this classic rom-com, co-written by actress Ruth Gordon. Amanda (Hepburn) and Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy) are married lawyers who find themselves defending and prosecuting, respectively, a wife accused of attempting to murder her adulterous husband. Their contentious court battle — which Amanda ultimately wins with a case premised on equal rights for women — nearly drives them to divorce.


Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950)

In All Above Eve, one of the best-written movies Hollywood has yet to make, Bette Davis stars as Margo Channing, a veteran Broadway star with a devoted young fan-turned-assistant (Anne Baxter as the titular Eve) who's quietly plotting to steal the spotlight for himself.


Channing is acerbic and self-centered, with a flair for the dramatic, not to mention that she's a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker. But for all her flaws, she remains incredibly likable, and incredibly fun to watch. This is an insanely good role, the kind an actress might gladly sever a toe or non-essential finger for the chance to play — and the kind that, even in 2015, is all too rarely written for women over 40.

Dorothy Shaw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)


When you think of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, you probably think of Marilyn Monroe — who made one of her earliest film appearances as a ditzy aspiring actress in All About Eve — and her iconic performance as committed gold-digger (or diamond-digger?) Lorelei Lee. But co-lead Jane Russell is a gem herself as Dorothy Shaw, Monroe's character's whip-smart best friend and fellow showgirl.

Unlike Lee, who's dead-set on marrying rich, Dorothy's interest in men is unabashedly, gleefully sexual. The musical number "Anyone Here for Love," which features her unsuccessful attempts to seduce the semi-nude members of a men's Olympic team, is a slice of camp heaven.


Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.