How Did The Women's Movement of the 60s and 70s Affect The Woman's Role In Film Compared To Earlier Stereotypes of the 1950s

Amanda Smith '08-'09

During the last half a century, the role of women in films changed as the feminist movement took over the 60s and 70s. Women became more powerful and broke out of the stereotypical roles of the 1950s. I really want to know what empowered women during the feminist movement. More specifically, how did that new image of female strength manifest itself in film's following the 70s. All of the clips on this page show the evolution of the portrayal of women in film in the second half of the twentieth century, and they are just as much a part of this project as the rest of the text. Please take the time to watch at least a few of the clips. I think they really drive the point home. Enjoy!!!

Background: Women After World War II
Women have always been seen as the lesser gender in the patriarchal society that we live in. Since the beginning of time, men are the hunters and gatherers, while women are left to their domestic sphere of child rearing and mindless household chores. Over centuries, this has led to the development of separate spheres-- the ideal woman stays at home, raises a family, and is responsible for the moral purity of the family while the man is responsible for "bringing home the bacon." Furthermore, films dating back to the first half of the twentieth century (the 1950s in partciular)portrayed women as dependent on men.

As the United States became involved in World War II in the 1940s, women entered the work force at all-time high rates. Millions of women entered the factories and took over the jobs of the men who were fighting in the war. This trend was not new in history. War has always created opportunity for women to enter society and break from their traditional roles. Dating back to the Revolutionary War, women have used war as an opportunity to fill the "public sphere" while their husbands are off fighting. Typically, women returned to their "private sphere" after the fighting ended and resumed their stereotypical roles in society. World War II broke this cycle by inciting women to later start a major women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s. "Rosie the Riveter", a patriotic cartoon promiting women in the work place, became an icon for American women during the war. By the end of the war, more than 18 million women were working in jobs, comprising approximately one-third of the entire American work force and disturbing the idea of "separate spheres." However, by 1945, American involvement in World War II was ending and women were again displaced from their newfound jobs. Woman who managed to keep their jobs were paid a fraction of what men received.1


The war had pulled America out of The Great Depression and allowed the country to achieve unprecendented wealth and both the highest gross national production and the highest standard of living in the world. A baby boom occured during the 1950s, and middle class women (the women who had entered the workforce during the war) moved to the suburbs to escape decaying cities where they were expected to raise families as they had before the war. Women were forced into a world of conformity and consumerism (due to new household appliances like the washing machines, refrigerators, toasters, etc.) where they were once again supposed to act as the "diligent homemaker." Books such as Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care gave advice to women about how to raise their children. "Home economic" books gave high schools girls tips on how to be the perfect housewife including:
"1. Have dinner ready: Plan ahead, even the night before, to have a delicious meal on time.

This is a way of letting him know that you have been thinking about him, and are concerned about his needs. Most men are hungry when they come home and the prospects of a good meal are part of the warm welcome needed.

2. Prepare yourself: Take 15 minutes to rest so you will be refreshed when he arrives. Touch up your make-up, put a ribbon in your hair and be fresh looking.
He has just been with a lot of work- weary people. Be a little gay and a little more interesting. His boring day may need a lift.

3. Clear away the clutter. Make one last trip through the main part of the house just before your husband arrives, gathering up school books, toys, paper, etc. Then run a dust cloth over the tables.
Your husband will feel he has reached a haven of rest and order, and it will give you a lift, too.

4. Prepare the children: Take a few minutes to wash the children's hands and faces if they are small, comb their hair, and if necessary, change their clothes.
They are little treasures and he would like to see them playing the part.

5. Minimize the noise: At the time of his arrival, eliminate all noise of washer, dryer, dishwasher or vacuum. Try to encourage the children to be quiet.
Be happy to see him. Greet him with a warm smile and be glad to see him.

6. Things to avoid: Don't greet him with problems or complaints. Don't complain if he's late for dinner.
Count this as minor compared with what he might have gone through that day.

7. Make him comfortable: Have him lean back in a comfortable chair or suggest he lie down in the bedroom. Have a cool or warm drink ready for him. Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes.
Speak in a low, soft, soothing and pleasant voice. Allow him to relax and unwind.

8. Listen to him: You may have a dozen things to tell him, but the moment of his arrival is not the time. Let him talk first.

9. Make the evening his: Never complain if he does not take you out to dinner or to other places of entertainment; instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure, his need to be home and relax.

10. The goal: Try to make your home a place of peace and order where your husband can relax."

The 1950s: Conformity and Domesticity
But even more disturbing, women got the idea that they needed to conform to this model particularly since that was how female role models were portrayed in film. Both animated and live-action films during the 1950s showed women as needy and subservient to their husbands. Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball's I Love Lucy) is portrayed as the ditzy wife of Ricky Ricardo. In a classic episode, Ricky challenges Lucy to find a job and work for the day while he does the housework instead. They switch places only for Lucy to find that she cannot last a day in the workplace; Ricky discovers that he is unfit for housework and cooking. The episode ends with Lucy agreeing to stick to what she does best, which is living in her private sphere, leaving the wage-earning to her husband. After World War II, there was a push for women to leave the jobs they had started while their husbands were fighting the war because it was thought that women were taking away men's jobs. This episode (created in the early 1950s) clearly supports that popular notion.

Disney Princesses epitomized the "damsel in distress." Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which actually dates back to the late 30s) and Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) are seen waiting for their "Prince Charming." Snow White escapes cleaning the castle of the Wicked Stepmother only to be found cleaning the house for the Seven Dwarves. Sleeping Beauty lies helplessly asleep waiting for the kiss that will wake her as the prince saves the day and battles the dragon. These princesses are passive human beings-- neither Snow White nor Sleeping Beauty are extraordinary or ambitious women (like those in later Disney films). They are girls who are transformed into princesses by fate rather than by merit. Young girls of the 50s had fantasies of living a Snow White fairy tale, waiting for true love's first kiss. Girls that had already met their Prince Charming were no more than trophy wives.

The 1960s and 1970s: A New Wave of Feminism

The Women's Movement of the 60s and 70s is known as the Second Wave of feminism (the First Wave of Feminism during the earlier half of the twentieth century focused more on legal rights, such as suffrage, property rights, etc.) Drawing inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement, women sought to liberate themselves from the oppression they faced in the prior decade. Betty Friedan published her novel, The Feminine Mystique, in 1963. She began writing this novel after attending Smith College (an all women's school); she was a suburban housewife at the time and also a freelance writer for women's magazines.3 Friedan book addresses the issue of why women were unhappy, talking about how women were forced to forsake careers in order to fit into the sterotypical ideal of a perfect housewife. She argued that those who take on the job as a housewife and mother must sacrifice another part of their identity. Her controversial work sparked the movement for equal women's rights.
In 1966, Friedan also helped to found the National Organization for Women (NOW), which still exists today and works towards the fair and equal treatment for women in both the workplace and society in general. In 1969, helped to found the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America), a pro-choice organization that opposed anti-abortion restrictions. The Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade (abortion was declared a constitutional right because of a person's right to privacy) was a great success for this pro-choice group. The availability of the birth control pill was a great stride for women because it allowed them to take more control of the size of their families and it also gave women more freedom with their sexuality. The sale of contraceptives to married families was challenged in the Supreme Court case Griswold v. State of Connecticut in 1965, but the court ruled Connecticut's law unconstitutional because they interfered with a person's right to privacy.3 The Equal Pay Act of 1963 stated that men and women had to be given equal wages for equal work, although that law was not and still is not always upheld. Ideas of the 1960s contradicted popular beliefs of the 50s and empowered women to take control over their own lives.4

More radical women's groups emerged by the late 60s and early 70s. The Women's Liberation Movement began founding women's health clinic, rape crisis centers, and women's centers. More radical groups of women got the reputation of being "bra burners." At the 1968 Miss American pageant, over 100 women through symbols of female "oppression" such as bras, girdles, and make-up into trashcans to show the shallow values seen in the pageant.6

Many single women had to learn to be self-sufficient and provide for children even though they still faced discrimination in the workplace and often could not make enough money to support themselves. During the 60s and 70s, there was an increase in Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and the Food Stamp Program expanded, providing women with at least a little bit of additional welfare.7 The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was actually beneficial for all women because it helped support the arugment that sexual harassment was a form of discrimination based on sex.7

In 1970, the Equal Rights Amendment was reintroduced to Congress. It was originally proposed in 1923 (written by feminist Alice Paul, but it was never ratified. It stated that "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." After 1972, it was sent to the states for ratification, but only 35 of the 38 necessary states voted to ratify this amendment.2 Even though supported by women's rights groups (such as NOW), it met heavy opposition from religious fundamentalist groups, those who thought women's rights to privacy would be taken away, and states-rights advocates who thought this amendment was just another attempt at a federal "grab for power." While this measure was never ratified and strong proponents of women's rights still push for the ratification of this amendment today, it helped to set a tone for the rest of the 70s.3

The 1980s up to the Present: Feminine Strength in Film

The women's movement came to almost a standstill by the end of the 1970s as the movement failed to attract women beyond the working middle class. But the sentiment of female empowerment did not die out. The rate of women earning college degrees and entering the workforce was still on the rise, and women would not tolerate being portrayed as the objects of male oppression. This was reflected particularly in films of the late 1980s and 1990s.

The image of the once stereotypical Disney princess was evolving into a modern, powerful woman. She was no longer the helpless damsel in distress, but rather, the heroine of the story. In the 1991 Disney adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Belle, the protagonist of the movie, unlike the blissfully ignorant princesses of the 50s, is intelligent, witty, and she dreams of something more than her "provincial life."8 She ultimately saves the Beast by breaking the spell and turning him into a prince. Both Disney's 1995 adaptation of Pocahontas and Disney's 1998 adaptation of Mulan showstrong-willed, independent. Pocahontas is a Native American woman responsible for saving the life of John Smith while Mulan proves her inner and physical strength when she dresses as a man to take her father's place in the army. While diversity was not a major theme in the women's movement (it mainly influenced the white middle class women), Pocahontas and Mulan are really two of the first films in which the protagonists are ethnic. Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are drawn much more like "typical American housewife" (the former with dark hair and fair complextion, the latter with the stereotypical blonde hair and blue eyes.)9

But more than just Disney was influenced by the women's movement. The James Bond movies (a series of 22 movies based on the novels by Ian Fleming) featured the dashing agent 007. The first of the series, Dr. No, hit the box offices in 1962. These movies were an instant sensation because of the spy gadgets and suspenseful plot lines. Of course, amidst all of the action, there was always the infamous "Bond girl." Seductive, objectified, and powerless, these girls would play Bond's love interest. However, in typical James Bond fashion, these girls would usually die by the end of each movie because a spy like Bond could never be tied down to one girl. These girls were no more than temporary toys of male oppression, used to draw in male audiences who wanted more than a cool car chase scene. But jump forward 46 years and compare Dr. No with the most recent James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace (which hit box offices in the UK in October 2008). In this more recent film, Bond is assisted by Camilles Montes. She is not only more exotic looking than the traditional blonde-hair, blue-eyed Bond girl, but she is a strong, independent woman with a sense of purpose. Furthermore, while Bond is attracted to her, they are never in a romantic relationship. She is not the object of male lust.5

From Dr. No (1962):

From Quantum of Solace (2008):

Films produced after the 60s and 70s showed the influence of the Women's Movement and change in the American psyche. While women today still face discrimination on account of gender, the film industry has realized the need for strong, female protagonists who are more than just housewives or objects in a patriarchal society.

To all of my fellow brainwashed APUSHERs: we made it through the AP/10th grade!!! I'm going to miss you all this summer! See you guys in the fall!
-Amanda S.


7. LEP and AMSCO