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Top 10 Feminist Films of the Midcentury

Annie sitting in the theatre

Classic Hollywood cinema is rarely cited for its equitable portrayal of women; nevertheless, a smattering of films from the mid-1940s to the mid-1960s contain feminist themes and feature strong female leads. Actresses like Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford, celebrated for their wit, professional ambition, and intrepid sexuality, challenged many of the sexist expectations of their time. Thus, while gendered roles may have afflicted much of midcentury America, hints of feminism’s second wave managed to seep into its films–an advisory for the political storm to come. It would not be the first time, however, that feminist themes made a splash on the big screen.

Well before feminism’s first wave receded into the re-domesticated homes of post-war America, Hollywood waded into the realm of the liberated woman. The first recorded feminist film, The Smiling Madame Beudet (1922), also had the distinction of being directed by a woman, Germaine Dulac. Later, in 1930, The Divorcee would challenge sexual double standards, as highlighted by MGM’s provocative advertisement to movie-goers: “If the world permits the husband to philander, why not the wife?”

During the midcentury, a handful of films would revisit the question, addressing sexism alongside issues of race, age, class, and sexual orientation. The proceeding list chronicles these movies, from the “feminish” cinema of the 1940s to the more explicit feminist filmography of the 1960s.

So grab some popcorn, turn down the lights, and travel back to a different era–an age of reduced rights and larger-than-life heroines.

1. Mildred Pierce (1945)

Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce
Ann Blyth and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce (1945) Warner Bros.

Mildred Pierce, the classic film noir, takes a tentative spot on this list. Admittedly, enabling a sociopathic daughter and falling prey to her murderous machinations is not particularly feminist. However, Mildred Pierce simultaneously champions the independence and ingenuity of Mildred (Joan Crawford)–a woman willing to leave her cheating husband, branch out on her own, and become a successful businesswoman.

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2. Adam’s Rib (1949)

Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib (1949)
Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Adam’s Rib (1949) MGM

When a woman is arrested for the attempted murder of her philandering husband, married attorneys Amanda (Katherine Hepburn) and Adam (Spencer Tracy) find themselves on opposing sides of the courtroom. What ensues is a witty and poignant commentary on the gender politics of the day–a commentary that was quite progressive for its time.

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3. All About Eve (1950)

Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950)
Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950) 20th Century Fox

All About Eve is really all about Bette Davis and her stellar performance as Margo Channing, the accomplished and mature Broadway actress. When the duplicitous Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) threatens to upstage the established star, Davis eloquently addresses the ageism and sexism inherent in show business. Unfortunately, over sixty years later, the conversation is still relevant.

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4. Johnny Guitar (1954)

Poster for Johnny Guitar
Poster for Johnny Guitar (1954) Republic Pictures

Joan Crawford makes the list again as the unflappable Vienna–a saloon owner in a desolate cattle town. The eponymous Johnny Guitar takes a back seat to Vienna, who dominates the plot-line and the dialogue: “A man can lie, steal, and even kill, but as long as he holds on to his pride, he’s still a man. All a woman has to do is slip once, and she’s a tramp.” Slip or not, Vienna holds her own in this classic Western.   

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5. Giant (1956)

Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in Giant (1956)
Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in Giant (1956) Warner Bros.

Giant certainly lives up to its name: an all-star cast, a vast Texan backdrop, and a plot-line spanning over thirty years. Elizabeth Taylor gives an epic performance as Leslie, the confident and socially-conscious socialite who marries wealthy rancher Bick (Rock Hudson). After moving West, Leslie is confronted by the racist treatment of Mexican Americans and begins advocating for change. Giant explores issues of segregation, interracial marriage, and sexism–all from the perspective of its strong leading lady.

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6. A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
A Raisin in the Sun (1961) Columbia Pictures

While not explicitly feminist, this adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s classic novel is one of the few midcentury films to give voice to the experiences of Black Americans. It’s also one of the few films to explore the intersection of race, gender, and class across generations. “It ain’t every day that a girl decides to be a doctor,” and for Beneatha Younger (Diana Sands), along with the other women in her family, achieving their dreams is complicated by more factors than just sexism.

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7. The Children’s Hour (1961)

Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn in The Children's Hour (1961)
Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn in The Children’s Hour (1961) United Artists

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine star in this gut-wrenching drama about two friends who open a private girls’ school. When a student accuses the two women of being lovers, they struggle to survive–professionally and personally. While director William Wyler purportedly cut some of the more intimate scenes between Hepburn and MacLaine, The Children’s Hour remains one of the first films to directly tackle lesbian relationships.

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8. Come Drink With Me (1966)

Pei-pei Cheng in Come Drink With Me (1966)
Cheng Pei-pei in Come Drink With Me (1966) Shaw Brothers Studio

Come Drink With Me is often credited as the best Hong Kong film ever made; it would later serve as the inspiration for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Cheng Pei-pei plays Golden Swallow, a skilled martial artist, who has been commissioned to rescue her brother from a group of bandits. She and her fellow female warriors manage to kick some serious ass, destroying noxious gender norms in the process.

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9. The Ballad of Josie (1967)

The Ballad of Josie (1967)
The Ballad of Josie (1967) Universal Studios

The Ballad of Josie begins promising enough: Josie (Doris Day) kills her abusive husband in self-defense and sets out to become a sheep farmer–much to the chagrin of some chauvinistic cattlemen. Josie insists, “I can think, and I can work, and I’m not going to sit around waiting for some nice man to rescue me. I don’t want a man, and I don’t need a man. I’ve got myself.” I wish the film ended there; unfortunately, the last twenty minutes nearly disqualifies it from this list.

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10. Wait Until Dark (1967)

Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967)
Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967) Warner Bros.

The indelible Audrey Hepburn graces the list again in one of her best but lesser-known films: Wait Until Dark. Hepburn plays Suzy, a young woman who is adjusting to life after recently losing her sight in a car accident. After a series of mishaps, Hepburn finds herself in the crosshairs of some nefarious criminals (and, in my opinion, one of the scariest villains of all time). Wait Until Dark largely avoids ableist tropes, portraying Hepburn as a smart, self-reliant woman who is steadily gaining confidence, despite attempts to manipulate and control her.

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Luxulite popcorn brooch

Crop Top: NikiBiki

Cigarette Pants: Pinup Girl Clothing

Brooch: Luxulite

Shoes: Miss L Fire (similar)

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