Our Own Women’s Oscars

February 25, 2011

With the Oscars coming up this weekend, we’ve all got movies on our minds. And since most of the focus on women this Sunday will favor fashion over faculty, the staff at AAUW has decided to highlight our own favorite ladies in film — regardless of whether they made the grade with the typically testosterone-focused Academy Awards.

Read on for some great suggestions for your must-watch list, and be sure to tell us about your favorite empowering movies in the comments.

I love The Women (the original), with Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford at their finest. The cast is entirely female, and it’s shockingly funny. The characters are shown in their “female” domains, but they’re never not in control of themselves or their wit. And the clothes are amazing.

—Beth Scott, Regulatory Affairs Manager

Nothing beats a good Jane Austen flick. Pride and Prejudice is my favorite. Colin Firth is by far the best Darcy (1995), but I did like Keira Knightley’s interpretation of the wonderful Elizabeth Bennett as well (2005). For a contemporary twist, the Jane Austen Book Club (2007) is a fabulous movie with some seriously amazing actresses and intriguing characters. Lest you think your policy director is overly sentimental, I do love a good action movie; I can watch the Jason Bourne series and The Lord of the Rings trilogy for hours on end.

—Lisa M. Maatz, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations

My all-time favorite movie is Little Women. It portrays the lives of four strong, creative, willful, educated girls who challenge the norms of the day. Love it!

—Wendy Matheny, Grassroots Leadership Coordinator

My favorite movie is Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, starring Julie Christie (pre Dr. Zhivago). Bathsheba is one of the most powerful women in literary history, and yet she makes the classic mistake of letting her heart rule her head by falling in love with the wrong man, Lt. Troy. Love it and love her! A close second is Juliette Binoche as Catherine in Wuthering Heights. She is as perfect a Catherine as there ever was … just what Emily Bronte had in mind.

—Cordy Galligan, Director of Marketing and Business Development

One of my favorite films of the past few years is 2009’s Whip It. This movie captures the camaraderie and passion of team sports through a story about a high school girl who finds a hidden talent in roller derby. She’s a badass athlete and a loyal friend who doesn’t prioritize having a boyfriend over having self-respect. Even the women antagonists in this film are refreshing — they’re well-rounded characters whose intentions and backgrounds the filmmakers take the time to flesh out. Whip It is a joy to watch for feminist cinephiles. Bonus points: It was written and directed by women.

—Hannah Moulton Belec, Editor and Writer

I walked away from Blue Valentine completely moved by and in awe of Michelle Williams, 2011 Best Actress Oscar nominee. Her genuine performance and portrayal of Cindy, a woman in a deteriorating marriage, was raw, realistic, and yes, empowering. There are multiple, complex reasons why Cindy finally reaches her breaking point. To me, the fact that she reaches it and asks for a divorce is empowering. The film was not just a reflection on marriage but on relationships in general and the fragility of love. Everyone I have talked to has expressed the reaction “Gosh, it was depressing” simply because the two main characters split up. In the age of contrived Hollywood feel-good endings, Blue Valentine was different. It was real. Despite America’s high divorce rate, it’s still obvious that most of us harbor notions of happily-ever-after endings that we have been spoon-fed since birth, and this deviation from the norm shakes us up.

—Maureen Evans Arthurs, Development Fellow

Barbra Streisand’s Fanny Brice in Funny Girl bucks traditional beauty standards, takes control of her own image and career, and shows the world that women can be funny and be hugely successful. No one rains on her parade!

—Jessica Kelly, Leadership Programs Fellow

The African Queen — I was a young girl when I first saw this movie. Katharine Hepburn made such an impression (as did Humphrey Bogart, to be honest) that I watched every one of her movies I could find. I loved her independent, no-nonsense but still feminine approach even in pants and swore never to wear a dress again. I was overruled by my mom.

—Christy Jones, Director of Membership

I’m usually not a big fan of sports movies, but this film is by far the best I’ve ever seen. A League of Their Own is about the women’s professional baseball league in the 1940s. While more and more women were entering the workforce during WWII, other women were working as professional baseball players, something they have not been able to do since the 1950s, when the league was finally disbanded. In the movie, these ladies show just how tough we women can be. They play baseball in the requisite skirt uniforms — including sliding into bases, ouch! An interesting look at how these women were perceived came during a radio social commentary about how the baseball-playing femmes were contributing to “sexual confusion.” It’s too bad these attitudes still exist today. Just think of how many times you’ve heard the derogatory phrase “throw like a girl.” Well, this movie is definitely a cure for that stereotype.

—Katie Broendel, Acting Senior Media Relations and Marketing Associate

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a beautiful film. Kate Winslet portrays Clementine, the female lead, who is more than the typical lovesick woman found in Hollywood dramas. Although the movie focuses on the relationship between Clementine and Joel (Jim Carrey), questions of love and loss are explored through this incredibly dynamic character. She’s spontaneous, independent, and expressive, but she’s also vulnerable. She’s looking for her place in the world and, in one of the most memorable moments of the film, she says to Joel, “Too many guys think I’m a concept, or I complete them, or I’m gonna make them alive. But I’m just a f—ed-up girl who’s lookin’ for my own peace of mind; don’t assign me yours.” Sing it, sister.

—Dawn Aldrich, Interdepartmental Assistant

One of my favorite movies about women is Nine to Five with the amazing cast of Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin. The film came out in 1980 at the height of women entering the corporate workforce for the first time. It not only deals with issues of sexual harassment, work-life balance, and the challenges of moving up the corporate ladder as a woman but does it with an intense humor that allows the main characters to be more than one-dimensional. The first time I saw this movie I thought it was hilarious but also loved the feminist message and camaraderie among the women taking on their “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” of a boss! You don’t have to be a feminist to love this movie, but if you are, it will make you love it even more.

—Ana Kay Yaghoubian, Program Associate

I really like Fargo. I’m not crazy about the violence in it, but Frances McDormand’s performance as a very pregnant police officer going about her work and getting the job done is priceless. I love the depiction of her loving, egalitarian marriage as well.

—Christianne Corbett, Senior Researcher

Lackawanna Blues, set in 1950s and 1960s Lackawanna, New York, stars the very talented S. Epatha Merkerson and is based on the true story of Ruben Santiago Jr. and his relationship with his guardian. After the separation of his parents, young Ruben “Junior” Santiago, a part-black, part-Hispanic child, is sent to live in a small-scale boarding house run by the kindhearted Rachel “Nanny” Crosby and her younger husband, Bill. Ruben then grows up witnessing the world of soul and blues music and gets to know the various characters Nanny takes into her household to help out, such as the disturbed Ol’lem Taylor, one-armed handyman Mr. Lucious, hairdresser Bertha, war veteran Lonnie, ex-convict Mr. Paul, butch cleaner Ricky, and many others. For her work in the movie, S. Epatha Merkerson won best-actress Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Emmy awards in 2006. It’s a great movie with a stellar cast that brings home the message “It takes a village!” I love to see black and Latina/o actors getting work and their due in Hollywood!

—Sharvell Becton, Program Officer, American and International Fellowships

Well, that’s our list! What do you think? Have we hit the mark with these leading ladies, or did we miss something?

Leave your suggestions in the comments.

Avatar By:   |   February 25, 2011


  1. Kate Farrar Kate Farrar says:

    Glad to hear the shout-outs for Iron Jawed Angels. We show that every year at NCCWSL to the college women and it never gets old!

  2. Avatar Janet Nortrom says:

    I agree with so many, also Iron Jawed Angels and any Jane Austin movies, Cathy Bates excellent in everything she does,
    Meryl Streep so good and FARGO one of the best. Thanks, this was fun and joyous to think about, we have tons of snow in Wisconsin, and more to come and so many unhappy people right now.
    A good movie can help with the stress.

  3. Avatar Pascale says:

    Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Julie and Julia. A 1950s wife in Paris asking”but what will I do?”

  4. Avatar Al says:

    Many of these women have been heavily honored by the “testoserone” crowd already, but someone like Cathy Bates would be a welcome distinction.

  5. Avatar Ruth Wahtera says:

    Not a Hollywood film but an HBO film made for TV — Iron Jawed Angels about the suffragettes was so popular when our branch showed it last fall that we’re talking about making it an annual event. Nothing better than watching our courageous predecessors to inspire us to keep breaking through barriers.

  6. Avatar Kay Koehler says:

    I have not seen the new version of “True Grit” but remember the original, and loved the book by my newspaper colleague Charles Portis whose portrait of a determined teen aged girl having to handle the hard drinking Rooster and the useless LeBoeuf was spot on.

    And in a similar film, Cat Ballou, Jane Fonda created a memoriable woman of the west.

    And don’t forget the strong woman of GWTW…no, not Scarlett…Melanie Wilkes.

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