Four Films for Women’s History Month

Written by Alex Gibson on . Posted in Film Lists, Iron Jawed Angels, Nine to Five, Norma Rae, Tags, The Magdalene Sisters, Women's History Month

March is Women’s History Month, and we’re celebrating the best way we know how – by watching movies! There are dozens upon dozens of films that would be perfect to celebrate Women’s History Month, but I have chosen a select few. The films that I have picked span decades and genres, and highlight women’s struggles, triumphs and the extraordinary female spirit that has pulled us through.

Nine to Five
Nine to Five is an over-the-top comedy featuring three sassy leading ladies and a theme song I can’t quite get out of my head. But don’t let the comedic aspect of this film distract you from the serious issues it addresses. The film is not just about disgruntled secretaries who kidnap their chauvinistic boss; it is about the workplace obstacles that have been built to keep women in the typing pool. It is about societal norms and corporate policies that don’t allow men and women the same opportunities in their careers. Historically, obvious hindrances to women’s success have been issues such as equal pay; perhaps less obvious ones are in-house day care and paid maternity leave. Nine to Five takes a forceful and humorous look at why it seems women in the 80s could not have a healthy family and a thriving career as men did. Moreover, Nine to Five is about women freeing themselves from the shackles of stereotypes and narrow-mindedness. Judy (Jane Fonda) is entering the workforce for the first time after her divorce and must stop thinking of herself just as a housewife. Doralee (Dolly Parton) must over overcome being judged and objectified for her looks, while Violet (Lily Tomlin), who can’t get a promotion after twelve years of experience, has to break through an incredibly thick glass ceiling. By the end of the movie, we are shown that women of the 80s had everything they needed to succeed in the world – everything except the opportunities, but it wouldn’t be that way forever.

Norma Rae
In arguably her most well-known role, in Norma Rae, Sally Field tells the true story of the birth of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers union in a North Carolina textile mill. Field depicts a small town minimum-wage worker whose entire family – and most of her town – works in harsh conditions at the factory. When a New York representative of the Textile Workers Union of America shows up one day and speaks about the benefits of the union, Norma Rae is empowered. As one of the first factory workers to get involved with the union, Norma becomes the ‘insider’ the union needs to get others on board. She risks her job and her personal relationships to see the union established in the mill. The film climaxes in the famous scene in which Norma stands on a table in the mill holding a UNION sign as the workers, one by one, shut down their machines around her. Norma Rae is remarkable in that it depicts the birth of a union — unions being an integral part of American history, society, and progress — and puts a woman at the forefront. In both her personal and professional lives, Norma is inhibited by men. Her foreman admonishes her for talking too much and purposely places her in uncomfortable positions. Meanwhile, her father tries to control who she sees and when; he tries to protect her, but ends up stifling her. In the community, Norma is known for being loud-mouthed and promiscuous. Through her work with the union, she overcomes such labels. Norma Rae depicts a strong, determined woman doing what women have had to do for centuries – breaking free from expectations and the boxes in which they have been put by others.

Iron Jawed Angels
Iron Jawed Angels begins with a young girl swinging in her back yard. As she soars into the air, it seems that the sky is the limit for her, as it should be. However, this girl is growing up in the early 20th Century, so her options are indeed very limited. This 2004 HBO film depicts the struggles and efforts of Alice Paul (Hillary Swank), Lucy Brown (Frances O’Connor) and the National Women’s Party to get Congress to pass the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right vote. At the time the film takes place, nine states have given women the vote, and Paul and Brown are leading the new wave of suffragists, as opposed to perhaps better known figures Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. They are young, educated, vivacious women who pass out flyers, hold parades, and picket the President. The film illuminates the work of the NWP and their distinct break from the older women’s rights movement, and focuses on activists from several walks of life – scrappy college-grads, immigrant workers, and society women joining the cause. It shows how many, working together, can achieve great things. Iron Jawed Angels is maddening when the politicians in power suggests that women not only need but want men to think for them. It is inspiring with Inez Millholland (Julia Ormond) leads the march wearing angel wins and a gilt sword. It is harrowing when an emaciated Alice Paul is force fed in prison during a hunger strike. And it will make you cry when gold stars rain down on the suffragists when the amendment is passed. Most of all, this film will make any woman grateful for the suffragists’ work.

The Magdalene Sisters
The Magdalene Sisters begins with introductions to the three characters. Their names appear individually on screen, and the viewer is shown how each had sinned. Margaret was raped by her cousin at a family wedding then sent away the next morning. Bernadette, living in an orphanage for girls, is caught flirting with local boys through a fence. The next day, her bed was empty. Rose had a child out of wedlock and her father convinced her to give the baby up for adoption. Before she can change her mind, she and the baby are separated and don’t see each other again for over thirty years. After these introductions, a list of girls’ names fills the screen, signifying that these three stories are not unique, but just a few reasons young Irish women may have ended up in a Magdalene Laundry. The Magdalene Laundries was an institution named after biblical prostitute-turned-disciple Mary Magdalene, in which troubled girls were meant to wash their sins away. The film follows the three girls as they live in the prison-like laundry for four years, being worked to death to pay for the sins they’re accused of. They wash clothes, are abused emotionally and sexually by the clergy, and paraded through the nearby town as fallen women, warnings.

This film is very important to Women’s History. It depicts women who, in the face of adversity, take back their lives and free themselves. It also reminds the viewer of the danger of seeing women as only one thing. The nun who runs the Magdalene Laundry says that the girls were put there for the good of the country, because they are temptresses and prone to weakness. Men, she says, are naturally weak, so women must support them and keep them honest, not pull them into sin. This is an argument that is used to this very day. An incredible amount of progress has been made since the 60s when The Magdalene Sisters is set. However, our familiarity with the nun’s argument and the fact that Magdalene Laundries existed well into our lifetimes also reminds that there is still a long way to go.

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