Contributions women have made to American history are sometimes well-publicized, but many have been under-recognized. Watching films about strong women in American history is a great way for students, history buffs or anyone to learn more about women’s history in the U.S.
20th Century American Women in History
All of these films feature as their subjects women who have made history in some way. This first film is a biopic about a woman well-known for her accomplishments:
Amelia (2009) – Hilary Swank plays record-setting aviation pioneer and suffragette, Amelia Earhart. In 1932, Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Mira Nair directed this biographical film.
Women Activists in American History – Biopics
These two period pieces, also biographical films, focus on two women’s roles in two pivotal pivotal periods in U.S. history:
Iron Jawed Angels (2004) – Hilary Swank stars as women’s suffrage activist Alice Paul in this dramatization of the National Women’s Party’s fight to secure American women’s right to vote. The 19th Amendment, which guarantees women suffrage, was ratified August 18, 1920. Katja von Garnier directed this film.
The Rosa Parks Story (2002), Angela Bassett stars as Rosa Parks, a black woman who ignited the civil rights movement in 1955 when she refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Alabama to a white person. Julie Dash directed this film.
Notable Women Activists in Recent American History
For the women in these based-on-a-true-story dramatizations the personal is political. Through circumstances in their work lives, each is drawn into a battle for fairness and workers’ rights:
North Country (2007) – Charlize Theron stars as Josie Aimes, a single mother and mine worker who in 1984 took on the male-dominated Minnesota iron mining industry in a landmark sexual harassment lawsuit: Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines. Niki Caro directed this drama.
Norma Rae (1979) – Sally Field won an Oscar for her portrayal of a courageous textile factory worker who organized her coworkers to unionize for labor rights. Martin Ritt directed the dramatization of this true story.
Women in History – Documentaries
These documentaries tell the real-life stories of women who took on unprecedented roles in traditionally male-dominated fields:
The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter (1981) – This documentary by Connie Field focuses on women who took on “men’s work” in factories during World War II. Rosie the Riveter became an American feminist icon and is the subject of wartime posters, a song and a Norman Rockwell painting.
Chisolm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed (2004) –This PBS documentary by Sheila Lynch tells the story of Shirley Chisolm, who was the first black woman elected to Congress in 1978, and also the first black woman to run for president, in 1972. Chisolm is an important figure in African American women’s history.
National Women’s History Month
March is Women’s History Month in the U.S. Women in history and women’s contributions both past and present are celebrated. Women’s History Month is the perfect time to watch historical films and documentaries about the lives of great women in American history.
Any time of year, however, movies can be an entertaining way to gain insight into women’s rich and complicated history in the United States. The above list is by no means exhaustive, yet these films highlight bold, inspirational women and important events in 20th century U.S. women’s history
Prior to Aug. 26, 1920 women in the United States could not participate in the democratic process. They were not permitted to vote, they could not own property and they could not retain custody of their own children. Following the Civil War, American women wanted to have more input into the decisions that would impact their lives. In order for women to gain suffrage groups across the nation had to gather together and create a unified effort for change.
The Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, the first formal conference for woman’s suffrage, challenged America to a revolution that would endure for more than seven decades before women actually were granted the right to vote. Convened by Elizabeth Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the conventions aim was to empower women and invoke change through suffrage for women. Since the Civil War women had begun to feel the need to represent themselves and be able to participate in the decision making process which would affect their daily lives.
The community of women who gathered in 1848 faced their first challenge in 1869 when the 15th amendment, which extended the right to vote to African-American men, was introduced and passed. Women across the nation had hoped that this amendment would include them.
Following the Civil War, woman’s study groups flourished. These groups gave women access to education and an intellectual forum. By the early twentieth century communication was also more effective and women across the nation had more experiences and were generally better prepared to organize themselves. However, this was also a quiet time for the suffrage movement. It was not until 1914 when a younger generation of women began to hold street presentations, parades and other activism stunts to gain attention.
In 1915 the National Woman’s Party formed and began to campaign against the party in power. At this time women were being arrested for their action and in jail some were mistreated. The mistreatment of women gained much attention creating public sympathy for the suffragists. Although World War I slowed the progression of suffrage by 1919 women the 19th amendment was officially passed. By Aug. 26, 1920 then President Woodrow Wilson ratified the amendment allowing women to enter the polls for the first time in the United States.
Voting is just one step toward equality for women. Throughout the 20th century women have formed unions and fought for better working conditions, access to woman’s health and the freedom from harassment. Although some advancements have been made in these fields feminists and feminism as a whole has fallen from graces. Today women can vote as well as own property and multimillion dollar companies but there is still work to be done.
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