Reflections on Independence, Expression, and All the Professional Ladies

The opening of Rebecca Traister’s remarkable 2016 book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of the Independent Nation is a quote, a question posed by the great girl reporter Nellie Bly (who inspired the likes of Lois Lane and Ros Russell’s Hildy Johnson) and answered by America’s great suffragist Susan B. Anthony:

Bly: “What do you think the new woman will be?”

Anthony: “She’ll be free.”

Traister does a great job explaining and expounding on what that freedom is becoming and looks like, including the injustices still left to be overcome, for contemporary American women. It both challenges our ideals of freedom and affirms the work of our mothers and grandmothers, and the horizons open to us that simply were not open to them.

This impacts me (and many women I know) in a lot of profound ways. There are battles I will not have to fight, and battles the generation of my nieces will not have to either. I realize this every time I teach Thelma and Louise and we talk about how unfortunately plausible the plot is. “Could they have just gone to the police at the beginning?” some of my more sheltered students ask. The ones in the class from different life circumstances or different social circles shake their heads. They know. Occasionally I’ll have a young man in the class who just doesn’t get the film. In one sense, I’m glad there are young men who don’t understand women feeling hopeless and trapped because they’ve never seen it. But at the same time, they need to see that it’s real so they stop in when it happens–to people of both genders. And all of my students need to see that this film, this fictional story, written by Callie Khouri (who won and Oscar) and directed by Ridley Scott (who is known for directing women incredibly well), changed the way people thought. A movie did that.

I recently watched Suffragette, and agreed with the critics who praised the cast and rejoiced at the billing of a female director (Sarah Gavron), writer, and producer. The story was a bit overdone, (although the major plot points based on real events in the final scenes were stunning and literally will take your breath away) and the cinematography was beautiful but not remarkable. What I kept thinking about was how long it took for this film to be made, and that it wasn’t made in the US. Susan B. Anthony was put on the dollar coin in 1979, and this April the US Treasury announced she and other suffragists Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Alice Paul will appear on the new $10 bill. 

Where is the American movie about suffragists? 

Anyone who doubts the existence of the boy’s club in Hollywood must have missed the downplay of Katherine Bigelow’s 2008 Oscar for The Hurt Locker (Bigelow is the only female director to win an Oscar), or how Ava DuVernay’s film Selma and Charlize Theron’s performance in Mad Max: Fury Road were snubbled at Oscar time. But there is reason for hope. Bigelow is at work in her next project, a crime drama set in Detroit with GOT star Hannah Murray already signed on. 

And then there’s Broadway, which this year showed Hollywood up on pretty much every front. It was a remarkable year for theater in the Big Apple, which is saying something as it’s often a remarkable year for theater there. But from Angelica Schuyler (played by Tony winner Reneé Elise Goldsberry) singing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lovely response to the most memorable quote from the Declaration of Independence, 

“‘We hold these truths to be self-evidence, that all men are created equal.’ And when I meet Thomas Jefferson I’m going to compel him to include women in the sequel.”

Hamilton: An American Musical

to the stunning revival of The Color Purple, and the new plays Eclipsed and Waitress, women on stage did remarkable things. (Waitress, by the way, is my current favorite listen. I loved the film, which has its own remarkable story of a female filmmaker who has inspired many of us. Adrienne Shelly, Kimiko Glenn does you proud. So does Sarah Bareilles.)

In 1973 Molly Haskell wrote,

“Women  have figured more prominently in film than in any other art, industry, or profession (and film is all three) dominated by men…[but despite their impact] There have been shamefully few women directors…”

From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies

Haskell goes on to point out that several well known female directors like Ida Lupino and Lillian Gish were well known as actresses, not directors. I wonder what Lupino and Gish would say to, for instance, Kathleen Kennedy (the currently president of Lucasfilm and a major Hollywood player since the 1980’s)?

My guess is they would say what I say to all my fellow female artists. Some of whom are married, some who are not. Some with children, some not. Some highly educated, some not. Some whom I agree with about many things, some I often don’t agree with at all, but this is America and here every voice is supposed to matter. They are pianists and painters, choreographers and opera singers, composers, photographers, writers of every kind. They do good work. They change the world through their art. They have important stories to tell. To them I say, the new woman is free.

Happy Independence Day.


About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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One Response to Reflections on Independence, Expression, and All the Professional Ladies

  1. Marla Bowen says:

    Thanks Jen! Always love your thoughts and their thought-provoking nature. I watched Suffragette earlier this year. The most striking tidbit was that last country that “gave” women the vote. WOW! So recent. Also the fact that they force fed the women.

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