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10 (Great, Unexpected) Movies about Women's Rights

Updated on February 13, 2011
Miss Austen Regrets
Miss Austen Regrets | Source

I want to begin by presenting a bit of an homage to my great-grandmother, who must have put up with quite a lot in her lifetime. Born as one century turned, and leaving us just before the next century arrived, she and the generation of women who grew alongside her sighed a final farewell to politely accepting their subjugation, collectively breaking that bondage with suffrage. "Modern" enough to test the status-quo, "spunky" enough to say, to hell with that, the women of my great-grandmother's time supported the likes of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, and they changed it all for their daughters (and great-granddaughters).

It is good to remember that the same was not the case in Jane Austen's day, and whether one sighed or not there was no end in sight to the obedience and subservience to men that was demanded of them. And this is precisely the reason now that I think so appreciatively of my own nana: for Jane's time was just a scant 100 years before women demanded the vote, and alongside it, the right to live freely in a "free" society.

Austen published her own brand of 'modern spunk', and with her strong female characters, awakened many to the necessity of equal rights. However, it is easy to forget that these strong women, however ably they navigated through their own households, were living in households firmly set within the larger world where man held rule. Austen's lucid novels introduce us to the plight of women in a world of men-- of the world of women before suffrage, before equal rights would be, or even could be considered.

The film Miss Austen Regrets illustrates that point so crisply-- you can see it in the weary facial wrinkles of Olivia Williams's brilliant portrayal of Jane-- that I became inspired to recollect the films I've seen that have taught me about just how poignant the historical plight of (Western) women's inequality has been. The list that follows offers a bit of a time-line (non-linear, of course) of women's rights as I've learned it from our era's best storyteller: the cinema. In no way is this meant (or able) to be a complete list, so if you've got other titles to share please feel welcome to leave a comment!

1 Miss Austen Regrets illustrates very nimbly not only Austen later in her life, but presents us with a clear picture of how that life was lived in world very solidly directed by men. While Austen's writing gives us the impression of a woman living ably in the freedom of her own mind, Miss Austen Regrets reminds us precisely how crippling those actual limitations were. In the end, Jane Austen's determination to live by her own will culminates in the absolute grace of accepting just what is.

2 Becoming Jane is a wonderful film that attempts to construct a young Jane Austen: the Jane who made the agonizing choice to eschew convention in order to grant her mind the freedom that society would not willingly offer. Rejecting marriage, losing love and selecting a path that ultimately lands her in the role of a poor spinster, we learn of the sober reality that awaited vibrant young women who dared to act in their own best interest.

3 Emma answers the question, "Yes, but what if women did hold some degree of wealth and prestige? Surely they were offered some sort of power?" This feisty depiction of Austen's most beloved novel illustrates just what sort of power was in a woman's reach.

4 Marie Antionnette the original anti-feminist anti-hero, but I can't help but bring up this brilliant film by the talented Sofia Coppola, who makes it a point to present "Madame Déficit" as a veritable innocent, carried away as the cherry atop a culture concocted by the over-pampered elites of her time. What other choice did she ever have?

5 Lady Jane was another bright, bookish young lady swept to an unfortunate fame and untimely death by a culture of men eager to ensure their own power. This is the near-monarch who, after the death of Henry VIII, ruled Great Britain for a meager 9 days before the installation of Queen Mary. Lady Jane gives as good a sense as the more recently popular Elizabeth of the real politics of her age, and the place of women who sought to secure power in their own way.

6 The Mill on the Floss allows the brilliant Emily Watson to fluently translate (yet another) bright, bookish young lady from her two-dimensional historical plight to a vibrant, palpable tragedy. What other options were there, really, to a woman of her standing in her time?  The story gives new meaning to "drowning in your sorrows."

7 The Young Victoria ruled a Western world on the brink of allowing women the right to vote; her own story of subjugation to and over-protection by her parents is a fascinating one. Whatever you may think of her policies, her education, will, and (as Miss Austen would applaud) her marriage for love attest to the new possibilities that bloomed further when the Victorian era drew to a close. (It might also be worth saying that among those who precede her in this list, she is the first not to meet and unfortunate and untimely, horrid death.)

8 Iron Jawed Angels refers to the second generation of sufragettes, headed by Alice Paul and Lucy Burns. An interesting approach to historical cinema reminiscent of Coppola's Antionette , using contemporary music to make the themes of the film more accessible, it's ultimately the drive of the women themselves that brings the point closer to home. Did you know the movement swung on the pinnacle of a last-ditch hunger strike? I sure didn't, and you'll revel in all the bits of history that you never knew-- and were never told.

9 Chocolat is not simply the time-honored drug of choice for overworked women the world over; indeed it is the passion and blood of the Free Woman herself, roaming a post-WWII European landscape with satchel in one hand and (illegitimate) daughter in the other. Juliette Binoche portrays (yet another!) mysterious and exotic woman determined to live life according to her own will in a new era. A backward-thinking village has other plans...

10 Away We Go ...and finally, here we land, in an age where women may rest comfortably in a mixed-race relationship, mother a baby later in life, and move about where they will. Or, can they? This is a wonderful, heart-ful tale of a couple in search for "home". Certainly not written as a feminist piece, but the women (and men) they encounter along their journey offer quite a snapshot of gender roles and assumptions in our contemporary society. It made me reconsider that old refrain, "You've come a long way, baby;" but I sure loved where they ended up.

As Austen writes with such pluck and her characters navigate their world with such certainty, I never once suspected that she really could be tethered to the same crippling societal limitations as her more demure sisters. Yet after watching Miss Austen Regrets , and after reconsidering the films listed here, I have a much clearer picture in mind of what was lost to women for so very long, and just how very much we have gained in just a few generations since. And I am all the more grateful for the sacrificial efforts of all of those "great grandmothers" who put their lives on the line to ensure a measure of freedom would be guaranteed to a woman like me.

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