For Women’s History Month today, I have two items:
1. One of my favorite movies about feminism is Mona Lisa Smile, a 2003 movie starring Julia Roberts. I’ll probably watch it on Wednesday, March 31, the last day of Women’s History Month. On it, Julia Roberts plays an art professor at Wellesley College during the 1950’s. She wants her students to be so much more than housewives. For example, she desires for the Julia Stiles character to attend Yale Law School and become a lawyer. And Kirsten Dunst plays a conservative student who undermines the Julia Roberts character at every turn and actually looks forward to becoming a housewife.
But what’s beautiful about the movie (in my opinion) is that it neither promotes feminism in a heavy-handed manner, nor does it support the Feminine Mystique, the notion that women can only be fulfilled as wives and mothers. Rather, it favors choice. The Julia Stiles character decides not to go to Yale and become a lawyer, but rather to stay at home with her husband and raise children. And, after the Kirsten Dunst character learns that her husband is cheating on her, she feels devastated—as if she has failed as a woman. At the end of the movie, she decides to become a lawyer. “I wouldn’t want to confront you in court!”, Julia Roberts tells her, after they reconcile.
What’s ironic is that Julia Roberts played a die-hard feminist in that movie, yet she herself at the time was looking forward to staying at home with her children and doing housework. Here are some quotes from an interview with her that appeared in Reader’s Digest (see here):
Reader’s Digest: It wasn’t quite what you’d imagine: Hollywood’s most bankable movie star, at home in California, wearing sweaty workout clothes (she’d just finished a yoga class), knitting (a baby blanket for a friend’s newborn) and confiding that, “It’s tricky to swing dance in a girdle.” We’ll get back to the girdle. For now let’s put it this way: That’s Julia Roberts. Fifteen years into a career that started with Mystic Pizza and won her an Oscar as Erin Brockovich, the Pretty Woman star is back with another mind-bending role. In Mona Lisa Smile, out this month, Roberts plays a free-thinking professor of art history who challenges the conservative, altar-bound young women of Wellesley College in the uptight 1950s. Hence the girdle, the only concession to tradition for her rebellious character.
RD: In Mona Lisa Smile, you’re accused of waging a war on marriage. And here you are, Miss Happily Married.
Roberts: It was one of the paradoxes of playing this character because when we started I was a newlywed — I still had rice in my hair. She’s a woman who’s not anti-marriage but is pro-independence and concerned — truly, deeply, tenderly concerned — that these Wellesley girls are going to throw away so much to simply become housewives. It was a moment when the thing that I believed in most, the focus of my heart, was being a housewife. And it was interesting to play this person who I’m not dissimilar to — and yet I’ve kind of morphed into the other side of that coin.Of course, Julia Roberts probably doesn’t have the problems that Betty Friedan identified in the Feminine Mystique: Julia does not lack a sense of self, nor is her identity subsumed in her husband and children. She’s Julia Roberts, the accomplished actress! But, as a newlywed, she was looking forward to being a housewife and a mother. That’s what she yearned for in that season of her life. She wanted to be with her children and to watch them grow up.
RD: I have read that you actually like cleaning house. Tell me it’s not true.
Roberts: Well, it is. This morning my husband went to work and I did laundry. I’m happy to report I’m not anal, but I’m a good housekeeper.
2. As I said in my post, Feminine Mystique 1, the show Quantum Leap had some excellent episodes on feminism. My favorite Quantum Leap episode (period) is “Liberation,” in which Sam leaps into a housewife during the Women’s Liberation Movement. See Liberation for information, as well as quotes from the episode. There are so many things that I like: Sam’s sexist husband being willing to give a woman at work a chance after (at Sam’s prompting) she presents her ideas for the company; the feminist leader who hates men because her dad abused her when she was little, and who punches a cop while saying, “Let go of me, you’re not my father!”; Sam’s quotation of his stay-at-home mom, who said in the 1960’s-1970’s that women’s liberation is probably a good idea—for other women, and yet her husband (Sam’s father) never treated her in the patronizing manner with which some traditionalist men regarded their wives; the way that Sam earned the respect of a police-officer for women’s rights after persuading the feminist leader to put down her gun, while she was holding up a men’s lodge.
Here is some dialogue from the scene in which Sam is trying to convince the feminist leader—Diane—to put down her gun. Suzi is Sam’s daughter:
Diana: “You’re asking us to quit. Just like you quit. I won’t be like you! Just take a good look at yourself. You’re just like my mother. You’re turning into the dutiful house frau. A messenger for the oppressor.”
Sam: “Housewives and mothers are not your enemy. They’re your ally. Now don’t segregate us!”
Diana: “They’ll never let me play fair. We need to take a stand. (Her voices rises) “Are you with me or this housewife?”In my opinion, Mona Lisa Smile and that episode of Quantum Leap indicate that the present trend in women’s issues is in favor of choice: that women should have opportunities to work, but that it’s perfectly acceptable if they choose to stay home and be wives, mothers, and homemakers.
Suzi: “You said this was about choice. There’s nothing wrong with being a housewife. Mom’s right. We’ll never get anywhere if we keep blaming each other and fighting among ourselves.”