By Ann Silverthorn
The 1970s marked significant advances for female equality in America. Although the equal rights amendment failed to ratify, federal law now outlawed discrimination in the workplace based on gender. Women were forging their place in the world as Barbara Jordan became the first woman to give the keynote address at a presidential convention and Barbara Walters became the first woman news anchor. These advances were reflected in film during the late 1970s in the form of strong, women characters (most became so after losing a man). Here’s a look at seven of those films.
Most people employed at O.P. Henley Textiles accept their poor working conditions and unequal pay. Not Norma Rae Wilson, a widow trying to support her children. Against the advice of her family and friends, Norma joins forces with a union organizer and takes on her employer, risking her job, her reputation, and her safety.
Erica (Jill Clayburgh) is living the good life, though completely dependent on her husband, when everything changes. After he leaves her for a younger woman, Erica must get to know herself, on her own, not as defined by anyone else. Along the way, she meets a man who challenges her new identity and makes her consider her future and self-respect.
Paula, a former Broadway chorus dancer, lives happily with her actor boyfriend and her daughter in Manhattan. That is, until the boyfriend leaves for the West Coast without warning and sublets the apartment to Eliot, another actor. Paula refuses to leave her home, so she and Eliot have to learn to coexist while each tries to make a living.
It’s 1974 and Alice, a stay-at-home mother with a controlling husband, is suddenly widowed. She has no employment skills and the only way she can think of to earn a living is by renewing her dream to be a singer. On a road trip back to her childhood home, she and her son stop off at a roadside diner and Alice finds herself learning how to be a waitress. She’s also getting involved with a new man. Will she give up her dream of being a singer?
Poor Carrie White. She has no friends. Her fanatically religious mother has her on a short leash and constantly frets about her daughter’s purity. It seems that she has no hope for a date to the prom, but because of the kindness of a classmate, she’s asked by one of the most popular boys. Unfortunately, not everyone is happy about this and devise ways to ruin Carrie’s night (as does her mother). When enough is enough, Carrie unleashes her terrible power and things will never be the same for everyone involved.
If you think a gentlewoman from the 1800s can’t be strong, think again. Henry James recognized this when he published the novel, Daisy Miller, in 1879 and her story was appealing to 1970s movie goers. Cybill Shepherd plays the title role as an unconventional young woman who knows how she can fit into high society, but she can’t quite bring herself to conform, and she’s prepared to realize the consequences.
Playwright Lillian Hellman was quite an independent woman, and this film explores her relationship with a school friend during the years leading up to World War II. The friend, Julia, was a medical student who was also aiding the resistance. She asks Hellman (Jane Fonda) to do her a risky and dangerous favor. Whether true or not, the story stands on its own as a testament to friendship and courage. The film won three Oscars, one for best writing and also best actor/actress for Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett and Vanessa Redgrave as Julia.
Browse more movies from the 1970s here.