Tag Archives: feminism

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) on Women in Political Life

mr-smith-goes-to-washington-2

Last night, I was pleased to see that KQED, my local PBS affiliate, was showing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for their weekly Saturday night movie program. I have always loved this film, and deeply respect the emotional integrity and intelligence it brings to the screen.

It’s hard to imagine that at one time, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was very subversive and controversial. Today, its message of resilience is so universal that any overt political message is overshadowed to the modern eye. But when Mr. Smith Goes to Washington premiered at the National Press Club in Washington, many senators were present and a large group of them walked out, offended at the governmental corruption the film depicted. Joseph P. Kennedy tried to prevent the film’s release in Europe, as he felt it would encourage the Axis powers. At the time of the film’s release, government had not yet acquired the reputation of corruption that we now take so for granted. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington changed that to a large extent.

u-g-P9A5D70

The film’s influence on the decline of the studio system is well-documented. United States v. Paramount Pictures et al struck down the studios’ practice of block booking (wherein a theater had to purchase 5 films to show 1), because so many theaters opposed to purchasing Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Its foreshadowing of the McCarthy era, and the political control of media outlets and the information they disseminate to the public, has, deservedly, been analyzed many times. This is part of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘s lasting legacy. What I want to talk about is something that is not often discussed–the complex and subtle commentaries on women in politics that exist within the film.

In the Roosevelt era, women were just beginning to gain a foothold in American political life. The film’s references to “96 men” when referring to the makeup of the Senate (Hawaii and Alaska were not yet states), is not an accurate picture of the Senate in 1939. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was conceived in an election year where a number of high profile races were taking place, one of which was an Arkansas race between Republican C.D. Atkinson and Democrat Hattie Caraway. Caraway, the incumbent, had been the first woman ever elected to the Senate. Much like the fictional Jefferson Smith, she had been appointed to the Senate (following her husband’s death), then was reelected in her own right the next year. In spite of tough opposition in 1938, she won another reelection with a landslide 89.6% victory over Atkinson.

DTXjwZZWsAEoPSB

Senator Hattie Caraway in her office.

Senator Caraway’s presence is ignored in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, perhaps for several reasons. While the movie was filmed in early 1939 after Caraway’s victory, the script was written prior to the election. The screenwriters, Sidney Buchman and Myles Connolly, likely did not want to predict the outcome. And even after her victory, pointing out a woman in the Senate may have felt too political, regardless of the fact that Caraway was indeed in the Senate. Or, perhaps, they were trying to create a completely unrecognizable governmental body.

Whatever the reason for leaving Senator Caraway out of the picture, a true female political force is indeed revealed in the movie, through the character of Saunders, played to perfection by Jean Arthur.

msgtw6

Saunders, whose first name we learn is Clarissa, is Jefferson Smith’s fast-talking legal secretary. She is a bit cynical and jaded, a true Washington insider, but maintains a sense of humor. Whip-smart and experienced, she scoffs at the newbie Jefferson Smith, who has been appointed from some unnamed western state when the previous senator died, and she lectures him on congressional procedure when he gets too optimistic about his bill to open a boys camp at Willet Creek. Saunders is respected by men, and is considered their equal. At one point, Smith pries her first name out of her and he lets it sit for a moment, repeats it, then goes back to calling her Saunders. When he mounts his famous filibuster against the Willet Creek Dam Project at the end, she coaches him from the gallery, walking him through the entire process. She is smarter than anyone else in the room, and more strategic. It is clear that in a just world, she would have been the one named replacement senator.

In Jean Arthur’s gutsy characterization of Saunders, we see a strong, intelligent woman whose gender relegates her to work as a political secretary rather than a politician, and who directs a marathon filibuster from the balcony to which she is relegated as a bystander. The characterization can be read not only as a commentary on the general situation of women in the United States, but also as a call for women to be accepted as full and participating members of public life.

The film ends ambiguously, with Jefferson Smith taken out of the Senate chamber after fainting, and the corrupt Senator Paine confessing to his crimes. I like to think that perhaps following this ambiguous ending, for Saunders too, there is a political future.

This last midterm election, the United States elected a congressional body with the highest percentage of women in history. Somewhere, Hattie Caraway is cheering, and Saunders is finally no longer on the sidelines.

 

MV5BMTU3NDAxODY3N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzIyNTUwOA@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1336,1000_AL_

TWO KATHARINES: The Childhood of Katharine Hepburn and the Shaping of an Icon

Today marks what would have been the 107th birthday of an incomparable legend. Katharine Hepburn, a persona so beloved and respected to have reduced hardened prop men to putty in her hands during her appearance on Dick Cavett in 1973, was a force to be reckoned with and everybody knew it. When Katharine Hepburn walked in the room, there was no question as to who was in charge. This was an individual who fought for what she wanted, demanded what she needed, and in the process singlehandedly redefined what it means to be a woman in Hollywood.

Katharine Hepburn at the rehearsal for her appearance on Dick Cavett in 1973.

Hepburn famously said on an interview with Barbara Walters “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.” Katharine Hepburn broke many molds during her lifetime, and defied societal expectations in a generation in which women were still expected to be subservient to men. And she didn’t do it alone.

Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, the mother of Katharine Hepburn and a pioneer of women’s rights in Connecticut.

From her earliest childhood, Katharine Hepburn was taught to live the way she wanted to, and not give credence to what others might think. This attitude was instilled in her by her mother, the passionate suffragette and famed leader of Connecticut women’s rights groups Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn. Houghton Hepburn served as the president of the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association and, after the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920, founded the American Birth Control League with fellow activist Margaret Sanger, the organization that later became Planned Parenthood.

In later life, the younger Katharine would remember her mother taking her along to suffrage rallies as a toddler, teaching her that the women there were doing all they could to fight for her future. Due to her mother’s work, the Hepburn family endured intense hostility from the neighbors–neighborhood children were often not allowed to play with the Hepburn children, and bricks were thrown through their windows on several occasions. But through it all, Mrs. Hepburn persevered, and passed on to her daughter the attitude that rights must be fought for and earned.

Katharine Hepburn with her mother and siblings.

Young Katharine never let go of the lessons of her childhood, and throughout her life fought many personal and professional battles, fighting hard and not backing down until she won. In her desire to be comfortable, she insisted on wearing pants almost exclusively, a practice seldom exercised in her generation. In her stalwart determination to not be restricted by what other people thought, she is widely credited with popularizing pants for women. In 1947, at the height of the Red Scare and the Hollywood blacklist, Katharine Hepburn was one of the founding members of the Committee for the First Amendment, formed to protect and support the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. Evoking her mother, and the women who fought for equal rights for women when she was a child, she delivered a speech written by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo at the Hollywood Legion Stadium during a Progressive Party rally. Her own risk of being targeted by the Hollywood blacklist not holding her back, Katharine Hepburn once again stood up for what she believed in.

Her mother must have been proud.

Many thanks to Margaret over at The Great Katharine Hepburn for hosting this blogathon!