8 Women in History to Feature Onscreen Instead of the Awful People We Keep Seeing
— British Vogue (@BritishVogue) April 17, 2020
As someone who loves history and period dramas, it’s always fun when I see one come up that has a female focus, but it is also disturbing to me how some figures rise to the surface more than others. Yesterday, British Vogue shared a tweet that stated, “With Cate Blanchett reportedly set to play that late Duchess of Windsor in a new biopic, #BritishVogue revisits Simpson’s most stylish moments ever.”
Now, when I think of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor, I see her more as a Nazi sympathizer than a fashion icon, but that’s just me, I guess! It’s telling that, with opportunities to make films and television series about under-examined female historical figures, we keep getting these stories that seek to highlight the shit-stains of modern history for the sake of a “full picture.”
So, here are eight interesting women in history that would make a more interesting movie, television series, and/or radio drama than Wallis Simpson or whatever white Nazi-adjacent person Cate Blanchett wants to play for awards.
1. Ida Bell Wells-Barnett (July 16, 1862 – March 25, 1931):
Black American investigative journalist, suffragette, and Civil Rights activist Ida Bell Wells-Barnett put a spotlight on lynching in the United States through her work, Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All Its Phases. While the historical figure has made some cameos in other movies and shows about the period, there has not been one dedicated to her. Not only does she deserve more attention in general, but her story is one of immense bravery and strength. She shattered the myths behind lynching and worked to ensure the protection of Black men and women. We should all hope to be as brave and as prolific.
Required Reading: Ida: A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching by Paula Giddings; The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader by Ida B. Wells.
2. Empress Matilda (c. 7 February 1102 – 10 September 1167):
If you want the non-dragon inspiration for the Targaryen Dance of the Dragon War, this is one of the figures involved.
When the heir to the throne and a bunch of royals are killed in the White Ship disaster of 1120, the heir to the English crown is Matilda. Her father, King Henry I of England, makes the nobles swear loyalty to her, but upon his death, they put a rival male claimant on the throne that would launch the biggest succession squabble in England until the War of the Roses, known as The Anarchy.
She’s a powerful figure, and her failure to gain the throne would be the major reason why Henry VIII would go to such lengths to have a male heir.
Required Reading: She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor; Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley.
3. Gisella Perl (10 December 1907 – 16 December 1988):
Recently, while listening to a podcast about female criminals that covered a female Nazi, I came across the story of Gisella Perl. Pearl was a Romanian Jewish gynecologist who was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944. While she was there, Josef Mengele tasked her to work as a gynecologist, without any of the necessary tools. She helped save countless women’s lives by performing abortions on pregnant Jewish women, because pregnant women were used in Mengele’s experiments.
What she did, she did at great risk to her own safety—even, at one time, forced to perform an illegal abortion on a female Nazi who wanted to cover up her pregnancy. As soon as I heard about her, I was confused as to why I’d never heard of her before. Her story is one that needs to be told, and not just in one made for television movie. Why isn’t this what you want to do, Cate Blanchett?
Required Reading: I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz (Lexington Studies in Jewish Literature) by Gisella Perl
4. Laura Cornelius Kellogg (September 10, 1880 – 1947):
A leader of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, Laura Cornelius Kellogg is a complex figure in Native American history. She was a descendant of Oneida leaders, a founder of the Society of American Indians, and became a voice for the Oneidas and Haudenosaunee on an international stage.
Kellogg believed in Pan-Indianism, or the promotion of Native unity regardless of tribe. Her key plan was called the “Lolomi Plan,” and its goal was to create a self-governing body among the community, both returning land and Native Indian traditional practices and ideologies to the Native people. Unfortunately, due to her polarizing ideas and the fact that she ended up losing a lot of money and land, she has remained a controversial figure.
However, it would be beyond interesting to see a story about her attempts to try to reclaim Native land and try to use the progressive era to push Native Rights.
That is a story we have rarely seen before.
Required Reading: Laura Cornelius Kellogg: Our Democracy and the American Indian and Other Works (The Iroquois and Their Neighbors) Edited by Kristina Ackley and Cristina Stanciu
5. Mary Wollstonecraft (27 April 1759 – 10 September 1797):
A name many already know, but Wollstonecraft is probably the great-grand dame of the modern feminist movement, having penned A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the Lord of the Rings of proto-feminist texts. However, Wollstonecraft was also a sad woman who struggled with love, mental illness, and motherhood (mother of the Mary Shelley). She was a fascinating woman who lived a truly radical life for her time, and I think it’d be interesting to see a deep dive into her life and the legacy she built for herself and her daughters.
Required Reading: A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft; Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon
6. Anna May Wong (January 3, 1905 – February 3, 1961):
The fact that we don’t have a movie about the first Chinese-American Hollywood star is such a damn shame. The L.A.-born, third-generation Chinese American woman started off as a silent film star and launched into real fame during the 1930s.
Yet, because of racism in the film industry and “morality” film codes, there were many roles she was kept out of because of laws against racial mixing, which ended up making her lose out on many Asian roles. Most notable was the ’30s adaptation of The Good Earth, where she lost out the lead role of O-Lan to white actress Luise Rainer. Rainer went on to win an Oscar for the role.
Wong worked to try to only star in roles that provided positive Chinese representation, even if it meant less work. Her story is so important and interesting that it is truly offensive she has not gotten the big-screen treatment.
Required Reading (and Watching): Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend by Graham Russell Gao Hodges
7. Rosa Parks (February 4, 1913 – October 24, 2005):
Despite being well known for her role in the Montgomery bus boycott, Rosa Parks’ story and role in the Civil Rights movement didn’t begin there. Parks grew up in an environment where she watched the Ku Klux Klan march down the street in front of her house, with her grandfather holding a shotgun for protection. Parks was bullied by white children but always fought back, even with her fists.
She joined the Montgomery chapter of the NAACP in the early ’40s and was the only woman there for the time. Parks was also part of the investigation of the gang-rape of Recy Taylor, a huge moment in the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks’ impact on American History is vast, and it should be celebrated beyond just the one moment everyone is familiar with.
Required Reading: Rosa Parks: My Story by Rosa Parks; The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks by Jeanne Theoharis; At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power by Danielle L. McGuire
8. Leslie Feinberg (September 1, 1949 – November 15, 2014):
Firstly, as a pronoun clarification as far as I can tell, Leslie Feinberg referred to themself using she/zie and her/hir pronouns and was a self-proclaimed “anti-racist white, working-class, secular Jewish, transgender, lesbian, female, revolutionary communist.” So, my inclusion of Feinberg on this list, to my knowledge, is not misgendering.
Feinberg’s first major impact on queer culture was through the work Stone Butch Blues, which highlighted working-class queer people, but also the complexities of gender on multiple levels. Feinberg was a revolutionary badass until her death. She helped organize an anti-Ku Klux Klan mobilization when the hate group tried to march down Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Atlanta on MLK Day in 1988. After the murder of Dr. Barnett Slepian and attacks on abortion clinics in Buffalo, Feinberg worked with Buffalo United for Choice and its Rainbow Peacekeepers to protect LGBTQ+ bars and women’s clinics.
Feinberg is an important part of queer history, and she deserves to be even more well known.
Required Reading (and Watching): Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman by Leslie Feinberg; Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
(image: Mary Garrity Restored by Adam Cuerden )
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