In theory Labor Day is all about celebrating the laborers who have made our country what it is. For us, we wanted to honor the women have had to work twice as hard to get half as much. So, this week’s top five lists our favorite movies about working women.
Baby Boom (1987)
The de facto “working woman” film – alongside the film below – Baby Boom is a film I call “of the ‘Backlash era”” but not “about the ‘Backlash era.'” Don’t know what the “Backlash era” is? Go read Susan Faludi’s text and come back. In laymen’s terms, the film is about the struggles of barren single women who realize they can’t “have it all.” But I don’t quite see that with Baby Boom. Yes, executive J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) is forced to conform her life to the newfound child placed in her care, but she’s still allowed to succeed in a male-dominated world. Furthermore, she tells the old white guys – and young James Spader – where to stick it when she finally becomes a success bigger than their firm deserves. Keaton’s J.C. is a lot like me: understands children exists but is aware of her inability to raise one. And while she does eventually learn to love her daughter, what’s more important is that she proves you can have it all! Take that patriarchy!
Working Girl (1988)
Another prominent “women in the workplace” ’80s film is this Melanie Griffith starrer. Griffith plays Tess, a woman judged strictly by her looks who gets the opportunity to work opposite a strong female boss, played with ’80s grace (and big hair) by Sigourney Weaver. But when Tess’ boss screws her over Tess gets the chance to prove she’s more than a “bod for sin.” I have more problems with Working Girl than I do with Baby Boom, namely the fact that two women in the workplace can’t be anything more than rivals (oh, and this movie was telling us Kevin Spacey was a scumbag well before #MeToo). But it shows how horrific men in the workplace were pre-Anita Hill (and still are, in all honesty). This movie prizes feminine intellect. Oh, and I LOVE how the movie ends, with Tess deciding to change the relationship between women in the workplace (though I haven’t forgiven that Fifty Shades Freed parodied it).
Mildred Pierce (1945)
The film that secured Joan Crawford her Academy Award, Mildred Pierce is the ultimate film about working mothers. The dogged Mildred works her way up from waitress to the owner of her own restaurant, a self-made entrepreneur during a time where women were doing everything for themselves. Unfortunately, in a contrast with Baby Boom, we learn Mildred can’t have it all, chronically disappointing her daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth). Really, this movie just proves to me why I don’t want children. The 2011 Todd Haynes remake with Kate Winslet is saucier, but also great.
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Another classic era film about the struggles of working women! Christmas in Connecticut follows Elizabeth Lane (Barbara Stanwyck), a successful magazine writer whose persona is of a devoted wife and mother. The problem is Elizabeth is single and doesn’t have kids, which is fine until her editor decides to invite a war veteran to her cabin in Connecticut to meet her, her husband and child. Did I mention she has no place in Connecticut? There’s a lot of subtle humor in the film regarding how men perceive women. Elizabeth doesn’t want to disappoint the veteran, but she understands that all the men in her life are only interested in controlling her through domesticity. Elizabeth works to please all comers, but really just wants to live her own life as a writer. I understand the struggle.
The Help (2011)
The Help is riddled with problems, but at its heart it’s about the unsung working women who we still don’t revere today. I generally find Emma Stone’s angle on the film to be bland. For me, and most anyone who enjoys this movie, The Help is about Octavia Spencer’s Minnie and Viola Davis’ Abileen, two women trying to work, feed their families, and live their lives. There’s a moment in the movie where Minnie says they “love” (with sarcasm) raising their white employees’ children, who grow up to be “just as mean as their mammas” and it’s true. The white women in the town are racists whose “employment” of these women is just another form of servitude, which is all the more reason for the book exposing them to exist. The 2015 film The Second Mother is another great movie to watch, examining this idea of women working for wealthy people, albeit told from a contemporary, Latinx perspective.
This was such a tough list to narrow down because there are SO many great options. But narrow it I did with a range of single moms, single gals, and a particularly terrifying business leader.
Elle Woods in Legally Blonde (2001)
Sure, Elle Woods initially decided to go to Harvard Law School to chase after her loser boyfriend who dumped her for not being good enough. But then she went and turned out to be a freaking awesome law student and then lawyer. She uses her knowledge and experience and gets things done her way. Underestimated at every turn, Elle is a light-hearted representation of what women can do when they decide to. What, like it’s hard?
Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich (2000)
I know the real Erin Brockavich had some (totally justified) issues with the way she was portrayed. But Julia Roberts shines as a single mom who needs a job to take care of her kids, and ends up finding justice for a small community. And she does that by getting out there and doing all the hard work. They need someone to take water samples? Erin’s out there collecting the samples herself. She knocks on doors, makes all the contacts. Everything that happened for the people of Hinckley, California was because Erin went and did it.
Norma Rae Webster in Norma Rae (1979)
Sally Field is one of the greats and this is a prime example of why. The movie is based on a true story, and her character is based on a real woman, Crystal Lee Sutton, who led efforts to organize a union for textile workers in North Carolina. She risked everything to bring about positive changes in the work place, and if that’s not something to celebrate on Labor Day, I don’t know what is.
J.C. Wiatt in Baby Boom (1987)
I know Kristen already mentioned this one, but it’s so great. The 80s were all about attacking women in the workforce. It was part of that long-gestating backlash of the women’s liberation movements of the 60s and 70s. Women were constantly being told they couldn’t have it all. And along came this delightfully charming film with Diane Keaton as a business woman on the rise who unexpectedly finds herself raising an infant and trying to figure out how to balance motherhood with a career. While the movie (very much a product of the 80s) features that perfect, glossy happy ending, what makes JC’s story so great is that, once again, she earns what she gets. It isn’t ever just handed to her. Because women get shit done.
Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
Sure, sure, Miranda is the villain in this story. But while she can’t be bothered to worry about things like getting her own coffee or remembering the names of people outside of her circle, Miranda Priestly is a hard worker. So many of these “horrible bosses” are rude, crude, and then go off to play golf. Not Miranda. The reason Andi has to work all those late nights isn’t because she’s picking up the slack that Miranda doesn’t do. It’s because Miranda works all those late nights. She puts in the crazy hours, makes the big decisions, and does her damn job. Even if people don’t always like how she does it. And she does it without complaining. Miranda is the real hero of that story.
Cathy Gale in The Avengers (1962-1964)
Dr. Catherine Gale is an anthropologist, aid worker, and judo black belt who also finds time for her hobby of saving Britain from diabolical masterminds. It’s pretty amazing that a TV show from the 1960s managed to feature a woman who was unapologetically intellectual and supported herself by her own labor. She’s one of the original badasses of TV.
Jillian Holtzmann in Ghostbusters (2016)
I mean, this whole film is about a team of women carving out their own entrepreneurial niche, but I do want to give praise to Holtzmann. She’s a brilliant engineer and inventor, and just this side of crazy.
Doralee in 9 to 5 (1980)
OK, all of the women in 9 to 5 are awesome; I just chose Doralee because she’s the most surprising, trope-breaking one of the group. A gorgeous blonde, she pushes back against stereotypes and her boss’s insistence that he can have control over her body. She’s an absolute hero for any era, but I feel like we especially need her right now.
Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940)
I will always take the opportunity to talk about Roz Russell in His Girl Friday. Here’s a woman who thinks she wants the safe haven of Ralph Bellamy, with his home in Albany (with Mother). But she’s really a newspaper man. Hildy is especially awesome because we watch her outrun, outtalk, and outmaneuver every man onscreen and, with the exception of Bruce, they love her for it. She’s a working woman for whom her job is her vocation, and by the end, she knows that there’s really no shame in that.
Beverly Sutphin in Serial Mom (1994)
Housewifery is a strenuous job and so is serial killing. Beverly raises two kids, keeps the house clean and tidy, represents herself in court, and still finds time to murder her neighbors. She’s Superwoman.
Penny Henderson in Radioland Murders (1994)
I know I’ve staned for this film before, and here I go again. Radioland Murders is a formative movie of mine, partially due to Mary Stuart Masterson’s performance as secretary turned producer Penny Henderson. Despite everything going on around her she maintains a largely cool head and keeps everything running, including her chaotic almost ex-husband and her inept male higher-ups. I sympathize with Penny; I identify with her, and she remains one of my favorite characters.
Tess Harding in Woman of the Year (1942)
Katharine Hepburn could make this list in a number of different roles. As an actor, she stood out for her badassery. Her characters are always feisty and independent, and she didn’t need a man. In Woman of the Year, she plays political journalist Tess Harding. The role is spot on for the actress, who brings her trademark strength in one of her earliest pairings with longtime partner Spencer Tracy. The film is a fascinating one in its subversion of the typical rom-com plot. Writers Ring Lardner Jr and Michael Kanin flip standard gender dynamics on their head in the movie’s sophisticated script. Combine this with stellar performances and Woman of the Year is a ground-breaking entry in a usually standard genre.
Peggy Carter in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Coming out of a superhero cinematic universe which is largely male dominated, Peggy Carter is most certainly one of my favorite characters to grace the screen. Beginning as a military intelligence operative in the first Captain America movie, by the 1950s she becomes a secret agent before finally serving as one of the founding members of S.H.I.E.L.D., all while wallowing in the rampant toxic masculinity of the mid-twentieth century. We don’t deserve Peggy Carter.
Betty Schaefer in Sunset Boulevard (1950)
Betty Schaefer, like Penny Henderson, is another formative character. I watched Sunset Boulevard for the first time at a relatively young age, and found myself strongly identifying with the young writer. While she develops a crush on Joe Gillis (I mean…William Holden… who wouldn’t?) and struggles with her feelings for the adorable Artie (Yes…I had a Jack Webb thing for a while too.) Betty keeps her priorities in line, and fights for what she wants: to become a writer.
Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Singin’ in the Rain is one of the first films to truly introduce me to classic film. I was watching Marx Brothers movies and John Wayne movies since before I can remember, but this is the movie which started my love affair. In the capable hands of a very young Debbie Reynolds, Kathy Selden is a smart and savvy young woman attempting to make her way in a difficult industry. Reynolds brings a heck of a performance, not wilting into the background while working with dynamic veterans Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. In fact, in Reynolds’ hands, Kathy is very much an equal with her male co-stars. This becomes all the more impressive upon reading abound everything Reynolds faced during filming.