The modern feminist movement isn’t an ambiguous, shapeless mist that has acted of its own volition over decades. It’s made up of people. Women and their allies, whose courage, determination, and will to resist, organise, research, demonstrate, and outright demand the right to equality and justice can’t truly be captured in a couple of hours.
But directors give it a shot anyway.
There’s a notably limited amount of mainstream feature films that depict those who have stood at the forefront of the fight for women’s equality, but there are some truly excellent ones among those that have been made. From a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg taking sex discrimination to court to the factory workers strike that changed UK labour laws, to the women who shook up NASA, the fight for women’s equality is full of cinematic moments that deserve to be honoured onscreen in every detail.
Though these films depict or are inspired by key real figures and moments from history, the fight is ongoing, and the movement toward equality for all women under the law remains rife with blind spots. There’s serious work to do on intersectional representation, for instance, and that goes for which stories Hollywood has historically chosen to tell. It’s undeniable that the large majority of films about those pioneers who have paved the way for women’s equality centre the narrative around white cis women, often marginalising or excluding the roles women of colour and trans women played in the same movement. It’s left mostly up to documentaries to tell these stories, of which there are many excellent ones, but c’mon, Hollywood.
Nonetheless, these strong, history-based films shine an interpretive light on the stories of real women: mothers, daughters, sisters, everyday revolutionaries, who often paid immense personal costs fighting for our right to live equally under the law. Taking a couple of hours to learn their stories, to appreciate their struggle, triumph, and sacrifice is the very least we can do.
1. On the Basis of Sex
Based on the early life and career of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, On the Basis of Sex focuses on the landmark case that would set a precedent for sex discrimination and set Ginsburg on a path to become the leading gender rights lawyer of her generation.
Set in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, decades before she would become the second woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, the film follows Ginsburg as a determined lawyer, as she and her husband Marty take on Moritz v. Commissioner, the first federal case to declare discrimination on the basis of sex unconstitutional. Felicity Jones is fiercely brilliant as the young RBG, tearing down the system by the book amid rampant, institutionalised sexism everywhere from the Harvard Law School lecture halls to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Set in 1912, Suffragette (a term itself more common in the UK versus the U.S., where “suffragists” is more acceptable) recounts a group of working women who joined, organised, and fought for the women’s suffrage movement in the UK, and who were arrested, fired, beaten, and died for it. Movement leader Emmeline Pankhurst (played with ferocity by Meryl Streep), has called for a national campaign of civil disobedience after decades of peaceful protest for the right to vote has gone ignored. We gain insight into the fight through laundry worker and mother Maud Watts (a fictional character played by Carey Mulligan), who endures brutal working conditions and finds her way into the local movement. The film represents real activists as well as characters based on them — for one, Maud meets activist Emily Davison in jail, whose sacrifice for the movement made global headlines and history.
Written by Abi Morgan and directed by Sarah Gavron, Suffragette gives a glimpse into the means by which women covertly organised and seized attention for their rights after campaigning peacefully for 50 years, from hunger strikes to bombing pillar boxes. One thing the film does with significance is present the cruelty and harassment experienced by suffragettes not just by law enforcement but their families, husbands, neighbours, and colleagues. And it must be noted the film’s marketing campaign , reopening conversations about racism against women of colour in the movement and the exclusion of women of colour from the film.
3. Hidden Figures
Based on Margot Lee Shetterly’s book, Hidden Figures shines long-delayed light on three Black women who worked in crucial roles at NASA during the Space Race in the ‘60s. The film stars Taraji P. Henson as mathematician Katherine Johnson, whose calculations enabled the success of the Mercury-Atlas 6 orbital mission, marking a turning point in the race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It also features Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, NASA’s first female Black aeronautical engineer; and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, NASA’s first Black supervisor.
All three women achieved their positions amid blatant sexism and racism while segregation was still legal (though the film downplays the racism significantly in the actions of the white lead characters). They also used their platforms to help other women get a leg up, even when targeted by white women’s racism during the process. In 1979, Jackson left engineering and at NASA’s Langley Research Center, working to advance the careers of women mathematicians, scientists, and engineers. And Vaughan, the head of the segregated West Area Computing Unit, was a n mathematicians. As seen in the film, Vaughn brought many of her colleagues with her to run the groundbreaking Analysis and Computation Division (ACD).
As Johnson, then Goble, concludes in a graceful retort in the film to a sexist comment about her job, “So yes, they let women do some things at NASA, Mr. Johnson, and it’s not because we wear skirts. It’s because we wear glasses. Have a good day.”
4. Made in Dagenham
In 1968, 187 women factory workers at the Ford Motor Company’s Dagenham plant in London led a law-reforming strike, demanding the eradication of sexual discrimination in the workplace. After walking out of their sewing machinist jobs due to a “regrading” of their job skill level (and pay) compared to their male co-workers, car production ground to a halt. The strike garnered the kind of public attention that eventually led to the passing of the Equal Pay Act in 1970.
In Nigel Cole’s 2010 film interpretation of the events, The Shape of Water’s Sally Hawkins brilliantly leads the charge as the fictional Rita O’Grady, a protagonist inspired by the real women — — whose fight for equal compensation for their labour would change history for working women in the UK.
5. Battle of the Sexes
Emma Stone is ace as tennis legend and gender equality activist Billie Jean King in Battle of the Sexes. Simon Beaufoy’s 2017 film centers around the famous 1973 tennis match between King and the overtly sexist Bobby Riggs (played perhaps with too much charm by Steve Carell). If you can get through this film’s dialogue without punching a wall, good for you. In the 1970s, equal prize money for tennis tournaments was a joke at best, with the top prize for women one eighth of the men’s. In protest, King and Gladys Heldman (a superb Sarah Silverman) created their own women’s tour, forming the Women’s Tennis Association in 1973 and eventually forcing the U.S. Tennis Association to raise pay for female players.
But the crux of the film is the constantly reiterated sexist idea that women and men players are unequal in tennis ability or audience interest, an unfounded claim by top dogs at the USTA that Riggs echoes in his boasts that he can beat any woman on the court, even at age 55. King eventually agrees to take on Riggs to disprove his claims in the iconic “Battle of the Sexes” match.
6. Iron Jawed Angels
Driven by an anachronistic early 2000s soundtrack as a significantly lighter take on history than Suffragette, Katja von Garnier’s 2004 film Iron Jawed Angels examines the U.S. women’s suffrage movement in the 1910s, through World War I.
Hilary Swank and Frances O’Connor take on the role of suffrage leaders Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, who joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) at a time when there was rising tension between established members like Carrie Chapman Catt (the inimitable Angelica Huston) and the newer blood on strategy. Paul and Burns were championing the demand for a constitutional amendment to guarantee women the franchise with press-grabbing demonstrations like the organisation of the first women’s suffrage parade in Washington in 1913. The old guard, however, aimed to continue campaigning on a state-by-state basis. Paul and Burns were inspired by the work of British suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst and her militant Women’s Social and Political Union in the UK. Their radical strategy conflicted with NAWSA’s, so they founded their own National Woman’s Party. The film seems slightly dated in 2020, and there’s an unnecessarily cringey romantic narrative, but it’s still an important story.
Notably, the U.S. suffrage movement was not inclusive to all women, . In the film, there’s a featuring women’s rights campaigner and early civil rights leader Ida B. Wells, played by Adilah Barnes, in which Paul has instructed Black women to march at the back of the segregated parade to pander to southern suffrage groups. Wells refuses this instruction, challenging Paul and Burns’ commitment to equality for only some (white) women, and we later see Wells marching with her state delegation. “I will march with my peers or not at all,” she says.
7. The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson
The fact that no one has yet made a feature film about Marsha P. Johnson is outrageous, so here’s one of two documentaries we’ve snuck into this list. Netflix’s The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson follows the relentless pursuit of justice by activist Victoria Cruz as she investigates the suspicious death of the transgender icon amid a broader look at the trans rights movement in New York City in the ‘60s.
Directed by David France, the documentary examines the defining roles Johnson and iconic activist Silvia Rivera played in the campaign for trans rights, forming STAR (Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries) in 1970. (Notably, .) Cruz’s tireless work bringing to light discarded or half-investigated cases of violence against trans women forms the core of this film — and it’s a battle that’s not yet won.
How to watch: The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is now streaming on Netflix.
8. The Glorias
Four actors — Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson, and Ryan Keira Armstrong — take on different incarnations of feminist icon, journalist, and activist Gloria Steinem in Julie Taymor’s surreal biopic The Glorias. Based on Steinem’s own iconic memoir My Life on the Road, the film traces her journey through a wildly eventful life as a champion for women’s liberation and a leading figure in the feminist movement in the ‘60s, ‘70s and beyond. It depicts key events such as the historic 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston and the launch of Ms., the first national feminist magazine in America.
Steinem’s work was shaped by iconic feminist leaders driving an intersectional movement, many of whom are featured in the film. There’s activist and Ms. magazine co-founder Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe); lawyer, activist, and speaking partner Florynce “Flo” Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint); first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation and activist Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero); labor activist Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez); and congresswoman and lawyer Bella Abzug (Bette Midler) among others.
How to watch: The Glorias is now streaming on Amazon Prime in the U.S.
Although Selma focuses on the 1965 voting rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, led by Martin Luther King Jr., James Bevel, John Lewis, and Hosea Williams, it’s in our list anyway. Ava DuVernay’s stunning film significantly recentres trailblazing women who stood at the front and laid the groundwork of this pivotal moment in the civil rights movement.
There’s Tessa Thompson as Diane Nash, Oprah Winfrey as Annie Lee Cooper, Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King, Lorraine Toussaint as Amelia Boyton, and many more peacefully protesting, strategising, and demanding the right to vote for Black women and men in the face of fearsome, violent, institutionalised racism.
10. North Country
Based on the true story of miner Lois Jenson and the landmark case that changed sexual harassment law in America, North Country is a brutal, inspiring journey of resilience. Jenson was the after bringing a class action against a northern Minnesota iron mine where women workers including herself were constantly subjected to unchecked assault, harassment, intimidation, humiliation, and abuse.
Inspired by Clara Bingham and Laura Leedy Gansler’s , North Country stars Charlize Theron as the onscreen interpretation of Jenson, Josey Aimes, who changes history for women in the workplace in America — albeit at immense personal cost.
11. He Named Me Malala
We only included two documentaries on this list because there are just so many, but also because no one (yet) has made a feature film about Nobel laureate, Oxford graduate, activist, author, and fierce champion for girls’ education Malala Yousafzai. So, yeah, this film makes the cut.
Directed by An Inconvenient Truth‘s David Guggenheim, He Named Me Malala takes a look at the life of the fearless young Pakistani activist who, at 15, was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking up for girls and their right to an education. In addition, the film interviews young women and girls about Yousafzai’s impact and features stunning animations.
In 1991, Anita Hill testified in Congress, accusing would-be Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, her former supervisor, of sexual harassment. She made history. “Many people viewing the hearings didn’t even realize that sexual harassment was something that was actionable, that they could file a complaint about. They had no idea what the concept was about,” Hill told the during the #MeToo movement, decades later. “So we were at a very different point. In the decades following the hearings, that changed.”
Confirmation recreates this hearing and the events surrounding it, with Kerry Washington delivering a strong performance as Hill (a performance, , that dug deeper than the movie itself). As the , in the year after Hill’s testimony, complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about sexual harassment went up 73 percent. Hill’s testimony and treatment by the all-male judiciary committee panel is also credited with ushering in the “year of the woman” in 1992. As the film shows, the courage it takes to come forward is unimaginable, but the impact it has for others is immeasurable.
13. The Divine Order
Women in Switzerland only got the vote in 1971. Why the delay? — and only men could vote in a referendum. The Divine Order examines the Swiss suffragist movement through fictional housewife and local town leader Nora (played by Marie Leuenberger). It’s a lighter, even comedic look at the campaign for equality, and the power of small acts that make up a revolution.