Through the 1980’s and 1990’s, the phrase “Women’s rights are human rights” became famous, but variations of the mantra existed much earlier. Though women have been fighting to be recognized as fully human and fully equal in society for years, there are not that many movies that focus on their stories. Thankfully, there are at least five, some of which also address tangential issues like LGBT+ and civil rights. Anyone interested in human rights should see them.
In the United States in the 1910’s, women were fighting for the right to vote. This film, which premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, stars Hillary Swank and Frances O’Connor as Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, respectively. It follows the women’s work to get the vote and the opposition they faced, which included being arrested and force-fed during a hunger strike. The title is a reclamation of an insult from Joseph Walsh, when he critcized the creation of a women’s suffrage committee, saying they would inevitably bow to the will of “the nagging of iron-jawed angels.”
Iron-Jawed Angels was nominated for five awards at the 56th Primetime Emmy Awards. It should also be noted that unlike a lot of films surrounding this topic, it does briefly touch on the racism of many suffragetes. In a fictionalized scene, activist Ida B. Wells confronts Alice Paul about being forced to march at the back of a parade. In reality, Wells and Paul never spoke about this, but Wells did refuse to be segrated.
Women’s rights, especially the rights of black women, come into focus with this film about the mathematicians working for NASA during the Space Race. They face skeptism at best and discrimination at worst at work, as the country prepares to send astronaut John Glenn into orbit.
While there are some changes to the true story, the author of the original book was understanding, and most researchers believe the film is still mostly accurate. The changes, like plot points where characters deal with segregated bathrooms and go to court to be allowed in classrooms, may not have happened to the specific women featured in the film, but similar things did happen to others during this time. The core message of Hidden Figures – that these black women were both extraordinary and ignored for too long – remains true. Seeing their stories finally told inspires a new generation of women’s rights activists.
Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand star in this film about sexual harrassment in the workplace. While about a fictional person and case, the film is heavily inspired by Lois Jenson, who endured a 14-year class action suit against a Minnesota mining company for its abusive work environment. While Jenson declined to sell the rights to her story, she does appear in a documentary about the movie saying “I think it’s important for people to see this.”
While released 14 years ago, North Country addresses issues that are still relevant today, such as victim-blaming, slut-shaming, and workplace sexual harrassment. It highlights the bravery women muster in order to pursue justice, and the risks they take when they do. Theron and McDormand were both nominated for Academy Awards; Theron for Best Actress and McDormand for Best Supporting Actress.
In a film that addresses both LGBT+ and women’s rights, Freeheld tells the story of a police officer fighting for her partner’s right to her pension benefits upon her death. Julianne Moore stars as Laurel Hester, an officer dying from cancer. Because she’s gay, her partner’s right to her pension (which will allow her to stay in the home the couple shared) is denied. Hester repeatedly appeals to the county’s board of chosen freeholders as her health fails and her case attracts the nation’s attention.
Freeheld is based on a true story and the short film of the same name from 2007, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject. Hester’s life tells the story of a woman always facing discrimination. She lost jobs and opportunities because of her sexual orientation. Despite serving over 20 years in law enforcement and becoming one of the first women to make lieutenant in her department, she still had to fight for basic rights as she died.
The only documentary on this list, Reversing Roe is an excellent history of abortion in America and how the issue became so politicized. It explores what a woman’s right to choose looked like before Roe v. Wade, what it looked like after, and what it might look like again if the landmark case is ever overturned. For decades, conservatives have been working both in the shadows and in the spotlight to chip away at abortion rights, so that it’s nearly impossile to win as a Republican unless you are anti-choice. Reversing Roe came out just as Bret Kavanaugh was in the process of being confirmed to the Supreme Court, so history played out right in front of the viewers’ eyes.