As we celebrate International Women’s Day during a time of “Wonder Woman” and “Lady Bird,” it seems that movies with female leads and female directors have garnered more attention than ever before. But after reading lists of hundreds to thousands of movies, trying to expose myself to past empowering films that I had and had not seen, I more or less felt failed by the some of the sites I was researching, such as the holy grail and generic bible for cinephiles like myself: the great IMDb.
As a result, what followed was an exhaustive, multiple-day hunt consisting of a number of snaps and texts to female friends, asking for recommendations of movies they thought were representative of women for International Women’s Day. This loose “timeline” list of strong women across history in film is the child of that hunt and of many late night social media conversations.
Note: this timeline orders and lists the dates of the movies in the year they take place, not in the actual year they were made. There are a few exceptions, in which the time period of the film is the same as its year of release. A lot of these films are inspired by true stories, and some of them may cover lifetimes and are categorized accordingly. WARNING: some spoilers ahead!
3,000 years ago: “Moana”
This Polynesian princess captured the hearts of millions around the globe in her journey to save her family from evil forces. And she’s one of the few Disney princesses to have a successful film without a love interest or prince by her side. Hawaiian actress Auli’i Cravalho stars in the title role of “Moana,” which takes place 3,000 years ago.
1400s: “The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc”
Who hasn’t at least heard of this G.I. Jane of the 1400s? This film tells the story of the famed heroine of France who engaged in bloody combat even when women’s main roles at the time were homemaker, babymaker, churchgoer and candlestick-maker. The film stars Milla Jovovich.
Elizabeth is the ultimate don’t-need-no-man virgin queen of Shakespearean England. And she may or may not have a secret lover. But if she does, that’s her prerogative. Cate Blanchett stars in this film about political independence and remaining true to yourself.
What’s it like to be a mixed-race woman in the upper echelons of British society during the 1700s? Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as an illegimitate noble woman who is instrumental in the abolition of slavery in England.
1880s to 1970s: “Coco Before Chanel”
Coco Chanel was a true rebel in everything from female dress to female attitude. Audrey Tautou stars as the revolutionary French businesswoman and fashion designer.
1910s: “Wonder Woman”
Need we say more? Gal Gadot, director Patty Jenkins and others blew the entire world away with this World War I-era, DC superheroine action flick.
1920s: “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
Sexual freedom. Spirituality. Strength. Discovering yourself as a young Black woman in the 1920s. Halle Berry stars.
1923: “Mrs Dalloway”
Based on the famed Virginia Woolf novel by the same name, “Mrs. Dalloway” tells the story of a woman as she contemplates her life. Lesbianism and protofeminism are addressed. Natascha McElhone and Vanessa Redgrave star as the pensive Clarissa Dalloway (young and adult, respectively).
1920s and beyond: “Entertaining Angels: The Dorothy Day Story”
An activist and feminist like no other, Dorothy Day struggled to win supporters for her cause, but she ultimately founded a successful movement developed in part to help the poor. Moira Kelly, the voice of Nala from “The Lion King,” stars as the title character.
1940: “His Girl Friday”
Rosalind Russell stars as the fiery newspaper reporter who bickers with Cary Grant in this oldie-but-goodie about marriage and professionalism.
A Black woman is born to white parents in South Africa during the era of apartheid. Watch as actress Sophie Okonedo searches for love and identity as Sandra in this hit film.
Irish woman Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates to the borough of Brooklyn, New York, all while finding love, and herself.
1953: “Mona Lisa Smile”
A movie about women pursuing a career even though they were “designed” to be homemakers? Classic. Julia Roberts stars as the Wesleyan art professor who encourages her students to push beyond gender and social barriers.
1961: “Hidden Figures”
Three Black women with the brains of computers (literally!) fight hard to be accepted in the scientific community in the 1960s. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe star as three brilliant mathematicians at NASA.
Following the assassination of her husband, John F. Kennedy, the classy fashion icon Jackie Kennedy, also known as Jackie O., faces a devastated America and must find the strength within herself to cope. Natalie Portman stars.
1966-1971: “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry”
Mary Dore’s thought-provoking documentary about second wave feminism.
“Summertime” is a foreign film about two feminist women who find love with each other and fight for acceptance in the French countryside during the ’70s. Actresses Cécile de France and Izïa Higelin star.
This film tells the story of the amazing and beloved Mexican American singer from Texas, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. Sexual liberation and independence are highlighted in the film, and Jennifer Lopez stars as the late singer.
1981-present: “Love and Basketball”
A simply incredible movie about love, success and gender in the world of amateur and professional basketball. Sanaa Lathan stars.
1980s: “The Joy Luck Club”
“The Joy Luck Club,” based on the famous novel of the same name by Amy Tan, is one of the most powerful films about Asian American women and immigration ever made. Lisa Lu, Tsai Chin and Kieu Chinh star.
1989: “Southside With You”
A story about Michelle and Barack Obama’s very first date. Michelle expresses her wish to empower women in the film (sounds like her to us)! Tika Sumpter stars as the intelligent and witty future first lady.
1990s: “Erin Brockovich”
Julia Roberts stars as the powerful Erin Brockovich, who, despite not having a law degree, is able to create waves in a major environmental suit during the ’90s.
Early 2000s: “Where the Heart Is”
This inspirational film stars Natalie Portman and Ashley Judd as independent women who make their own career paths. Teen pregnancy and sexual abuse are addressed.
Early 2000s: “Bend It Like Beckham”
Women in sports? Small chances. A woman of color in sports? Even smaller chances. Parminder Nagra stars as a talented athlete who wants to become a professional soccer player and pursues a mixed relationship against her family’s wishes.
Early 2000s: “Enough”
Yes, another J.Lo movie (because why the heck not?)! “Enough” tells the story of a single mother who takes warranted revenge against her abusive husband in order to protect herself and her daughter.
Mid-2000s: “Bride and Prejudice”
Jane Austen with a twist? Sign us up! An Indian women makes her own choices and seeks out true love despite culture clash. Aishwarya Rai stars.
Mid-2000s: “Under the Same Moon”
This foreign film tells the story of a strong Mexican woman who works in the home of rich Americans in order to create a better life for herself and her son. Kate del Castillo stars.
Present/dystopian: “How I Live Now”
A Canadian-British hit, “How I Live Now” tells the story of a strong woman, played by Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”), who must protect her distant relatives after a nuclear attack.
Contact Kristen Hull at [email protected]