March is Women’s History Month, a perfect time to reflect on some of the amazing women from our nation's past. As a lifelong movie buff, I've always been in search of stories about powerful female characters who paved the way for my own career in media.
Here are five female pioneers — an aviator, a sharpshooter, a public health advocate, a diplomat, and an inventor — all featured in films now available for streaming, many directed by women and brought to life by notable female narrators like Laura Linney and Kathy Bates. This is what I learned from watching these films, and why you should watch them, too.
Amelia Earhart from American Experience
Amelia Earhart is famous for being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. But then she vanished tragically over the Pacific Ocean while attempting to fly across the globe, and she became even more of a legend. Rather than focus on conspiracy theories about Earhart’s disappearance, this American Experience film, narrated by Kathy Bates, gives this superhero her origin story, starting with her humble beginnings as a child who rebelled against her mother’s wish for her to become a “proper Victorian lady.”
Every step of the way, it’s inspiring to see Earhart chart her own path for how a woman is expected to behave. As a young adult, her celebrity status exploded and she eventually became the “first modern American heroine.” She was treated like American royalty after every record-breaking achievement. I had no idea she was such a big star throughout her life, and it was fascinating to see her navigate this new celebrity world, as film became a new visual language.
Through the documentary’s use of photos and archival footage, I also loved getting to see how Amelia dressed in the man’s world of aviation. She sported some incredible outfits that combined the masculine and feminine styles of the time, like her leather bomber jacket and high-waisted pants, combined with a flowy colorful neck scarf. Come for the fashion, stay for the women’s empowerment.
Annie Oakley from American Experience
Annie Oakley never threw away her shot. And she never missed one. Throughout this American Experience film, narrated by Laura Linney, Oakley showed that when given opportunities, women can not only succeed in a man’s world — they can thrive. Oakley (her stage name, she was born Phoebe Ann Mosey) had a rough childhood, born into a family that was desperately poor. She taught herself how to shoot and started hunting as a child, and soon became the family’s breadwinner. As the sharpshooter started to perform around town, no one expected this petite teenage girl to compete and win against men twice her age — but that’s what she did, again and again. Candle flames, cigarettes, glass balls in the sky — whatever was thrown at her, Oakley could hit it. She landed a coveted spot in Buffalo Bill's Wild West tour and performed across the country and the world.
I loved seeing how Oakley stood up for herself throughout her career: Demanding equal pay, insisting on better recognition in her show’s advertisements, and even suing newspapers for libel. Shooting, which began for her as a tool of economic survival, turned into an engine that powered her independence. There’s also a love story for the ages between Oakley and her husband, fellow sharpshooter Frank Butler. Their relationship starts out with an epic gender reversal: Oakley becomes so popular that he becomes her assistant.
Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte in Medicine Woman
Medicine Woman honors a woman who succeeded not only in a man’s world, but, more specifically, in a white man’s world. Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte became the United States' first Native American doctor. She graduated at the top of her class from Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1889 before returning to her Omaha tribe armed with training in modern medicine, and the goal to heal her community by advocating for public health.
While Medicine Woman focuses on La Flesche Picotte, it is really the story of medicine women, profiling three other Native women who have followed in Picotte’s footsteps and are today working as medical leaders in their own communities. They include Dr. Lori Arviso Alford, the first member of Navajo Nation to become a surgeon; and Dr. Lucy Reifel, who runs a mobile clinic that cares for babies and new mothers, an initiative inspired by her adopted son, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. These women are on the front lines of battling hardships that have affected generations of Native populations, including substance abuse, diabetes, methadone addiction, and teenage suicide. They have asked the question that modern medicine doesn’t always ask: What does it take to heal people?
Maybe, the film suggests, the answer is women. I was struck by this observation at the start of the film: “When a way of life is shattered, it’s often the women who become the healers.”
Hillary Clinton in To The Contrary
Long before former Senator Hillary Clinton's historic presidential campaign, she was already a leading advocate for women and girls all over the world. In this 2013 interview with Bonnie Erbe, Clinton reflects on her time as Secretary of State and all that she accomplished in that role. She traveled nearly one million miles to 100 countries as she made women and girls’ rights a central focus of American foreign policy. Erbe starts off this optimistic interview by saying, “You have changed the world for women and girls.” Whatever your political alignment, it’s hard to disagree.
At a moment in time when gender is an ever-present factor in presidential politics, I found it to be refreshing to consider Clinton’s legacy from this optimistic perspective. This interview revisits her famous 1995 speech in Beijing as First Lady, during which she asserted that “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” Clinton explains in the film that when deciding what to say in that speech, she realized women don’t have room for ambiguity — sometimes, it’s most effective to clearly get to the point. “The fact that it had to be made in 1995 was somewhat discouraging,” she says. “It showed how much work was ahead of us.” The work continues.
Hedy Lamarr in American Masters Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
Hedy Lamarr was once known as the most glamorous woman in the world. The Austrian actress was the toast of Hollywood and the most sought-after screen starlet. She was the model for Snow White, and John F. Kennedy once asked her out (before he became president). But less-known was her double life as a successful inventor. In this American Masters film, we learn how Lamarr came up with ideas for new technologies as a hobby during downtime on movie sets.
Amidst the backdrop of World War II and a desire to aid war efforts, Lamarr developed an idea for a radio-controlled torpedo. It used “frequency hopping” technology that prevented enemies from being able to trace it. She got a patent for her invention, but it expired before she could earn any money for it. “The brains of people are more interesting than the looks,” she once said, a statement that, unfortunately, still feels timely. Lamarr spent her whole life fighting the idea that a woman couldn’t be both beautiful and smart. I’m shocked Lamarr’s story isn’t more well-known. This fascinating documentary delves into her glamorous, complicated and heartbreaking life, and I’m thankful her story is celebrated in this way.