American Women in Careers in Films of the 1930s

Essay outline

This paper will address how women have been portrayed in film since the nineteen thirties. The focus will be on how films define gender roles. Since films are often a reflection of the attitudes adopted by society, reviewing these films will help to shed light on what the perception has been on the things a woman can and cannot do especially in relation to work.

Through the thirties and forties, the attitude that women were meant to stay at home and look after their families while the men went to work was very prevalent. This began to change after World War Two but it did not die out completely and there are people who to this day still believe that a woman belongs to the house or even if she goes out to work, there are jobs she can do and those that she cannot.

By reviewing films from the 1930s to date, it shall be determined what attitudes have changed and what has remained the same in regards to a woman doing a man’s job. some of the films used in the paper shall be His Girl Friday, The Devil Wears Prada, Two Guys from Milwaukee and Adam’s Rib. The essay shall have a reference list of the works cited in the text.


This essay will focus on reviewing and analyzing American films produced since the 1930s to date with the focus of seeing how the traditional gender roles have changed over the years. The review of these films, in combination with the writings of those who have done previous study on the depiction of women in American film will help in the assessment of what has changed over the years in regards to career more so male dominated fields, the role of the woman as wife and home keeper and the conflicts that may arise from the pull between career and family.


It is debatable whether life imitates art, or whether art is what imitates life. Whichever the case, recorded art, examined in retrospective helps us to understand the cultural aspect of our social history.

Ever since the advent of the talking pictures in the late nineteen twenties, there have been thousands of motions pictures made covering myriad subjects and under all genres. In all these pictures there were women, playing different roles, telling the story of how a woman was viewed in the society at the time.

Traditional gender roles have been influential of how the woman is cast in films and naturally how she was to behave in real life as well. When women started doing male oriented jobs, they met with a great deal of resistance from men who thought that they could not hold up under the pressure.

By looking at the films made over the years about women who decided to flaunt convention and seek a career, it shall be examined how these women on screen dealt with the pressures, prejudices and probation that came hand in hand with opting to pursue a career, and how the position of the woman in a male oriented field has evolved through the years to the present time.

The nature of American films

It is no secret that the stories told within any given cultural setting in any part of the world is simply a reflection of what goes on in that society. Literature, art, music and drama repaint the lives of ordinary people within a cultural context as the artist sees it. The film is no exception to this; it is a media of communicating the norms in our society as well as addressing social issues that of a rather delicate nature by dressing them in the guise of humor. The underlying issues remain deathly serious.

Without even thinking of earlier American film in terms of women in careers, it has been observed that the lead roles cast men. In most of the films that were produced before the 1940s men were cast as the working professionals and the women in the role of the housewife. Of the one hundred films produced between 1941 and 1942 that were included in a survey to determine how the American woman was portrayed in film, eighty percent of them had men playing the lead.

Women, careers and family as depicted in American cinema

How women were depicted has changed a lot ever since the 1930s to the present day. While the earlier films cast the woman in the light of being a helpless, almost brainless creature who was driven by animal impulses, emotions and nothing more, later movies added more substance to what role a woman can play in society. There were earlier films made of women who even broke the cardinal rule of being good wives and mothers and opted to pursue careers. While such endeavors never went extremely well for the woman, as a reminder to her that her place was in the home and trying to break this norm had its consequences, they at least progressed her status in society.

Back in the nineteen thirties and nineteen forties, it was assumed that the ultimate achievement for a woman was not a successful career but getting her hands on a man and walking him down the aisle. Marriage and family were lauded as the only priorities that a woman should have. A career, in the earlier films, was a slight distraction, a fall from grace. Once the woman came back to her senses she would penitently go back to her husband, children and domestic responsibilities having learnt the lesson that a career was not the path for her.

Basinger’s recollections of her childhood adopt a wry tone towards how women were portrayed in the movies in the thirties and forties. She says, that above all, it was confusing what exactly was expected of the woman. In a world where the rule of children being seen but not heard still reigned supreme. The children then had to fish for their own answers. One of their best resources was going to the films where their parents gladly sent them off to with a penny for buttered popcorn and seemingly harmless entertainment (Basinger, 1993).

Basinger (1993) is quick to discredit the credibility of the plot lines that were spun around the plights of the heroines who were more often than not, damsels in dire distress who needed saving by the unflappable knight in shining armor.

Basinger notes that in the 1930s, after the tough times of the great depression, what moviegoers sought in theatres was a few hours escape from the harsh every day realities that awaited them in their real lives. The films made at the time, were focused on the young heroine, after going through a series of hardships, mostly of the economic kind and having resorted to a wild and unsuccessful scheme to gain financial independence would find redemption and security in the arms of a man who would help her see the error of her ways as well as prove to her that marriage and family are the best option.

A career was the last option a woman would resort to after everything else had failed. It was almost a disgrace to be out seeking a job instead of staying at home darning socks and keeping everything in readiness incase the husband needed it. In the 1946 film Two Guys from Milwaukee, Joan Leslie, the leading lady faces the choice of going for her career or settling down with her love, played by Jack Carson who does not even understand where the dilemma lies. For him, it is rather obvious that she should choose him over a job. He tells her ‘why do you want to fool around with a career when you can go out with me’. Her career is inconsequential, it is just ‘fooling around’ not to be taken seriously.

The attitude adopted at the time, as illustrated by these films, was that if a woman felt headstrong and determined to pursue a career, the man was to humor her, stand aside and watch her embarrassing herself then be there to help her up once she had failed to once she had had enough of the tomfoolery. It would then be the man’s noble duty to reinstate her to her rightful place, as a mother and home keeper (Basinger, 1993).

When a woman made the choice of career over family, she became a pariah because she had betrayed her womanhood. For this reason, something drastic would happen to her as a form of punishment to reinforce the notion that the woman had to stay at home. Most movies provided the woman with a choice between family and career. It was not even debated that she could do both. In the end, even if the woman chose her career at firs, she would still find her way back to love and family, the former being but a lesson (Basinger, 1993).

The purpose of film from the 1930s to the 1950s was to reinforce the stereotype of the woman as a home keeper. However, in Basinger’s opinion, such films led to a silent, underground revolution that actually rushed the process of female liberation. While at the movies, the female viewers celebrated in the utter freedom of the actresses on screen, the utter breaking away from rules and conventions and societal norms.

Another assertion that Basinger (1993) makes, and which she says helped in the liberation of the American woman was the whole paradoxical composition of the woman on film. Basinger says that women in early American films had to rely on subterfuge to get their intended message across by setting seeming double standards.

Though the film at in the thirties and forties did not give the answers to the numerous questions that women had, just posing this questions was an impetus that propelled women into taking a harder look at their own lives and the options that they had.

Joe Saltzman (2003) notes that for journalism which was considered a very strongly masculine field, women were almost completely absent before the late nineteenth century. There were very few female journalist of note and those who cut it were forced to write sentimental twerp, not the real stories that would make the front pages.

Joe Saltzman (2003) elucidates that the dilemma for women who opt to go into male oriented jobs goes beyond skepticism from colleagues; the woman ha to contend with striking a balance between what her job calls her to do which most of the time run against the grain of her natural feminine impulses.

A female journalist has to acquire the traits of what makes a successful journalist; she has to be an aggressive go-getter who has a thick skin, with little show of sentimentality and wishy-washiness. This is necessary for objective reporting and in dealing with all calibers of people one might meet while on the job. However, these traits do not fit the mould of what society expects a woman to be: caring, compassionate and sensitive to the problems of those around her.

Even when the women did manage to get into journalism, they still had to take up the low grade assignments, while the meaty ones were the preserve of male reporters. Anything

that made it to the front page rarely had a woman’s name on it. Assignments that had to do with finance, police investigations and politics were for the men while the female reporters were left with the task of writing frivolous articles such as tea parties and school functions (Saltzman, 2003).

The woman who opts to take up a career has to prove her salt. She has to work twice as hard to show that she is on the same per as the men. Her femininity is a natural disadvantage; it puts her on a lower rank from which she has to pull herself to be on equal ground as the man. Nobody gives her leverage on the way up; it is part of proving her worth if she can pick up all by herself. Women who opt to go into male oriented fields, more so those who chose to do so in the decades preceding the 1990s, knew what it meant to earn respect from colleagues (Saltzman, 2003).

The role played by Rosalind Russell as Hildegard ‘Hildy’, in the film His Girl Friday is a prime example of what kind of challenges women in careers were up against. Cary Grant, playing the role of boss and reluctant ex-husband who dos not want her to marry a bland insurance salesman, turns into a farce when the ex-husband goes to desperate lengths to keep the two apart.

Here is the husband who sees his wife almost as property that he owns and firmly refuses to let her go in the name of love. He cannot bear to think of her with another man because she is his. Not only that, but he is willing to acknowledge that he will lose a wife and a good reporter in one blow. His cavalier attitude leaves one wondering whether he is genuinely interested in Hildy’s wellbeing or it is to serve his own end that he fights her second marriage so hard.

Things change slowly and gradually so that it is almost imperceptible to notice that anything is happening. Women now work as much as and in the same careers as men do. While in the thirties it was an oddity to see a lady doctor in the movies, it is more common and acceptable in the present time to see a woman tackle what was once labeled as a man’s job. The statistics are indicative of what can be seen in the cinema.

The 1949 film Adam’s Rib incorporates an aspect of family life that had been almost taboo: divorce. A lawyer couple whose marriage is falling apart decide to take it to the courts. From that point on, the iron fist is completely taken out of the iron glove nad things turn messy. The unique attribute of this picture is not only did it depict a woman in a very male oriented field, law, but it showed her breaking away from the societal norms-marriage and her man- to go it on her won. There is no retribution for the woman because she makes this choice. Neither is her independence a happy interlude before disaster strikes. The heroine does remarry to the man of her choosing and it is a clean break from her first husband.

So there came a generation of women who had earned their right to work as much as men had. They had watched as children, the tribulations that their mothers went through as housewives trying to make ends meet. Maybe they had stood by the sidelines as their mothers’ ambitions were frustrated or thwarted as all the time they fed off the glamour of the women they saw on cinema screens and who fired their own secret ambitions. From these role models, they learnt that a woman can have a go at it just like a man (Hoffnug, 2004).

Today, women are going out to work almost as much as men are. While in 1992 the percentage of women under the age of twenty nine who wanted to be employed in positions of greater responsibility stood at 72 against that of men which stood at 80, now the percentages are at 66 and 67 respectively (Arnst, 2009).

It does not make much difference whether the woman has children or not. While in 1992 only 60 per cent of women with children had career aspirations, in 2008 78 per cent of those without children wanted jobs that put them in a position of more responsibility. Today 69% of young women under the age of twenty nine want jobs with more responsibility which is not a great margin of difference from the 66% of childless women who would also want to hold such positions (Arnst, 2009).

But the extent of change in traditional gender and sex roles does not stop here. Women are not only going out to work, but at times also earning more than their husbands do. By 2008, in families where both couples were working, the woman contributed as much as 44% of the gross income while a decade earlier it had been only 39%. Also, by 2008, 26% of women earned more than their spouses if they were both working (Arnst, 2009).

However this is just the tip of the iceberg; men, the same people who in previous years have greatly frustrated the woman’s bid for empowerment are now actually supporting it! Men are accepting that women can do a job as good (or even better) than they themselves can. In 1977, 64% of men believed that women should stay at home and be good wives while they went out to work. In 2008, only 41% still held the opinion that men should work while women stay at home (Arnst, 2009).

Furthermore, while in 1977 only about 50% of men with spouses thought that a working woman can make as good a wife and mother as a non-working one, in 2008 the percentage of men who felt that working women could make good mothers was 67%. Lastly, a greater percentage of men are taking responsibility for house hold duties, including spending more time with their children. Male spouses who were brought up by working mothers are more adjusted to the idea of their own spouses going off to work and of being active participants in the day to day running of the household (Arnst, 2009).

The role of women as love interest/sex objects or in films is still a major component of the box office, more so the action/science fiction/thriller genres. However, these women have more weight than their counterparts had five or six decades ago. They may be cast as lovers but at the same time they have lives of their own, they work in offices, they run businesses, they are lawyers and teachers and editors.

In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep plays the role of chief editor for a fashion magazine. She is cast as being a ruthless, hardnosed driven, intimidating woman feared by all at her workplace. Now the woman is at work; but this presents another impasse, the feminine aspects of being a woman at work. The message being sent across is that one cannot be a woman with a high flying career and at the same time have a stable family life, if any.

This it seems is an attitude that has been carried down over the years. Saltzman (2003) remarks that the portrayal of the female journalist, who could have stood in the place of all career women at the time, was not one that was well rounded. They were drawn as overambitious women who would do anything for a story, including trading their beauty and sex for a scoop. The modern day female journalist has not moved far from her predecessors’ shadows. She is still cast as an unfeeling and insensitive person, who crushes and conquers and has almost zero capacity for compassion as well as such other feminine emotions.

It is almost as if the woman is forced to choose between her career and her responsibilities to her family. If she opts to pursue her career, she is looked upon as being overly ambitious or downright selfish. Though American society seems willing to accept the working woman, there is yet to be reconciliation between giving her one hundred per cent psychological support (Hoffnug, 2004).


The twentieth century was the century of female liberation; this is when the traditional gender roles as designated in American society were shaken to its roots. Women were able to vote, they also had a limited chance to do the work that men had been doing for years. Naturally, this was met by a lot of resistance from the men who were in no hurry to see the woman move out of her position as the home keeper, and the man as the breadwinner. That would have upset the status quo.

So women would go to work, at first as secretaries, office assistants, and nurses and in other positions that were considered feminine enough to suit their gender. When women began appearing in male-dominated fields, they were me with a lot of resistance and some level of derision; it was as if they were taking on more than they could handle. Professions such as newspaper reporting had been considered the men’s domain.

Some things do change with time but others remain indubitable no matter how much time passes. Bette Davis remarked in the 1950 film All about Eve ‘that is a career we all have-being a woman!’ This is a statement that rings true for the woman today as it did for the women of the forties; being a woman is not just a matter of sex, its lifetime employment.


Arnst Cathy. ‘Women Want Careers Just as Much as men’ Business Week, 2009. Web.

Basinger Jeanine. A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960.

Alfred Knopff: New York, 1993.

Dirks Tim. ‘His Girl Friday (1940)’ Review. Web.

Hoffnug Michelle. ‘Wanting it All: Career, Marriage, and Motherhood During College-educated Women’s 20s,’ Sex Roles Journal of Research, 2004. Web.

Saltzman Joe. ‘Sob Sisters’ The Image of the Female Journalist in Popular Culture, Vol.1, 2003.