- Women in American History: A History Through Film Approach
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 4, Number 4, December 1974
- pp. 12-20
- View Citation
- Additional Information
WOMEN IN AMERICAN HISTORY: A HISTORY THROUGH FILM APPROACH by Mary Blewett Films are one of the great storehouses of society's stereotypes about women. I have used many films in my course on Women in American History such as A Letter to Three Wives (1949) , The Pumpkin Eater (1965), The Flesh and the Devil (1927)7 The Women (1939), Adam's Rib (1949) and Rachel, Rachel (1969) . There are two useful ways to handle films about women. You can choose films to document the victimization of women from the silents to the seventies. This would illustrate the consistent use of degrading sex stereotypes by the film industry despite superficial changes in style and mood. My students however found this approach quite depressing and somewhat monotonous. A better approach is to mix films which portray women as victims with examples of films showing women in strong, aggressive roles. The current interest in women's films in the Boston-Cambridge movie houses is unearthing and reviving this kind of film. An assignment asking students to analyze the status and treatment of women in the films encourages serious thinking about sex roles. Most films have something to say about sex roles in society, but certain films convey a total view of how a culture limits and proscribes women's lives. One film that does this well, and does it witli great style and character, is D. W. Griffith's, Way Down East (1920). The film was made the same year as the passage of the women's suffrage amendment, the culmination of a century's agonizing struggle for political equality. Griffith, a technical genius but a social reactionary, uses Lillian Gish's portrayal of Anna Moore to celebrate the nineteenth century cult of true womanhood which had been under attack by the women's movement for decades. An excellent reading assignment to accompany the film is Barbara Welter's article, "The Cult of True Womanhood, 1820-1869," Bnofaesson Blewett teaches American Hlstony at Lowell State College In Lowell, Massachusetts. 12 a Bobbs-Merrill reprint. Welter isolates four cardinal virtues which were defined for women in the popular literature of the early nineteenth century ^- pity, purity, domesticity and submissiveness . These are the virtues which Griffith glorifies in Way Down East. Demure, naive and virginal Anna Moore is sent by her poor mother to get help from rich relatives, the Tremonts of Boston, to save the Vermont homestead. Anna enters the sophisticated world of Cousin Emma Tremont and is tricked into a mock marriage by playboy Lennox Sanderson who is fascinated with destroying Anna's innocence and purity. Pregnant and abandoned, Anna returns to the country, her mother dies (of shame), she experiences maternity and the baby dies. Cast out of her boardinghouse where the fatherless child was born, Anna tramps the roads in search of work and comes to the Bart lett farm. Mother Bart lett overcomes the objections of her husband, the Squire, to taking on Anna as hired girl. Her solitary state suggests moral abandonment to the Squire, but his gentle, pious wife persuades him to accept Anna. His son David promptly falls in love with her; earlier in the film Griffith has a shot of David awakening from sleep in terror just as Sanderson falsely weds Anna. The Bartlett farm adjoins Sanderson's country home. On a visit to the farm to woo Cousin Kate Bartlett, Sanderson meets Anna and tells her to go away. Sanderson refuses any responsibility for her fate, insisting, "It's different with a man. A man is supposed to sow his wild oats." Later David confesses his love, but Anna tells him mysteriously, "I can never be any man's wife." Martha Perkins, a Bartlett family friend and comic spinster-gossip, discovers the truth about Anna from the boardinghouse keeper and gleefully informs the Squire. Before the assembled family and neighbors, the Squire discloses her past and orders Anna from his house into the teeth of a howling blizzard. In a most uncharacteristic act, Anna denounces Sanderson as her seducer. Her act of bravado over, Anna rushes out into the storm and heads for the river to kill herself. Rescued by David from the ice...