Films for U.S. Women's History Course

Query From Lucia McMahon 30 May 1997

I will be teaching a summer course on Women in American History (from colonial period to present) and would appreciate suggestions for any films that others have used successfully in the classroom. Thanks in advance.


A Jury of Her Peers (20 min; tale of farm woman who apparently murdered her husband, turn of century...investigation of murder raises compelling issues about gender and class, differences in men's/women's experiences, etc

A Midwife's Tale (Blueberry Hill Productions; adaptation of Laurel Ulrich's book)

Against The Odds Series (has 15 min. bio of Bessie Smith; CPB/Annenberg)

All About Eve (Bette Davis)

American Women of Achievement Video Collection: " Marian Anderson" (film targeted at grades 7-12, but find undergrads received it well; from Schlesinger Video Productions, 30 mins.)

Ballad of Little Jo (Fictional tale of west)

Born in Flames (1984, Lizzie Borden's epic about groups of women banding together to take over mass communications; for 2nd Wave)

Eleanor Roosevelt: A Restless Spirit (A & E Biography, 50 min.)

Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker ( focuses on Baker's civil rights work

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Golddiggers of 1933 (1933; sexual & economic anxiety in Depression)

Good Work, Sister (Interviews w/women who worked in the shipyards in Seattle during WWII; study guide comes with video; prod by Northwest Women's Project; available through National Women's History Project (; 20 min.)

Heartland (mail-order bride goes to live w/homesteader at turn of century; with Rip Torn and Conchata Ferrell)

Heaven Will Protect The Working Girl (1909 Garment Industry Strike; prod. by American Social History Project in New York)

Hester Street (Jewish couple immigrating to NY, turn of century w/Carol Kane)

Hillary's Class (Frontline Production, follows several of Hillary Clinton's classmates at Wellesley to class reunion as they talk about choices made/problems encountered)

History and Memory (by Rea Tajiri, 1991; short, semi avant-garde documentary about a Japanese-American woman's understanding of the political, cultural and familial dimensions of internment)

How to Marry A Millionaire

I Am Somebody (Charleston, SC Hospital Strike, 1969)

Ikwe (A Canadian production about a fur trade marriage -1770s)

Imitation of Life (1959; Douglas Sirk version w/Lana Turner & Juanita Moore; another maternal melodrama, motherhood and race)

It (1927, stars Clara Bow; great for consumer culture, class & the new morality)

Little Women

Mary Silliman's War (PBS; based on Richard & Joy Buel's book _The Way of Duty_, reconstructing a woman's life during the American Revolution, from Heritage Films; 93.46 min. long w/programmed break halfway point)

Mildred Pierce

Nobody's Girls: Five Women of the West (women from southwest to Alaska, last half of 19th century; from New Video and PBS; 90 min.)

Now, Voyager (1942; Momism, psychological expertise, female desire & melodrama as popular women's genre; Bette Davis)

One Woman One Vote (American Experience series from PBS; woman suffrage from Seneca Falls in 1848 to ratification of 19th amendment; 106 min.)

O, Pioneers (Hallmark Hall of Fame w/ Jessica Lange; runs 99 mins.)

Pillow Talk (Doris Day/Rock Hudson)

Pocahontas: Her True Story (A & E Biography series; 50 min)

Salt of the Earth (Zinc mining strike, New Mexico, 1950s)

Sentimental Women Need Not Apply (History of Nursing)

She Even Chewed Tobacco (Documentary)

The Dollmaker (rendition of Harriette Arnow's tale of white southern migrants in Detroit during WWII era, w/ Jane Fonda)

The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter

The Long Walk Home (Story of black and white women during Montgomery bus boycott, with Sissy Spacek and Whoopi Goldberg)

The Making of "Mary Silliman's War" (Details making of the film, costuming, sites chosen, etc; includes interview w/actress who plays Silliman, and interview w/Richard Buel; from the Connecticut Historical Society and Michael Bober; 23 min.)

The Sins of Our Mothers (American Experience series from PBS; small-town life in Lowell Mills, northern New England changing moral attitudes)

The Women of Summer (Bryn Mawr Summer School for working women, 1920s-1930s)

Three Sovereigns for Sarah (good film on Salem; is in "Critic's Choice Video Catalog; 3 parts--152 min. total; from Night Owl Productions, also was found at Peabody Essex Museum, and PBS)

Union Maids

Wells-Barnett, Ida B. Documentary from PBS, narrated by Toni Morrison

(approx. 55 min.)

Wild Women Don't Have the Blues (Blues singers of the 1920s; CPB/Annenberg series; 60 min)

Witches of Salem ***[note comments at end of list]

With Babies and Banners: The Story of the Women's Emergency Brigade ( 1937 Sit-Down Strike against General Motors, Flint. Mich.)

Women in American Life ( five, 20 min. videos produced by National Women's History Project; multi-cultural; 1860s to present; contact 707-838-6000 or

Other suggestions/comments:

Use _Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid_(Newman & Redford) to contrast with _Thelma and Louise_ (Davis & Sarandon) critics' reviews of the movies.

A possible juxtaposition of "Alien"(Weaver) and one of Arnold Schwartzenager's films

****Re: "Witches of Salem" from Joan Gundersen I would like to encourage people NOT to use "The Witches of Salem." The description in the film in every catalog I have seen talks about "burning" witches at Salem. Since those executed in Massachusetts were all hung (except for one male crushed to death for refusing to plead guilty or not guilty), this film is hardly accurate....If you want a good film...on Salem, look for "Three Sovereigns for Sarah."

>From Elizabeth Reis

I wholeheartedly agree w/Joan Gundersen that "The Witches of Salem" is innacurate and ineffectual in class, unless the class will be analyzing the mythology of Salem.


From:, Jocelyn Riley

Her Own Words, PO Box 5264, Madison WI 53705; 608-271-7083; has available the following short (mostly 15 minutes) videos on American women's history:

America Fever: A Norwegian Emigrant Story
Belle Case La Follette: 1859-1931
Zona Gale: 1874-1938
Votes for Women?! 1913 US Senate Testimony
Prairie Cabin: A Norwegian Pionee Woman's Story
Her Own Words: Pioneer Women's Diaries
Mountain Wolf Woman: 1884-1960
Winnebago Women: Songs & Stories
Sisters & Friends: American Indian Women's Stories
Big Sister, Little Sister: American Indian Women's Stories
Her Mother Before Her: American Indian Women's Stories of Their Mothers & Grandmothers
Patchwork: A Kaleidoscope of Quilts
Prairie Quilts
Sewing Together: A Birthday Quilt
Audrey Handler, Glass Artist
Women in Construction
Women in Policing
Women in Dentistry
Women in Firefighting
Women in Machining
Women in Welding
Women in Nontraditional Careers: An Introduction

These videos have been widely and favorably reviewed (American Journal of History; Library Journal; Tribal Colleges Journal; Native Peoples; Teaching Equity; School Library Journal; Video Rating Guide). They are a good length for classroom use (15 minutes). Each video tells American women's history from a highly authentic first-person perspective. The use of primary sources and first-person narration makes history vivid and compelling for students and teachers alike.


Regarding films for U.S. women's history courses, try two films by Beth Ferris. The first is "Heartland," an adaptation of the letters of Elinor Stewart Pruitt, a homesteader in Wyoming in the early 1910s.

The other is "Hearts and Hands," a film covering women quilters from the Lowell girls to suffrage. Ferris's underlying "thread" is to show how quilting served as both an art form and as a method of politicizing important issues in these women's lives.

Erika Kuhlman

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