Masters and the Movies, Take 9

Robert Brent Toplin, March 2009

Under the rubric “Masters at the Movies,” this column features a variety of articles about film crafted by some of the most accomplished teachers and scholars in the profession. Most of the authors are familiar to AHA members principally in connection with their general contributions to scholarship rather than because of their specific work on film. Our readers rarely encounter these authors’ observations about movies and television programs. The “Masters” series invites these historians to consider how cinema can present exciting opportunities and challenges for interpreting the past.

In this issue, Ellen DuBois (UCLA) compares the treatment of women’s issues in the original 1939 Hollywood production of The Women, and a remake that appeared in 2008. Both films featured notable stars, but the 1939 version attracted more enthusiastic attention from audiences and movie buffs. By contrasting the stories and the messages in these two versions, DuBois raises questions about the way Hollywood dramas sometimes reflect changing social attitudes. These two films dealt with related themes such as romance, marriage, betrayal, and self-discovery. Both movies focused on relationships between women, and each considered whether women can “have it all”—both marriage and a modern life. DuBois finds some strikingly different messages in the 1939 and 2008 productions.

Ellen DuBois has written extensively on U.S. women’s history with a particular focus on the suffrage movement and feminism. Among her many books are Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women’s Movement in America, 1848–69 (1978), Harriet Stanton Blatch and the Winning of Woman Suffrage (1997), and Woman Suffrage and Women’s Rights: Essays (1997). She published Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in Women’s History (1994) with Vicki Ruiz and Through Women’s Eyes: An American History with Documents (2005) with Lynn Dumenil. Currently she is at work on a large-scale project dealing with the history of international feminism, and she is also preparing biographies of American women of 1848.

—Robert Brent Toplin (University of North Carolina at Wilmington, emeritus) is a member of the Perspectives on History editorial advisory board and edits the essays in the Masters at the Movies series, which he conceptualized.