Katharine Houghton Hepburn. Today, the simple mention of that name evokes 96 years of sounds, sights and memories, but by the outbreak of World War I, no one could predict the impact she would have on the world. Growing up in Fenwick, Connecticut, Kathy was an absolute tomboy. One summer, she chopped off her own hair over the kitchen sink and, putting on one of her brother’s rompers, called herself Jimmy. This innocent childhood chronicle was a manifestation of what would later define her character: a desire to be equal to the persons of the male sex. Katharine’s mother, however, was already practicing that desire in a more serious way. Since the birth of her first child, she had been questioning her own position in the world. Was she, a woman of such intelligence and determination, meant to be a housewife and a housewife only? She had listened to a speech by British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst and had been largely inspired. Her husband, a rarity, fully supported his wife’s ideals.
Votes for women! Katharine the senior soon became the leader suffragette for the state of Connecticut. In all her campaigns, her daughter and namesake would carry balloons, posters and pamphlets. Discussions were always encouraged in the Hepburn household, and because Dr. and Mrs. Hepburn took pride on having an extensive academic background, their children’s education was always rich. At seventeen years old, in 1924, Katie was sent to Bryn Mawr College, one of the most prestigious colleges for dames in the United States. A trouser-wearing, free-thinking flapper, Katharine pursued a double major in philosophy and history.
When she graduated, in 1928, her dream was to become an actress on the silver screen. She saw herself as a star that had yet to show the world her shine. To do so, she would give up marriage, children and a home. In Katie’s mind, however, she was not sacrificing anything. Au contraire, she found society’s ideals of womanhood to be a bore. At 21, she took a shot at marriage with her long-time boyfriend Ludlow Odgen Smith, who loved her devotedly. It failed after five years, and Kate knew it was her admitted selfishness that did the trick. What many have failed to understand over the decades was, regardless of how important her domestic example was, feminism was a deeply personal struggle for Katharine. She was fueled by more than a yearn for justice. She was unable to fulfill her own personal desires as long as society regarded her as a mere accessory to the male sex. Changes in the female standard were essential to Katharine’s personal happiness, and until those took place she would, in her personal choices, be an individual. And thus she became an inspiration to other women who wished to do the same.
Both the cinema world and the general society went through a drastic change in the late twenties: Cinema experienced glory with the birth of the talking pictures while the world crumbled down in depression. A crisis-stricken society turned to films to escape the terrible reality that surrounded them. There started the core of cinema’s power: The power to create, the power to influence a reality to the point of nearly changing it. As for the depiction of women, the thirties were a critical time because they housed the rise of strong, proud, independent female stars; the most notorious of which Katharine Hepburn. When Katharine became famous, she finally discovered a decent outlet to the feminist ideals she had been developing since her teenage. In a successful effort to make a difference, Katharine was careful with her roles, purposely choosing to play mostly those of the female ideal she had always envisioned. In George Cukor’s “Little Women” (1933), Hepburn played Jo March, an opinionated, unscrupulous daughter, who wished to fight the war with her father and spoke nice and loudly to the changes in womanhood men tried their best to ignore. In Dorothy Arzner’s “Christopher Strong” (1934), she played a female flier, much mirrored in Amelia Earhart, who became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic two years earlier. It is noteworthy that Arzner, who – like Katharine – wore pants to the studio, was a fierce feminist and wanted to homage an innovative woman like Earhart. In “Sylvia Scarlett” (1935), she disguised as a man for over half the picture. Hepburn’s roles as feminists became a pattern that remained up to her last appearance.
In the late 1930s, a series of flops earned Ms. Hepburn the title of box office poison. In that time period, she distinguished herself by acting with unusual independence to get back on her feet. She picked the roles by herself, read the scripts and promptly refused to appear in a picture with which she disagreed. In 1939, she fell in love with a play by the name of “The Philadelphia Story” and accepted its leading role in a heartbeat. Katharine played – how shocking – an opinionated, outspoken socialite, who outsmarts every man rather easily. After a successful yearlong run, she didn’t think twice: borrowed money from her gazillionaire boyfriend Howard Hughes and bought the rights to the play. The arrangements to turn it into a movie were immediate, and, as the picture became a smashing hit, Katharine became very rich. She was the first of the female Hollywood stars to take her career into her own hands and then turn it around completely.
In 1941, Katharine met who would later become the love of her life: Spencer Bonaventure Tracy. A troubled man, with a broken marriage and a drinking problem already hanging from his conscience, he relied on Katharine’s strength to remain standing. Both literally and metaphorically, there was no question of who wore the pants: She had already said a resounding no to marriage and children, and was able to live an earth-shattering love under her own terms. In her relationship with Tracy, Hepburn proved herself a sex forward woman, attaching no commitment whatsoever to their liaison and remaining autonomous in her everyday life. With Spencer, she stands out in “Woman of the Year” (1942), where she plays overachieving superhuman Tess Harding; and in “Adam’s Rib” (1949), where she becomes Amanda Bonner, an admittedly feminist lawyer who goes to court to defend a woman from a sexist charge. Katharine remained politically active off-screen: In the late forties, she spoke out against McCarthyism and the House Un-American Activities Committee, and angered the Cold War-stricken world with her lifelong liberalism. Tracy maintained actors should not make their political views public, a statement with which Hepburn obviously took issue.
Hepburn, during the forties, paved the way to a different type of movie-making: The one that differed from the reality of its era in an effort to improve it or change it altogether. As the fifties crept up, and the world of pin-ups and housewives became dominant, it was up to cinema to keep feminism alive. By 1952, one third of nineteen-year-old women on the United States had found a husband. Only 20% of women were employed and, of those, three fourths were schoolteachers or nurses. With the cold war establishing a long era of armed peace and an unspoken threat of combat darkening the air, society experienced a revival of the American Way of Life and its alienating media. Songs spoke of the good life, movies and television portrayed the “I Love Lucy” family ideal: The working husband, the housewife and, eventually, the children. When society has one too many Doris Days, wholesome, immaculate and sexually repressed; it is up to the Vinka Kovelenkos of the world – or of Ralph Thomas’ “The Iron Petticoat” (1956) – to restore female pride. Katharine played a rather androgynous Russian captain who feels discriminated against for being a woman. On that decade, she was already known as a feminist face. With a few rare exceptions, the sight of her on the silver screen meant a strong, independent, idealized female character.
By 1957, nonetheless, 35% of women in the United States were part of the workforce (Such a change was coincidentally depicted in “Desk Set”). That number increased by the million every year. It was the start of what would be called the Sexual Revolution. As the sixties hit through, Blake Edwards’ “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” (1961) symbolized the start of a new era in movie making that lasts until today. The era where women did what they wanted, how and when they wanted it and were still considered icons by the ladies and desirable by the gentlemen. It was another Hepburn on the leading role, but the revolution she symbolized had had Katharine as a pioneer. In the late sixties, Hepburn was a tower of strength at the loss of Spencer Tracy. Her rock solid character remained intact.
Even in the 21st century, total equality of the sexes is yet to be achieved. Every day, women around the world still have firsthand experience with absurd cases of sexual inequality. However, it is impossible to deny the power to change, to inspire and to incite an all around revolution that resides in film. Katharine became a role model for daring to be different and deciding that the voice of her own mind spoke louder than the voice of social pressure. On June 29th, 2003, Katharine died silent, much like, in life, she chose never to be.
M. C. Recife, Brazil, HaHHdskfmsodnfjkg, 22012