Top 10 Women With a Cause in the Movies
Even today, female characters often get the short end of the cinematic stick, stereotyped, robbed of agency or shunted off to supporting roles. There are, of course, women who break the mold… and then there are the ladies who shatter that old thing to pieces on their way to get stuff done. Innovators or athletes, healers or killers, the women in these 10 films have one thing in common: a cause worth fighting for.
1. Norma Rae
Based on a true story, this 1979 tale of minimum-wage cotton mill worker Norma Rae Webster’s (Sally Field) fight to unionize her shop is the archetypal activist story. Taking on themes of sexism, the film also dramatizes Norma’s struggle to win the support of husband Sonny (Beau Bridges). Scoring Field her first Oscar, Norma Rae‘s critical and commercial success spawned many imitators.
2. North Country
While Norma Rae deals admirably with the sexist elements implicit to its story of a male-dominated world and one woman on a mission to change it, North Country makes confronting misognyny the mission. Telling the story of America’s first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit, director Niki Caro explores sexism’s corrosive effects on a community as single mother Josey (Charlize Theron) battles hate from all sides, trying to mobilize her fellow female miners to strike back against vicious abuse.
Some causes are just. Others aren’t. Things get interesting, however, when it’s hard to say either way. Based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, this disturbing period piece serves as a meditation on the different kinds of faith and passion that animate any crusader. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is unwavering as the nun determined to take down the popular priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) she suspects of molesting choirboys, but the film shows viewers other, less-than-righteous dimensions of Aloysius’ anger toward Father Flynn, muddling the waters of her intentions.
4. Erin Brockovich
The one that hit the jackpot. This true story, released in 2000, brought in over a quarter billion at the box office and won an Academy Award for Julia Roberts, as well as nominations for Best Picture and Best Director (Steven Soderbergh lost to himself, taking an Oscar home for directing Traffic). Erin wins justice for the poisoned residents of a small town and proves herself a force to be reckoned with in the ultimate feel-good movie.
5. Million Dollar Baby
And here’s the ultimate tearjerker. Maggie (Hillary Swank) isn’t trying to change the world, but she’s as driven as anyone on this list to take control of her life, help her family and transform into the ass-kicking athlete she knows she has within her. After she surmounts every sort of obstacle, it all goes wrong in a heartbreaking reminder of the truly disastrous outcomes we risk when we battle the odds for what we believe in.
6. Star Wars series
Though the landmark sci-fi films boast more than their share of male protagonists, it’s the series’ women who stand up for what counts. Whether it’s Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), spying for the rebel alliance, or Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), trying to keep the galaxy out of Palpatine’s clutches, these interplanetary activists fight for the biggest stakes imaginable.
7. Vera Drake
This quiet, realistic film tells the story of a devoted working-class mother (Imelda Staunton) in 1950s London who harbors one little secret: she provides local girls with gentle, relatively safe back-alley abortions. Neither her saintly nature nor even the fact that she works for free, providing the service out of pure altruism, can save Vera from society’s condemnation when the truth comes out.
A lighthearted comedy might stick out alongside all this drama, but don’t be fooled by the title; Clueless is a thoughtful movie. Focusing on the very idea of having a cause, the 1995 update of Jane Austen’s Emma takes Alicia Silverstone on a genuinely moving journey from materialism to social consciousness…even if falling for Paul Rudd factors in there somewhere.
9. Kill Bill
Sometimes justice calls for death and destruction, and justice is most definitely served in this epic tale of a betrayed assassin (Uma Thurman) hunting down the killer crew who put her in a four-year coma. Though The Bride isn’t exactly fighting for the greater good, this inventive thriller gets extra points for fitting her whole cause right there in the title.
10. The Whistleblower
Based on the true story of Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz), a police officer from Lincoln, Nebraska who joins the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia—and finds her own mission when she discovers a sex trafficking operation. The plot gets deeper when she brings the evidence to the U.N. and discovers it’s been covered up—and even deeper when she is fired for her attempts to bring about justice. Not one to give up easily, she takes her findings to the media to finally expose the wrongdoings to the world.
Not done saving the world yet? Check out more movies with a mission.
Get to know another woman with a cause —meet Nessa Stein, THE HONORABLE WOMAN, premiering Thu., Jul. 31 at 10/9c.