Women’s History Month 2005
To help us commemorate Women’s History Month, Between The Lines has asked a few of our community’s favorite women to tell us about the legendary ladies that inspired them.
Leslie Thompson on Katharine Hepburn
The woman: Leslie Thompson is the executive director of Affirmations Lesbian and Gay Community Center.
The woman who inspired her: Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907, in Hartford, Conn. Her father was a noted urologist; her mother a determined feminist and suffragist. Her parents were liberals and they raised young Kate to speak her mind and be a free, independent thinker. She was schooled primarily at home until she left for college. Hepburn graduated from Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania with a degree in history and philosophy in 1928.
That same year, she married Ludlow Odgen Smith, but soon her marriage took a backseat to her acting ambitions. She appeared on Broadway in 1932 in “The Warrior’s Husband.” The role led to a screen test and she made her film debut later the same year in “A Bill of Divorcement.” Two films later, Hepburn won an Academy Award for her role in “Morning Glory.”
But even with an Oscar in hand, Hepburn was a Hollywood anomaly, harboring none of the typical starlet ambitions. She despised interviews, shunned make up and preferred slacks to slinky gowns.
“Her parents taught her about politics, they encouraged her to be athletic and assertive,” said Thompson. “She took control of her career, which women didn’t do then.”
Indeed, after a string of bad pictures in the late 30s left her with the label “box office poison,” Hepburn returned to Broadway in “The Philadelphia Story.” The show was a smash and Hepburn quickly bought the film rights, allowing her to orchestrate her return to the silver screen on her terms. The following year, Hepburn received her third Oscar nomination for the film.
Next up for Hepburn was “Women of the Year,” which paired her with actor Spencer Tracy. The pairing proved so successful that the duo went on to do an additional seven films together over the next 25 years. Personally, the relationship between the two lasted until Tracy’s death in 1967.
Hepburn continued to act well into her 80s. Often referred to as the First Lady of the Cinema, Hepburn, who died at age 97 in 2003, remains the only actress to ever win four best actress Oscars.
“She was outspoken, talented, funny, and wore pants when women didn’t wear pants,” said Thompson. “She didn’t fit into the mold and didn’t care that she didn’t fit into the mold.”
Sharon Roepke on Eleanor Roosevelt
The woman: Sharon Roepke is the executive director of the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center.
The woman who inspired her: Eleanor Roosevelt
Anna Eleanor Roosevelt was born Oct. 11, 1884. At age eight, Roosevelt lost her mother. Her father died two years later. She was raised by her grandmother and eventually sent to Allenswood, an exclusive boarding school in England. By this time her uncle Theodore was the president, and when her fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt asked for her hand in marriage, it was the president who gave her away at their 1905 wedding.
As Franklin began his foray into politics, Eleanor was always firmly at his side. An active political figure herself, Eleanor served as editor of the Women’s Democratic News and as chairperson of the Women’s Platform Committee of the National Democratic Party. In 1927 Eleanor began working as a teacher. But it would be five years later before Eleanor started the job of her lifetime, that of first lady, when her husband was elected to the presidency in 1932. She performed the obligatory duties of hostess, but was determined to use her position to do much more than that.
She visited war-torn Britain, investigated housing and working conditions in depressed areas, and traveled to Asia in her Red Cross uniform. At home, she championed the rights of women and minorities. She was a sought-after public speaker and wrote a daily column called “My Day.”
“She was a feminist,” said Roepke. “She started women’s press conferences where she would address issues for the women’s press corps.”
Even after her husband died in 1945, Eleanor continued her work. In December of the same year, President Truman asked her to serve as a member of the United Nations delegation from the United States to the first organizing meeting of the U.N. General Assembly in London. Soon after she was chosen chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights and was largely responsible for overseeing the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted Dec. 10, 1948.
Eleanor continued her humanitarian efforts until her death at age 78 in 1962.
“I think her legacy is that a first lady can now be more than just someone who is an accouterment,” said Roepke. “She proved that a first lady can be a person in her own right, pushing forth her own ideas.”