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It's All About the Women in 'The Women'

By Nancy Heller Moskowitz, LPC, NCC, CCMHC, 
AMHCA’s Public Awareness, Advocacy & Marketing Committee

February celebrates love and romance.
Our topic this month is women’s perspective of romance, specifically, two versions of the film, “The Women.” About a group of society women and their relationships with their husbands, both films feature all-female casts, and though the husbands are talked about at length, they never appear on-screen. The two version of the film, made nearly 70 years apart, are based on the 1936 play “The Women,” by Clare Boothe Luce

Luce was a remarkable woman, and her life was a study in a woman coming of age and how she handled the “good old boy” network. She was born near the turn of the 20th century, a time that frowned on women being outspoken. She overcame a childhood where her mother was a call girl to wealthy men and her own conception was a scandalous beginning. She is a wonderful example of never giving up and going for what you believe in politically and personally. She never did stay quiet and let her husbands take the lead.

After a very public first marriage and divorce, she wed powerful magazine publisher, Henry R. Luce. They worked at rival magazines for awhile, with Clare Boothe Luce leaving journalism for government work and writing plays, stories, and books. She was an early member of the Suffragette movement. Wouldn’t most women want the energy of this lady? I’m sure she had dark days, but her achievements are noteworthy.

Clinicians who work with women’s issues—especially self-esteem, working outside the home, marital infidelity, and parenting—would benefit from watching these films, both described as comedy-dramas, and both featuring all-female casts. 

The first version of “The Women” came out in 1939. Naturally, it was filmed in black and white. Some viewers may deem the older version not worthy of watching, but I beg to differ. The original version of the film can’t help but provoke an awareness of the similarities and differences with our modern-day view of women’s rights. 

Featuring such notable female actresses as Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and Joan Fontaine, the characters these women portray discuss each other openly and behind the back of their so-called best friend. The film’s lone virtuous woman, Mary Haines, is married to Stephen, who is very rich and believed to be faithful. Civic-minded and a “do-gooder,” Mary loves her daughter and tries to show her by example how to be a woman. 

As in most fairy tales, an evil woman is intent on proving Mary wrong. The seductress, played by Joan Crawford, states; “I never stole a man. He’s given to me because his wife is busy elsewhere and forgets all about him.” This statement can be used as a source for discussion in any group or individual session. Another powerful statement illustrating Mary’s naiveté in this version is, “Our girl is all blue sky. She’s a vault for keeping a secret. She’s busy filling in the cracks.” Her best friend, Sylvia, who has her own issues with husband and career says, “She has to be told” about her husband’s infidelity. Sylvia never thinks of the consequences of her action. 

Some will perceive the 1939 version as “fluff” and dated. I thought it was a wonderful contrast to the 2008 remake. Once again, very familiar faces play all these interesting women. Meg Ryan (Mary) and Annette Bening (Sylvie) do a great job showing the contrast between these two friends, or is it the similarity? You decide! 

In this version, Mary works for her father. Issues of working in a family business can be explored with clients, along with the basic trust issues when one partner strays. Will Mary take Steven back? How she found out about his affair is a good lead-in for clients, too.

One of my favorite scenes in both movies is with Mary and her mother, who have a close relationship. In the 2008 (full color) version, “Mother” (played by Candice Bergen) says she would talk to Mary’s father about him firing Mary from the business. Mary thinks Mother does not understand Mary’s feelings of betrayal by Steven, but then Mother acknowledges to Daughter that not only does she understand Mary’s feelings, the same thing happened to her. Mother tells what she did when it happened to her, but Mary will not be made a fool of by anyone, especially her husband. She decides that she can’t be quiet and wait until the affair ends, and the 2008 version shows Mary going through with her divorce. 

Although both versions of this film deal with society women, the film can be used with any women’s group. The issues are real, even though the action may be too “pat” in some instances. Even though the 2008 version is softer in style, both versions are true to the principle of a woman learning how to take care of herself in times of personal strife and disappointment.

Happy Valentine’s Day to all!

Until next time,