A half century before “Lean In” and the Bechdel Test started to infiltrate every interview with every female celebrity, Bette Davis didn’t need the “f” word to express where she stood on gender politics.
“I think men have got to change an awful lot,” the Oscar winner declared in a long-forgotten 1963 radio interview, exhumed this week by PBS. “I think they still somehow prefer the little woman. They’re just staying way, way behind. And so I think millions of women are happy to be by themselves, they’re just so bored with the whole thing, you know, trying to be the little woman, when no such thing exists anymore.”
Known for her tough-dame roles and behind-the-scenes perfectionism, it’s fair to guess that Davis, who died 25 years ago this month, would be comfortable today calling herself a feminist — though the word had little traction in the culture when she delivered her comments on sexism and equality.
Never reluctant to battle her (male) producers or directors, she took her studio bosses to court in the 1930s for endangering her career with a contract that forced her into mediocre films. In the 1940s, she was said to be the highest-paid woman in the country; she also became the first woman elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences — but resigned just months later after clashing with committee leaders.
Incidents like that may have been on her mind when she sat down with Hollywood columnist Shirley Eder for the radio interview.
“I think it’s a terrible hindrance for any female to have a lot of intelligence in private life, but I think in business it’s sometimes even worse. There’s deep resentment, no question about it, from the male side of the business. . . We all work for men, they’re the people in charge. I think they find women easier who don’t have the ability to think for themselves. One can make more enemies as a female with a brain, I think.”
“But I don’t think in business it matters whether you’re a man or a woman. Just do your job and have a brain.”
These days, almost every sit-down with an actress promoting a movie will circle back to Hollywood’s shortage of strong, nuanced roles for women. Davis already saw a trend, though, and didn’t hesitate to lay blame:
“Women are the essential part of the theater. But the writers are not writing about women, they’re too perplexed about the whole female situation.”
It’s doubtful that the star at that point had read Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique,” an analysis of housewife discontent released early in 1963 which went on to inspire what became known as second-wave feminism — but Davis had plenty of her own experience to draw upon. At 55, she had been widowed once and seen her three other marriages end in divorce. Eder asked if, after a long day “having to fight in a man’s world, was it difficult to come home and then, really, be a woman?”
Davis, surprisingly, was not put off by the question, not at all. “I worked much too hard at it,” she admitted. “I went way overboard the other way of proving I was definitely just a female.” She maintained that a woman “should be a woman at home” but that “actually, I think businesswomen are better women at home. . . because they do understand what goes into a day’s work in the world.”
Though she had very progressive expectations for the men in her life as well:
“The real female should be partly male, and the real male should be partly female anyway. So if you ever run into that in either sex you’ve run into something very, very fine, I think.”
It’s much more mesmerizing to hear it all in Davis’s elegantly tobacco-stained voice — presented here with animation as part of PBS Digital Studios’ fantastic Blank on Blank series.