12 movies to watch for Women’s History Month, from Taylor Swift’s ‘Miss Americana’ to a focus on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s first big case

  • March is a time to commemorate the contributions of women to events in history and contemporary society
  • These films cover everything from the first Asian American woman to serve in Congress and the Nasa scientists who helped send a man to space to Greta Thunberg
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In her Netflix documentary Miss Americana, Taylor Swift takes back control of how she is represented. Photo: Netflix/TNS

There’s less than a week left of Women’s History Month, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to celebrate on-screen representation.

The following films tell stories of real-life trailblazers and pioneers around the world.

From the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s landmark legal wins for women to the first woman millionaire, here are a dozen must-watch movies which remind us of the historical contributions women make every day.

Hidden Figures

We don’t often see many women represented in Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields in real life, let alone on the big screen.

Hidden Figures depicts the real-life story of 1960s Black Nasa mathematicians Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), who died last year at 101, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who died in 2005 at 83, and Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), who died in 2008 at 98, who had to prove their worth in an era of overwhelming racial and gender inequality.

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Jackson was the first Black woman to work at Nasa as an engineer. In 2020, Nasa’s headquarters in Washington DC was named after her.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

This is a fictional drama about a real blues artist Gertrude “Ma” Rainey. It tells a dramatised account of a tense recording session on a hot 1920s Chicago day.

Starring Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, often referred to as the Mother of the Blues, and the late Chadwick Boseman in his final role as Levee, a young and hungry cornet player, director George C. Wolfe’s cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play explores racial and gender dynamics.

At its core, though, it’s a struggle between a couple of very hard-nosed, stubborn and talented musicians.

The United States vs Billie Holiday

Director Lee Daniels’ new film about Jazz singer Billie Holiday tells the story of Strange Fruit, a song Holiday made famous depicting the lynching of Black Americans.

What’s less known is how the United States government actively tried to take her down for singing the song because they didn’t want Black people in Jim Crow America motivated to take a stand by her musical telling of the horrors being perpetrated.

The United States vs Billie Holiday stars Andra Day as Holiday and centres on the battle over Holiday performing Strange Fruit in the last 12 years of her life, with Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) going after the singer using the power of the government – and a plant named Jimmy Fletcher (Moonlight star Trevante Rhodes) – to do so.

Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority

Patsy Takemoto Mink was the first woman of colour elected to Congress and the first Asian American woman to serve in Congress, according to her House of Representatives biography.

She represented Hawaii from 1965-1977 and again from 1989 until her death in 2002. Mink was a proponent of gender and racial equity and in turn was one of the authors of Title IX, the federal legislation that protects people from discrimination in education on the basis of sex.

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This documentary chronicles her life and the obstacles she faced in breaking barriers in Congress.

Miss Americana

Taylor Swift practically grew up in the public eye, and not without media scrutiny – whether for her relationships or her feud with Kanye West. In her Netflix documentary Miss Americana, Swift takes control of her story.

The look behind the scenes of the pop star’s life touches on her music rights battle with Scooter Braun, the #TaylorSwiftIsOverParty hashtag on social media and choosing to speak up about her political views after years of staying mum.

The film also shows her goofy side. We see Swiftmocking her too-tight metallic dress for an awards show (“I look like a Pop-Tart wrapper”), but also wrestling to reconcile the “good girl” she’s always wanted to be with the mature, complex woman she’s become. Swift also wonders about her own shelf life in a culture where female artists and entertainers are “discarded in an elephant graveyard at age 35”.

Since then, she’s released a Disney+ documentary titled Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions about the making of her latest album.

I Am Greta

Greta Thunberg caught the world’s attention with her emotional speech in 2019 to world leaders at the UN Climate Action Summit. She was 16 at the time.

Thunberg made such a splash, she even found herself in the middle of a Twitter feud with former President Donald Trump.

I Am Greta follows the Swedish activist’s rise to global prominence, from solo school strikes outside the Swedish parliament to regularly scolding world leaders at climate conferences. The film also shows the tolls of her newfound fame: how her father needs to remind her to eat, and the way global inaction on climate change weighs on her psychologically.

Queen of Katwe

Before Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit inspired a new generation of chess lovers, there was Disney’s 2016 Queen of Katwe, starring Lupita Nyongo, revealing the real-life story of Ugandan chess champ Phiona Mutesi.

Despite the Disney-fied melodrama, Queen uplifts with outstanding acting, deft filmmaking choices and the introduction of a new talent in Madina Nalwanga, who plays Mutesi.

Plus it’s always fun seeing women crush it in a sport typically dominated by men.

Self Made: Inspired By the Life of Madam C. J. Walker

This Netflix series follows Madam C. J. Walker, played by Octavia Spencer, from a balding, struggling washerwoman who was knocked down by racial and gender biases to her rise as an astute businesswoman and fierce activist with fabulous hair and a thriving company.

Walker is known for becoming America’s first female (not Black female, just first female) millionaire after developing a successful line of Black hair care products.

On the Basis of Sex

What better way to celebrate the life of the notorious Ginsburg than a film about one of the justice’s biggest legal wins.

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On the Basis of Sex is part love story, part legal drama, showing how a young Ginsburg (Felicity Jones), then a lawyer, and her husband won their first case together in court in the early 1970s.

The seemingly minor case, Moritz v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, involved an unmarried man who was denied a US$600 tax deduction for payment for his ageing mother’s caretaker.

The case ignited a spark in Ginsburg, who died last year at 87. The late Supreme Court justice continued to rail against gender discrimination throughout her storied career,and served in the highest federal court in the United States from 1993 2020.

(Another good documentary about Ginsburg: RBG.)

Radium Girls

Starring The Kissing Booth’s Joey King, this tells the true story of young women who were pioneers in the fight for workplace safety and public health.

At the centre of the drama are women in the mid-1920s working factory jobs painting glow-in-the-dark watch dials with radioactive paint who fall mysteriously ill.

The women were instructed to lick their brushes, unaware of the toxic materials they were ingesting. But doctors blame their illness and eventual deaths on syphilis.

After one worker decides she’s had enough, she rallies other women to launch a lawsuit against American Radium, a fictional company standing in for the real United States Radium Corporation.

Kumu Hina

This PBS documentary is told through the eyes of transgender Native Hawaiian Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, also known as Kumu Hina.

Kalu is a hula master, filmmaker, cultural practitioner and community leader. She was the founding member of Kūlia Nā Mamo, a community transgender health organisation established in 2003. Kalu was one of the first transgender candidates for statewide political office in the US.

Two films she co-directed and produced about the struggle of the Indigenous transgender community in Tonga, Lady Eva and Leitis in Waiting, won awards at several film festivals.

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She is currently a community advocate for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, where she helps Native Hawaiian inmates prepare to be productive members of society.


Is it really a Women’s History Month viewing guide without Beyoncé?

Aside from all her other notable accomplishments, the Destiny’s Child alum became the first Black woman to headline Coachella in 2018, and put on a massive, two-hour tribute to HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities), complete with a custom pyramid stage, a killer drumline and roughly 100 dancers.

Her Netflix documentary details the gruelling process she went through to prepare for her big debut following the birth of twins Sir and Rumi.

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