Lauren Bacall: An amazing addition to my feminist fantasy league

The Hollywood star was at ease with herself and totally unapologetic about it


Lisa Simpson is lying in bed, late at night, worrying about whether she needs to smoke to be as good as the other ballerinas, but she’s sure that smoking is for losers. Suddenly, the smoking ghosts of Simone De Beauvoir, Margaret Mead, Queen Elizabeth I and Lauren Bacall appear and fly around her head. “My feminist heroes,” she cries as her idols call on her to “puff with us, puff with us, puff with us”.

Lauren Bacall has been on many little girls', and big girls', feminist hero lists. She’s an amazing addition to the fantasy feminist leagues some of us spend time plotting in our heads. I’ve spent the odd afternoon imagining my ultimate Spice Girls, and Bacall makes a very suitable replacement for Geri.

She is the type of woman many women want to be: alluring yet strong, difficult yet witty with it, loved with great warmth for her strength. She struck a balance that many of us find torturous. She appeared to be at ease with herself and unapologetic for it. Most actresses are either beautiful or a “character”. Bacall was both - a beautiful character.

The obituaries are calling Bacall a feminist, but a kind of pre-feminist feminist - “a conundrum, a proto-feminist forever linked to the man she loved”, said the Sydney Morning Herald. But was it her culture or herself that made her a conundrum? Was Lauren Bacall a feminist?

A liberal, a strong woman and a leader in her field. Bacall was all of these things, but she wasn't a pioneering campaigner for women, and while she had some nice one-liners they were never as man-bashing as Mae West’s or as cutting as Dorothy Parker’s. Bacall was subtler. She made us feel like she was like one of us, which in itself was pioneering for a stage and screen goddess.

If her peer Marilyn Monroe had lived as long, would she have been retrospectively crowned a feminist? I think not, for Bacall, like Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, were seen as ball-breakers and not baby dolls - an image that is still seen as anti-feminist. Even though Marilyn and Lauren shared a screen, both talented comedians, the blonde bombshell with the cutesy voice was never to be given the same level of respect as the brunette with her gravelly gravitas.

Whether blonde or brunette, they all suffered from a lack of critical acclaim, unlike their male peers. Lauren, who was married two Oscar-winners, didn’t get near her own statuette until just five years ago when she received an honorary award. In 1994 she said that she put Humphrey Bogart's career first. “You can’t blame him for wanting that,” explaining that he lost his first two wives to their careers.

She lived alone for a long time but is known for the great loves of her life. The culture did this to her and she knew it. In 2011 Bacall told Vanity Fair: “My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure… I’ll never know if that’s true. If that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.” This is the conundrum, this is perhaps why she is a proto-feminist. We feel she helped us get to where we are now, though she is still very much a victim of what her era asked of her gender.

So who will join her from 2014 in my Ultimate Spice Girl Feminist Warrior Team? They may not be chain-smoking, or gravelly, but I think my line-up’s awesome: Tina Fey, Lorde, Oprah and Madonna. We’ve got difficult yet witty women. We’ve got the unapologetic, loved for their strength, alluring ball-breakers. None of them will be expected to forego their success for that of the bloke in their life, and none of them will have to worry about having obituaries that talk about anyone else.

Deborah Coughlin was the Editor of Feminist Times

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