Her sultry voice and come-hither stare, and her timeless love for Humphrey “Bogie” Bogart are what most people of our generation will remember about the late Lauren Bacall, but she was more than just a pretty face: she was one of Hollywood’s earliest feminists.
While classic screen legends like Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis lived and called themselves unashamed feminists, Lauren Bacall never made such a claim and yet she was equally influential. Bacall was a precursor to modern day feminists who refuse to believe they are feminists, such as Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, both of whom have openly admitted to not being feminists despite being independent, successful women who see themselves equal to men. The equality of genders is the basic definition of feminism, coupled with the fact that women should be allowed to live their lives as they please regardless of whether they want to be cutesy babydolls or hard-nosed ball-busters. The key point is the choice to be either (or even both!).
Lauren Bacall fell into the latter category when she burst into stardom with her first major role in Howard Hawks’ classic To Have and To Have Not. It was in this film that she established her infamous chin-down-eyes-up stare (fun fact: she did this to reduce the extreme nervousness she suffered!) and also where she met Bogie, who would go on to become the love of her life despite being 25 years her senior. Couple her unique looks with Hawks’ witty dialogue, which was often dripping with sexual innuendos, a new breed of Hollywood starlet was born.
To the ignorant eye, Bacall’s life choices could peg her as anti-feminist. She wasn’t an activist for any women’s rights, though she was an outspoken Democrat. Right up until her death, she was just as famous for her romance with Bogie as she was for being an actress and, in fact, Bacall lost out on many roles and gained a “difficult” reputation because she insisted on putting her relationship with Bogie ahead of her own career.
The difference is that Bacall did this by choice. She picked and chose the movies she wanted to do and later went on to become a fairly big Broadway star before retuning for round two on the silver screen between the 1960s all the way to the ‘80s. On top of that, she was the perfect and unashamed mix of traditional femininity and masculinity: sensual yet strong, fiercely independent yet devoted to her spouse, alluring yet difficult; she was a healthy balance of what women at the time wished they could achieve.
Though she was right when she speculated to Vanity Fair in 2011, “My obit is going to be full of Bogart, I’m sure,” she’s now finally being recognized more as the type of feminist who is seen less: the sort who conforms to most gender roles and freely breaks others without giving a damn either way.