Throughout modern history, women have been committing feminist acts without the label. With Joan Rivers passing last week and Lauren Bacall's death in August (a passing that definitely didn't get the coverage it might have during a less busy news cycle) I started to think about what it means to be a feminist who isn't self-identified. I myself pushed the term away until about six years ago, when I had what I call my late-blooming "feminist awakening." But I didn't just start being a feminist right at that moment -- for the previous 28 years before that, I was speaking out about it, writing about it and working to create places for women to be seen and heard. I was being a feminist without choosing to be a feminist publicly.
The longtime refusal of the feminist label is different than those who have just not claimed it; I mean, the word itself isn't even that old. When Lauren Bacall and Joan Rivers began their careers, "Women's Rights" was a public phenomenon, even if they themselves never came out and said they were part of the movement.
Bacall represents one of the more strange curiosities of the modern woman: the ability to be smart while being conventionally attractive. Feminism today still suffers from this notion that if you're pretty, you're probably too pretty to be a feminist and no one is going to listen to you anyway. But if you're not pretty enough, that's probably why you're a feminist -- and still, no one wants to listen to you. At least this is the information I gather from the commentary and comments of detractors of feminism.
For Bacall, her feminism shone through her performances on-screen, for sure. I was just watching 1953's How to Marry a Millionaire and up against Marilyn's tarty idiot role (though if you read anything about her, you will know that Marilyn was also just a great actress and her performances were not a reflection of her reality,) Bacall exuded that boss attitude. Even when she was loving up next to her real-life beau Humphrey Bogart, she commanded respect from the camera.
But it was also Bacall's ability to stand up during the McCarthy-era witch hunts, joining the Committee for the First Amendment during a time when she herself was at risk of being blacklisted. She was known for her vocally liberal stance, campaigning for politicians throughout her life (and even swung Bogie's vote in the blue direction.) She was the kind of unexpected hard-nose Hollywood bombshell who stood up for what she believed in and refused to be shaped to fit the mold of a beautiful woman who was only good for her looks.