Was Marilyn Monroe a Feminist?

The book ”The Girl” looks at Marilyn’s most empowering and rebellious years

The following is an excerpt from Michelle Morgan’s forthcoming book The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist, which looks at a two-year period of empowerment in the iconic actress’s life, from the summer of 1954 to the summer of 1956. The book is out May 8 on Running Press Books.

Since she was such a complex character, Marilyn Monroe found herself stuck in the middle of two different types of women: those who were disgusted or intimidated by her glamour and wanted her to tone everything down, and those who loved her look just as it was and wanted her to stop trying to be taken seriously. Marilyn shared her views on the subject in 1959: “I’d like to be known as a real actress and human being,” she said, “but listen, there’s nothing wrong with glamour either. I think everything adds up. I’ll never knock glamour. But I want to be in the kind of pictures where I can develop, not just wear tights.”

It could easily be argued that Marilyn suffered frequent frustration because people wanted to pigeonhole her into being just one kind of personality. This undoubtedly came as a result of her unique and modern outlook on life—one more fitting to the twenty-first century rather than the 1950s. She was actually a modern-day feminist, though the very idea struck the nerves of many at the time.

Feminism in the mid-twentieth century was a confusing subject, and some—women as well as men—feared that their homes and workplaces were being threatened by the bewildering attitudes of certain women. “An ardent feminist is a woman who has ambitions beyond her gender if not her talents,” wrote a reporter for the Scotsman. As a result, many who dared claim the mantle of feminist were looked at with great suspicion and derision. Even strong women in high positions were anxious not to identify themselves in such a way.

As Marilyn had told Edward R. Murrow, she was fascinated by Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. His sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, was the Indian high commissioner and therefore a powerful woman. However, even she was loath to describe herself as a feminist. During a press conference in July 1955, a journalist asked if it was true that she did not wish to be referred to that way. “I am not a feminist!” she snapped. “I do not believe the world can be run in compartments, but by the joint endeavors of men and women as equals.”

“That is exactly what a feminist is,” cried the journalist. “I knew she was a feminist!” The writer was thrilled, but Pandit seethed.

In comparison, some women were happy to own the label. British Viscountess Astor had strong opinions: “I cannot understand how any woman with any imagination or understanding could fail to be a hot feminist. I was born a feminist. The more I saw of my father, the more I thought of my mother.” She hated the way women of the 1950s were living their lives, especially given the fights her suffragette sisters had endured in the past. “I believe that the women of this generation are simply ‘going to town’ and having a good time and that they have forgotten the things that really matter,” she said.

Singer Eartha Kitt was joyous to be called a feminist in 1956. “Feminism is something that cannot be put into words,” she told a London luncheon. “It is something that can only be felt. You know if you are a feminist.”

Although vulnerable and complex, Marilyn was a strong woman who consistently fought for what she believed in. However, because of the confusion and stigma related to the word, it is highly unlikely that she would ever have considered herself a feminist in 1955. Friend Norman Rosten further doubted that she would have joined the women’s liberation movement in the 1960s and argued that in terms of economic equality, she had already proven herself.

Reprinted with permission from The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and the Birth of an Unlikely Feminist (c) 2018 by Michelle Morgan, Running Press

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