One of the common themes of the works we have read and watched is the education of the female protagonists, whether it be socially, intellectually or gaining real-world experience, to be more fit to live a life possibly independent from a male counterpart.
The first example was in The Heiress, William Wyler's 1949 film adaptation of Henry James's 1880 Washington Square. At the beginning, Catherine Sloper appears to be a young woman, inexperienced and uncomfortable in certain social situations. She has been reliant on her father (Ralph Richardson) all her life, afraid to even contradict his beliefs or requests being placed upon her life. She finds opportunity in the possibly shady intentions of Morris (Montgomery Clift), but this provides a building block for her initiation into real-world interactions and survival techniques. Though she finally becomes jaded after the relationship with Morris crumbles beneath her, after being ready to leave with Morris yet being stood up, it is her feelings for him that allow her to admit the need for independence from her father, and to begin her own life. By the end, when Morris returns, Catherine has proved herself to be quite capable of surviving on her own, though this is what she will always be at this point…alone.
Pygmalion, written by 1913 by George Bernard Shaw and filmed in 1938 by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard and in 1964 as My Fair Lady by George Cukor, is another example of this theme of female enlightenment. Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller/Audrey Hepburn) is at the bottom of the social ladder, with her clothes, speech and mannerisms. With the desire to become a "lady" in society's eye, she begins work with Higgins (Leslie Howard/Rex Harrison) to change herself into what she believes society is looking for; to transform herself into one with the possibility of achieving success in life. The teachings are extensive, yet with the combination of success and failure; she achieves her goal…to be able to fool the upper crust into believing she is one of them and not just a flower-girl living in the gutter.
A Doll's House, written by Henrik Ibsen in 1879 and filmed twice in 1973 by Joseph Losey and Patrick Garland, is one last example of the progression of a female protagonist into a self-dependent life. There are lies and unspoken subtext within the household of Nora (Jane Fonda/Claire Bloom) and Torvald (David Warner/Anthony Hopkins), creating a need for Nora to live a secret life on the side, especially as she pays her debt to Krogstad (Edward Fox/Denholm Elliot). The play progresses and the lies, disrespect, and desires for independence are unveiled. This leaves Nora to conclude in the end that she needs to leave her family behind to begin a search for herself and her own stability; to not be a "doll" anymore.
These women represent many of the women who struggled for independence during years past. They showed the reasons that women had for contradicting the social norm. They all searched for what they were lacking in their lives…control.