Rainbow Snippets: Katharine Hepburn as role model in the 1950s

Decades before it became socially acceptable in the United States for women to wear pants anytime they liked, movie star Katharine Hepburn was doing it on-screen and off. She was also known for playing career women who refused to give up on their ambitions to please the men in their lives, whether it was as a lawyer in Adam’s Rib, a journalist in Woman of the Year, a professional athlete in Pat and Mikeor television network researcher in Desk Set.

It wasn’t just Katharine Hepburn’s characters who had a feminist streak. Hepburn had been raised in high-society New England by free-thinking parents: a suffragist mother who also campaigned for birth control, and a urologist father who co-founded the Social Hygiene Association, educating people about venereal diseases at a time when talking about sex was frowned upon.

As a girl, she’d been a tomboy and called herself “Jimmy”; as an adult, Hepburn refused to conform to the expectations put upon Hollywood starlets and was known for speaking her mind.

So it’s only natural that Harriet, the narrator of my 1950s coming-of-age romance novella Tomboy, thinks of Hepburn every time a woman bends gender roles.

Today as part of Rainbow Snippets, a Facebook group where readers and writers share six lines from a piece of LGBTQ+ fiction—one for each line of the rainbow flag—I’m sharing a few passages from Tomboy that highlight the late Hepburn.

Here’s Harriet at the age of nine. Her friend Jackie has a mother who lets her do as she wants, within reason. So Jackie cuts her hair as short as a boy’s and wears jeans all the time when she’s not at school. Harriet is jealous.

I didn’t want to cut my hair, but there were lots of girl things I could do without, like tight shoes and having to get married when I grew up. I didn’t want to get married and have kids. I wanted to be a private investigator like The Shadow or Philip Marlowe or Johnny Dollar, or maybe a lady lawyer like Katharine Hepburn in Adam’s Rib. And I didn’t want to have to cross my legs when I sat. It made my thighs all sweaty.

And here’s Harriet in high school, surprised that Jackie doesn’t look like a boy anymore, despite the fact she continues to wear pants:

It surprised me how feminine she looked in them. Sort of like a younger version of Katharine Hepburn, though without the blue-blooded air.

There’s another mention of Hepburn in Tomboy, but it’s a little spoilery and besides, I’ve already hit seven sentences!

Before I leave off, have some pictures:

Katharine Hepburn wearing pants in The Philadelphia Story, 1940.
From the trailer for Adam’s Rib, 1949. Spoiler alert: The answer is “everybody.’
Katharine Hepburn at the Hotel Australia in Sydney, Australia, 1955. How I love her sensible shoes. And thank goodness Harriet never looked up to Hepburn’s smoking habit.

You can learn more about the context of Tomboy by reading through my posts about the 1950s.

Find more Rainbow Snippets on the Rainbow Snippets Facebook page or by looking for #rainbowsnippets and #rainbowsnippet on twitter. It’s a great way to discover new authors.

About Tomboy

Some kids’ heads are in the clouds. Harriet Little’s head is in outer space.

In 1950s America, everyone is expected to come out of a cookie-cutter mold. But Harriet prefers the people who don’t, like her communist-sympathizer father and her best friend Jackie, a tomboy who bucks the school dress code of skirts and blouses in favor of T-shirts and blue jeans. Harriet realizes she’s also different when she starts to swoon over Rosemary Clooney instead of Rock Hudson—and finds Sputnik and sci-fi more fascinating than sock hops.

Before long, Harriet is secretly dating the most popular girl in the school. But she soon learns that real love needs a stronger foundation than frilly dresses and feminine wiles.

Tomboy is a very sweet and delightful love story set in post-war America, following Harriet’s growing up and the gradually blossoming relationship between two school friends. … Beautifully written and genuinely touching – I loved it.Netgalley reader review


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16 thoughts on “Rainbow Snippets: Katharine Hepburn as role model in the 1950s”

  1. I love Katharine Hepburn. Desk Set is one of my all-time favorite movies—I think I’ve seen it at least 2 dozen times, possibly more than any other movie I’ve re-watched. She’s another one of those women I never knew whether I wanted to be her or be with her.

    • I know what you mean! Writing this post made me want to watch all these movies again. I share her alma mater and we had a viewing of The Philadelphia Story every spring on the lawn. Watched her stuff a lot as a kid too, as my parents were big fans of hers. They dragged me to On Golden Pond when I was 6 or 7. The whole thing was over my head. At that age I understood her comedies better. 🙂

      Did you see Cate Blanchett play her in the Aviator? She was really good.

  2. Katherine Hepburn also played Eleanor of Aquitaine, a medieval queen with an independent streak which set her apart from a lot of women at the time. 🙂 I love all the research you’ve done and are sharing with your audience regarding Tomboy! (heart)

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