Ford was known as a ‘mans’ director that made films for a basically male audience. However his films still contained some talented and exceptional female characters. In this essay, I will discuss the role of women in a selection of John Ford films (namely The Quiet Man, The Grapes of Wrath, Seven Women and Young Mr Lincoln). I will also discuss how John Ford reached his opinion of women, who influenced him, the women that he approves of most in his films and what role they play in his films. Ford displays a wide variety of women in his films. They range from maternal mothers such as Ma Joad in Grapes of Wrath, to fiery temptresses such as Mary Kate in The Quiet Man.

He even goes as far as to introduce us to a suppressed lesbian character such as Dr. Cartwright in Seven Women. The type of women Ford used were attractive ones, “they were presented as physically attractive within the conventions of time”. (Spittle, Brian, “John Ford” Essex: Pearson Ed Ltd, 2002, p 114). While they are not pin-ups, they certainly were considered and looked at as sex objects.

For example, Katherine Hepburn in Mary of Scotland (1936), and Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man. It has been questioned as to why John Ford looked at women the way that he did. One of the main reasons given was because of religion. John Ford was brought up in a strict catholic family. It must be considered that in such a strict religious upbringing, with regards to the catholic religion, that John Ford might have viewed the Virgin Mary as his idea to the perfection of womanhood. Possibly the Virgin Mary to John Ford was the epitome of womanhood, her being a wife and mother.

The role of a wife and a mother in John Ford’s era was taken very seriously. Their roles were considered of the utmost importance. It is obvious that motherhood is very important to John Ford. This is reflected especially in Ma Joad in Grapes of Wrath, and her ability to be the glue that holds her family together – even through some very tough times. (This will be discussed in more detail later on). Ford may also have believed that women had the ability to be both virtually good or had the potential to be bad (Virgin / whore complex) if only slightly this can be seen in The Quiet Man with Mary Kate.

Her quick tempered fiery nature may lead us to believe that she has the potential to be bad although we do not see this bad side in the film. Ford however generally praises women in his films. For example in Young Mr Lincoln, Lincoln praises and redeems Mrs Clay in the courtroom. “Mrs Clay cant even write her own name, – yet she has no feelings, no heart?” Lincoln describes women as people, “Who say little but do much, who ask for nothing, but give all” The last film that John Ford ever directed was Seven Women. It has been interpreted as having a socio-cultural significance. Some say it is Fords way of apologising to feminists for his long ignorance of the subject.

It is thought that Ford recognised feminism in America through one woman, Betty Friedan. Feminism although active in America had become stagnant, and lay forgotten during the Second World War. Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique”covers the socio-cultural constructs and assumptions that are placed on women to keep them in subordinate and subversive roles in society at large, and in marriage in particular” (Betty Friedan ‘The Feminine Mystique (Dell Publishing, New York 1963 p. 11) In the opening of Friedan’s book she states, “The problem lay buried, unspoken for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered… Straggled with it all alone… she was afraid to ask even of herself, the silent question- is this all?” (Friedan, p. 11) We see John Ford’s answer to this statement in his film Seven Women. The story tells us of seven women (although technically there is eight) in a mission in China.

These women then come under threat. Our leading protagonist Agatha Andrews feels that there is something missing from her life. “I have to fill my life… I’ve always searched for something that isn’t there” Here we recognise Fords firm belief of women as mothers. However the question is still asked later on, “is this all”, implying that surely there must be more to a woman’s life than merely raising children. Ford here could possibly be implying that women need more independence than they would ordinarily have.

The film was also made in the era of the sixties, when women were already beginning to gain some form of independence. This may also have influenced him. One of the main roles of women in many of John Ford’s films is that they must suffer on behalf of their husbands and lovers. They can do nothing but wait and worry about their men.

They just have to wait and see what happens. They cannot get actively involved and are unable to help their men in any way. In Fort Apache we see five shots (filmed in studio, not on location) of the soldiers women waiting. Apart from one shot, all are filmed from a low angle, giving the impression of looking down. Some see this as Fords view on women, “The reality of what it is to be a woman in such a patriarchal society” (Spittle, p. 109) The women that Ford appears to approve of most are mothers. This is due to their unearthly ability to give and not want to receive.

Their love is unconditional and they are generally seen as strong, silent characters in many of Ford’s films. They are there to help their men and be strong when they cannot. For example in Grapes Of Wrath Pa Joad tells his wife ‘You are the one that keeps us goin’, Ma, I ain’t no good no more’ Here we are bombarded with Ford’s idea of what role women play in his films. Men should be strong with the ability to provide for his family, and women, should help them. Ma links women to oppressed humanity in general. The final words and the way that they are shot in Grapes Of Wrath show this.

Ma Joad states “Rich fella’s come up, they die – their kids ain’t no good an they die out – but we keep comin’. We go on forever… we ” re the people” This shot is filmed while they are on the road in their pick-up truck. Although both Ma Joad and Pa Joad are in the shot Ma Joad is slightly more in front of him. This shot symbolizes mothers as strong characters. They are seen to be powerful in a strong silent way. They have no problem bearing their families problems on their shoulders, because although their problems might be large they will be able to get them through.

In the final shot of Grapes Of Wrath Ma appears to be bigger and more powerful. John Ford shows us motherhood as indomitable. It is obvious that here that the role of women is much more then just to cook, clean and rear children. They are their partner’s support and help. Mary Kate in The Quiet Man proves herself to be an extremely active character although in a more subtle way.

As a woman she is fiery and hot tempered. However despite her ability to be able to look after herself she still very much takes the accustomed stereotype role that Ford generally keeps for women. After she questions hers and Sean Thornton’s sovereignty in their relationship (and she does not approve of the answer she gets) she merely tells him “There ” ll be no dinner tonight”. While retaining her traditional female role she is still defying Sean. Her voice is filled with menace and laden with meaning. Her words go well beyond ‘dinner’ and ‘tonight’.

She is using her role to defy Sean. She wants him to look after her and fight her brother so that she can be redeemed as a woman. She is a passionate character – another view of which John Ford take of his female characters in his films. Although she is not maternal she can still be compared to Ma Joad. She is a strong woman with independence unlike any other of women in her time.

Mary Kate helps Sean realise ‘the way that things are done here (Ireland) ‘. She is a crucial element in helping Sean reach his catharsis in the film and understand the Irish way of life. Here Ford captures ‘both the evil of the temptress and also the purification of redemption’ (web html 25 September 2003). The role that women play in Ford’s films is quite diverse and mixed but they retain some similar strong character traits. They take a back seat to their male protagonists, yet it is understood that they do more for and help the male characters then they can themselves. They are maternal yet passionate, emotionally strong yet physically weak.

In Ford’s films it is obvious that they reflect a great deal of the role they play in the film but also in society. These women are maternal and passionate who help their men along their way to the goal they have to achieve. They can also be seen as objects of desire for the male characters. I am of the opinion that they are there to help, advice and be strong for their men when their men cannot. Word Count: 1626


Spittle, Brian, ‘John Ford’ (Essex: Pearson Education Limited, 2002) Friedan, Betty, ‘The Feminine Mystique’ (Dell Publishing, New York 1963) 25 September 2003 14 November 2003.