7 Documentaries About Powerful Women

The sexism that Tracy Edwards and her all female sailing crew faced during the Whitbread Round the World Race in 1989 is so outrageous that Maiden, Alex Holmes’s documentary about their journey, should come with a rage warning. 


Thankfully, while there is still work to do, we have come a long way in the 30 years since Maiden set sail. Thanks to Edwards and the many strong, independent and powerful women like her we are making gains in women's rights and are closer to achieving gender equality. 


For in the iconic words of US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “I ask no favour for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks.”


Here are seven of my favourite documentaries about powerful and inspirational women.



Alex Holmes’s documentary tells the epic story of how in 1989 Tracy Edwards became the skipper of the first ever all-female crew to enter the Whitbread Round the World Race. This is an inspirational tale of strength in the face of adversity - both on land and at sea.


Click here for more about Maiden



US Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has developed a breathtaking legal legacy while becoming an unexpected pop culture icon. But without a definitive Ginsburg biography, the unique personal journey of her rise to the nation's highest court has been largely unknown, even to some of her biggest fans – until now. 


I expected RBG, Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, to be fascinating. I expected it to be inspiring. However, I did not expect this film to be such an emotionally moving experience.


In these troubling times, a film about a person of quiet (but no less powerful) persistence, consistency and steadfast belief is both refreshing and motivating. It feels as if the world needs RBG now more than ever.


Click here for more about RBG



Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise

The powerful story of iconic dancer, singer, writer, poet, actress and activist Maya Angelou - whose life intersected with some of the most significant moments in recent US history - is a joy to watch. Dr Angelou was one of the world’s very best storytellers, I could listen to her all day. Rita Coburn Whack and Bob Hercules’s documentary honours her life and her legacy. It’s wonderful. 



Drawing from over 100 hours of never-before-seen footage that has been tucked away in the National Geographic archives for over 50 years, Jane tells the story of Jane Goodall, a woman whose chimpanzee research challenged the male-dominated scientific consensus of her time and revolutionized our understanding of the natural world.


Click here for more about Jane



Seeing Allred

Roberta Grossman and Sophie Sartain’s documentary explores the life and lasting impact of women’s rights lawyer, Gloria Allred. A divisive figure, Allred’s passion and energy is inspirational. She is a powerhouse - unafraid to stand up for what she believes in and never willing to back down. She changes laws, gives her clients a voice and you want her in your corner.


Knock Down The House


Rachel Lears’s vibrant and exciting documentary follows Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin as, against all odds, they mount a campaign to remove established incumbents from seemingly entrenched positions. 


The four women do not have political connections, campaign experience or corporate backing. They know that their chances of success are slim, that they will be belittled and patronised. 


However, they also appreciate the power of the movement that they are a part of - a movement that may well be bigger than their own individual battles. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says in the film, for one of them to make it through, one hundred have to try.


Click here for more about Knock Down The House



City Of Joy

City Of Joy examines the impact of the use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon of war in the eastern part of The Democratic Republic of Congo - a location often labeled "the worst place in the world to be a woman".


The film, by first time director Madeleine Gavin, tells the story behind the creation of City of Joy - a revolutionary leadership center in eastern Congo. It follows the center’s founders - Dr. Denis Mukwege, 2016 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, women's rights activist Christine Schuler-Deschryver and radical feminist Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues.


The documentary also gives voice to some of the women who seek refuge at City Of Joy. Their shocking experiences are utterly and unbelievably horrific. There are simply no words to convey the level of monstrous inhumanity that they have suffered.


As a result, it is incredible (and deeply moving) to find joy in City of Joy. At its core, Gavin’s film is a story of profound and inspirational resilience - a powerful portrait of the phenomenal strength of the human spirit. Despite the horror, there is tremendous vitality here. City of Joy is an incredible story of hope.


Click here for more about City Of Joy



Honourable Mentions

There are, of course, many other incredible documentaries about the lives of remarkable women. My honourable mentions include On Her Shoulders, Unrest, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, Embrace, What Happened, Miss Simone? and Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.


What movies would you add to this list? Let me know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.


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Jane Douglas-Jones
Jane Douglas-Jones

E: jane@500daysoffilm.com


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