Katharine Hepburn, a Trailblazer & a Woman Like No Other

The four-time Oscar winner is a feminist icon. Here’s why. 

5 min read
Katharine Hepburn, a Trailblazer & a Woman Like No Other

(On Katharine Hepburn’s birth anniversary, The Quint is reposting this tribute to her life and achievements from its archives. Originally published on 11 May 2018.)

Where do you even begin when you talk about Katharine Hepburn? To say that she won four Oscars for Best Actress - a record for any performer - and was honoured with the sobriquet “greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema” by the American Film Institute, is but only touching the tip of the iceberg.

Katharine, who would have turned 112 today (12 May), marched her way through life in a manner that most of us - star or not - can only dream of. Unafraid, outspoken, no-nonsense and fiercely independent, she truly blazed her own trail, and remains nothing short of an inspiration for us.

Here’s why every millennial should know about Katharine Hepburn.


Never Say Never

Working at a time when the beautiful but docile woman on and off screen was the norm, Katharine Hepburn saw many ups and downs in her career. When her film career dipped after the initial success of films like A Bill of Divorcement and an Oscar win with her very third film, Morning Glory - she never attended the Oscar ceremony by the way - she was labelled “box office poison”.

She moved back to theatre (she started her career on stage), and then engineered her own comeback with the iconic The Philadelphia Story, whose rights she bought and sold to MGM on the condition she starred in it. She did and the film became the biggest hit of 1940.

Later, Katharine never let stardom or public opinion get in the way of what she wanted to do. She worked less when she wanted to take care of Spencer Tracy and did a lot of theatre when she felt like it - challenging herself with meaty and a lot of Shakespearean roles. She went on to win three more Oscars for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter and On Golden Pond.

Feminine VS Feminist

For Katharine, the two were one and the same. As a child, she was a tomboy, keeping her hair short and participating in all sports (she was an accomplished golfer and tennis player). And as she grew up and embarked on her acting career, she did not see the need to play coy or stupid to get ahead. Wearing pants - not a ladies’ thing in the 1930s - was but an expression of it.

“I realized long ago that skirts are hopeless. Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say: `Try one. Try a skirt.’”
Katharine Hepburn, Actor

Which other actor can you think of who worked rigorously to make the “middle-aged spinster” a la mode? And that with gusto. From The African Queen to The Lion in Winter to Summertime, her roles as the alone-woman struck a chord both with the audience and the critic.

“With Lizzie Curry [The Rainmaker] and Jane Hudson [Summertime] and Rosie Sayer [The African Queen]—I was playing me. It wasn’t difficult for me to play those women, because I’m the maiden aunt.”

Saying It Like It Is

“I strike people as peculiar in some way, although I don’t quite understand why. Of course, I have an angular face, an angular body and, I suppose, an angular personality, which jabs into people.”  

Katharine Hepburn was notorious for her outspokenness and refusal to toe hypocritical codes of conduct. Once when asked by the media if she had any children, she snapped, "Yes I have five: two white and three colored." But though labelled “Katharine of Arrogance”, she seems to have had few illusions about herself.

“In the beginning I had money; I wasn’t a poor little thing. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d had to come to New York and get a job as a waiter or something like that. I think I’m a success, but I had every advantage; I should have been.”  

Redefining Love

Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in a still from Without Love.

But Katharine is probably remembered most for being one half of a legendary Hollywood romance. And here too, the girl defied all accepted and practised norms to follow her own heart. In an age when marriage was sacrosanct, Katharine lived together with another legendary actor Spencer Tracy for 26 years, and kept it under wraps till both he and his wife passed away.

“It was a unique feeling that I had for [Tracy]. I would have done anything for him.”

In later years, she conceded it was by no means a perfect relationship - she nursed him through alcoholism and insomnia - but they respected each other’s boundaries and that’s what mattered.


Now for Some Cool Quotes

Consider these legendary Katharine quotes. Do they sound non-millennial to you?

“In some ways I’ve lived my life as a man, made my own decisions. I’ve been as terrified as the next person, but you’ve got to keep a-going; you’ve got to dream.”

Dream on, old girl! We are on your trail.

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