Women on Film: The Scandalous Life of An Unmarried Woman

Jill Clayburgh’s portrayal of a divorcee in the 1978  film An Unmarried Woman, helped redefine marriage and sexuality.

In 1978, Hollywood came up with its own answer to the shifting roles of women in a newly-feminist society. In An Unmarried Woman, Jill Clayburgh made real the newly-single woman, redefining her sexuality and identity after the end of her 16-year marriage.

Clayburgh scored several accolades for her role as Erica, including an Academy Award nomination. Her role epitomized the growing sexual revolution of the 1970s. Clayburgh’s Erica struggles after her husband leaves her for a younger woman, but eventually finds her voice in a renewed sense of emotional and sexual liberation.

An Unmarried Woman hits on what are now touchstones of divorce – the angry moments with a therapist, the nervous excitement of casual sex, the painful confrontations with the ex, and the touching commiseration with a disappointed child. But what was spectacular about Clayburgh’s performance is that it was the first of its kind. Never before had audiences seen a woman quite so modern as Clayburgh’s Erica.

If a woman divorced less than four decades ago, she was left in a precarious state. For instance, it was legal in this country for creditors and banks to deny credit to a woman. Women simply could not access credit in their own name – they had to apply through their husband or as an “appendage” of their spouse. In 1974, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act made it illegal for banks to deny credit based on gender, marital status, race, religion, age, nation of birth or prior residence. Divorce became more socially acceptable – but still a serious event with potentially devastation economic consequences for women.

And so, Erica became a role model for liberation. After Clayburgh died of cancer in 2010, ABC News went as far as to dubbing this the “Clayburgh Effect.” In other words, women on screen are still redefining what it means to be on their own, as evidenced by Meryl Streep in It’s Complicated or Diane Keaton in Something’s Gotta Give. To be over 35 years old and newly single is not a social death sentence, but a rich possibility for an ambitious start in middle life.

While it is more common today to see richer portrayals of mature female sexuality, woman are still defined by their age and, at times, marital status. Cultural roles continue to shift for women – which is why it’s important to remember where we came from. Waving our credit cards in our own names, we can see just how far we’ve come and how far we can still journey.

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