Countless books have chronicled the life of Elizabeth Taylor, but rarely has her career been examined from the point of view of her on-screen persona. That persona, argues M. G. Lord, has repeatedly introduced a broad audience to feminist ideas.
In her breakout film, "National Velvet" (1944), Taylor's character challenges gender discrimination: Forbidden as a girl to ride her beloved horse in an important race, she poses as a male jockey. Her next milestone, "A Place in the Sun" (1951), can be seen as an abortion rights movie--a cautionary tale from a time before women had ready access to birth control. In "Butterfield 8" (1960), for which she won an Oscar, Taylor isn't censured because she's a prostitute, but because she chooses the men: she controls her sexuality, a core tenet of the third-wave feminism that emerged in the 1990s. Even "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) depicts the anguish that befalls a woman when the only way she can express herself is through her husband's stalled career and children. Other of Taylor's performances explore similar themes.
The legendary actress lived her life defiantly in public--undermining post-war reactionary sex roles; helping directors thwart the Hollywood Production Code, which restricted film content from 1934 to 1966; fund-raising for AIDS research in the 1980s; championing the right of people to love whomever they love, regardless of gender. Yet her powerful feminist impact has been hidden in plain sight. Drawing on unpublished letters and scripts, and on interviews with Kate Burton, Gore Vidal, Austin Pendleton, Kevin McCarthy, Liz Smith, and others, "The Accidental Feminist "will surprise readers with its originality, adding a startling dimension to the star's enduring mystique.