16 of Our Favorite On-Screen Working Women

MORE's picks for the career gals from TV and movies that we love—or love to hate

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Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

Meryl Streep is authoritarian ice queen Miranda Priestly, a fictionalized version of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Ruthless and demanding, she has little patience for anything less than perfection—and she’s got the power to dismiss someone with a simple “that’s all.” Fierce.


Joan Holloway in Mad Men (2007-2011)

She may look like a Marilyn-esque bombshell, but Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks) is the shrewd queen bee of the secretarial pool at ad agency Sterling Cooper. Hendricks said to USA Today about Joan: "She's sassy. I think women, especially in this atmosphere in 1962, like to see a woman standing up for herself. She's got fire to her. She snaps back. And men love her because she's in touch with her sexuality and femininity."


Katharine Parker in Working Girl (1988)


It comes as no surprise that playing the delightfully wicked financial executive Katharine Parker earned Sigourney Weaver an Oscar nod for best supporting actress. As the patronizing boss to secretary Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith, nominated for best leading actress) Katharine knows just how to manipulate women and seduce men to climb the corporate ladder.


Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday (1940)

In this big-screen adaptation of the play “The Front Page,” the character of powerhouse reporter Hildy Johnson changed from male to female, putting Rosalind Russell opposite Cary Grant as her editor and ex. The result: A whip-smart, fast-talking battle of the sexes.


Margaret Tate in The Proposal (2009)

America’s Sweetheart Sandra Bullock is cast against type as Margaret Tate, a pushy, buttoned-up publishing executive who forces her intimidated assistant (Ryan Reynolds) to marry her so she can get a green card. In real life this might be considered extortion, but sometimes it’s nice to see a woman boss a man around.


Wilhelmina Slater in Ugly Betty (2006-2010)

You mean actress, singer, and former beauty queen Vanessa Williams is perfect as the cutthroat and self-absorbed magazine exec Wilhelmina Slater. A real “queen of mean,” Wilhelmina uses her sharp tongue, stunning looks and cunning moves to make her powerful presence known in the MODE office.


Judy Bernly in 9 to 5 (1980)
Jane Fonda’s Judy Bernly sticks it to not one, but two chauvinist cads in this ‘80s workplace comedy. First, after her husband leaves her for his secretary, the former housewife asserts her financial independence as a secretary for a major corporation. Then, Judy teams up with her female coworkers to take down their sleazy boss, Franklin Hart Jr. (Dabney Coleman).


Catherine Willows in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000-2011)
One of the few women working in the Las Vegas forensic crime unit, Catherine Willows (Marg Helgenberger) holds her own as a supervisor overseeing the gruesome night shift. The daughter of a showgirl, Catherine has escaped that life by getting her medical science degree and being the best single mother she can be.


Murphy Brown in Murphy Brown (1988-1998)

Candice Bergen became an icon playing the television news journalist Murphy Brown for ten years. The divorced Murphy is a tough star reporter on-screen and flawed off-screen—a former alcoholic who decides to raise her child without a father. And she does it all without apology, even without Dan Quayle’s approval.


Enid Frick in Sex and the City (2002-2004)

Bergen returned to the small screen as a career-minded, powerful woman in a guest-starring role as Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker)’s editor at Vogue. Bergen’s editor is less icy and more “speaks-her-mind” than Miranda Priestly, often delivering razor sharp opinions with a hilarious deadpan.

New Line Cinema

Erin Brockovich in Erin Brockovich (2000)

This movie tells the true story of a blue-collar single mother (Julia Roberts) who, while working as a law office file clerk, discovers a corporate cover-up of deadly toxins in a small town’s water supply. The brassy and colorful Brockovich then single-handedly takes down the power company that’s responsible—while wearing a lace-up bodice.


Jane Craig in Broadcast News (1987)

Forced to choose between a great career and a great romance, television news producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) doesn’t compromise her ambitions for a man. A Chicago Reader review referred to Hunter’s Jane as "something of a revelation: her short, feisty, socially gauche, aggressive-compulsive character may be the most intricately layered portrait of a career woman that contemporary Hollywood has given us."


Avery Jessup in 30 Rock (2010-2011)

Matching wits with slick businessman Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) is no small feat, but fast-talking TV anchor Avery Jessup (Elizabeth Banks) does it with ease. In an interview with EW, Banks said: “What’s great about her relationship with Jack is they’re equals. She’s not some [pretty] young thing that he has a fling with. She really challenges him.”

NBC Universal

Norma Rae in Norma Rae (1979)

Sally Fields portrays the brave Southern textile worker who’s had enough with being underpaid and undervalued at her mill and joins the effort to unionize the shop. She might be small, but Norma Rae’s voice has the power and the workers finally get the rights that they deserve.


J.C. Wiatt in Baby Boom (1987)

J.C. Wiatt (Diane Keaton) is a career-obsessed woman in Manhattan who prefers her demanding job to her home life. And then her cousin passes away, leaving a toddler in her care. Instead of giving up her career, J.C. embraces reinvention and launches her own gourmet baby food line and franchises it for millions.


Sue Ellen Crandell in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991)

This classic ‘90s comedy featured Christina Applegate as a teen who poses as a 20-something career gal to make ends meet while her mother is away. She lands a job as an executive assistant at a clothing manufacturer and eventually saves the company with her keen sense of style and business savvy.

First Published October 11, 2011

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