Reese Witherspoon

Ferdaus Shamim/ZUMA Wire

Happy birthday to Reese Witherspoon—an actress, producer, entrepreneur, author, mother and feminist.

The Oscar winner, who turns 40 today, continues to be one of our generation's most outspoken advocates for women's equality. Reese has never shied away from using the F-word to describe herself, and she attached herself to this cause long before it was the "cool" thing to do.

Over the course of her career, Reese has played countless complex female characters. Remember Tracy Flick in 1999's Election? She was ruthless, yes, and scary, sure, but she was most definitely complex. And who could forget about Elle Woods, the obvious heroine of 2001's Legally Blonde? She wore a lot of pink and shut down even more sexism.

Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon


Back in 2005, the birthday girl told Marie Claire she liked how Elle's character showed a woman "can be successful and accomplished and still be feminine." An affinity for makeup and cutesy clothing doesn't negate a lady's ability to be taken seriously, she explained, but intentionally acting dumb is insulting to all the women who've paved the way before us.

"I feel there are certain people who are systematically ripping [feminism] down because of their lack of regard and their ignorance about what the women before us had to go through," she told Marie Claire. "I don't think these women are stupid. I think they're selling a personality that's very marketable: 'Wouldn't it be fun if we were all gorgeous and didn't have a care?' But creating a cultural icon out of someone who goes, 'I'm stupid, isn't it cute?' makes me want to throw daggers at them! I want to say to them, 'My grandma did not fight for what she fought for, and my mother did not fight for what she fought for, so you can start telling women it's fun to be stupid.' Saying that to young women, little girls, my daughter? It's not okay."

It's definitely not okay, but Reese isn't the type to complain and do nothing: In 2013, she teamed up with Bruna Papandrea to launch her own production company, Pacific Standard Films, to make more movies with strong female lead characters.

Reese Witherspoon, Oscars 2013

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

The idea came to Reese after she saw six of her favorite actresses "fighting over a really crappy role in a movie," she told journalists at the 2015 Oscar nominee luncheon (as excerpted by the Huffington Post).

"We deserve better," she said. "It's great to speak up, but what I really think is you've got to do something."

Reese talked more about this at Glamour's 2015 Women of the Year Awards. "I was warned that on the crazy chance Pacific Standard would acquire any good scripts we would never make it past our first few years in business because there just wasn't a market for buying female-driven material," she recalled. "But like Elle Woods, I do not like to be underestimated."

ESC: Reese Witherspoon, Wild

Fox Searchlight Pictures

She's getting the last laugh on that, too. Wild and Gone Girl attained critical and commercial success in 2014 (and an Oscar nomination for Reese). In 2015, Pacific Standard broadened its spectrum of work with the release of the PG-13 comedy Hot Pursuit, and in 2016 and the their new HBO series Big Little Lies began filming. Reese and Bruna currently have multiple other projects in development, and no one's about to underestimate them now.

Reese's concern extends far beyond women in Hollywood, too. As she said during her speech at Glamour's 2015 Women of the Year Awards, this "culture crisis" impacts every field.

"In every industry, women are underrepresented and underpaid in leadership positions," she said. "Under 5 percent of CEOs of fortune 500 companies are women. Only 19 percent of Congress is women. No wonder we don't have the health care we deserve or paid family leave or public access to early childhood education. That really worries me. How can we expect legislation or our needs to be served if we don't have equal representation?"

Reese Witherspoon, Glamour Women of the Year

REX Shutterstock

"So here's my hope," she continued. "If you're in politics, media, the tech industry, or working as an entrepreneur or a teacher or a construction worker or a caregiver, you know the problems we are all facing. I urge each one of you to ask yourselves: What do we do now? That's a big question. What is it in life that you think you can't accomplish? Or what is it that people have said that you cannot do? Wouldn't it feel really good to prove them all wrong? Because I believe ambition is not a dirty word. It's just believing in yourself and your abilities. Imagine this: What would happen if we were all brave enough to be a little bit more ambitious? I think the world would change."

The world is changing, and at 40, Reese has been doing her part to lead the charge. We'll look forward to seeing what the next 40 years bring. Happy birthday, Reese!

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