What if I told you that in the 1900s through to the early 1920s, there were more female filmmakers actively working at the top of Hollywood than there are today? Admit it, you’re surprised. Everyone is when I tell them this, even people who work in the film industry. And here’s more: during this time, half of all movies made in the United States were written by women, many famous actresses ran their own production companies, and the first person to be titled “Film Editor” was a woman.
The beginning of cinema—especially the silent era—offered more opportunities to women than we’ve seen since. So what happened? Let’s start at the birth of cinema and go from there.
The idea of moving pictures was born in the late 1870s, when photographer Eadweard Muybridge set up a series of cameras alongside a racetrack. Eadweard was trying to discover if horses lifted all four feet off the ground at one time while galloping. Spoiler alert: they do. In order to show the photos in quick succession, he made an early projector, to which he gave a catchy name: Zoopraxiscope.
In the 1890s, Thomas Edison invented the first motion picture camera, called the Kinetograph. To play the footage, you needed a Kinetoscope, where one person would squint into a peep-hole to view the images. Shortly after, the Lumiére Brothers in France created the Cinematographe, which projected motion pictures onto a screen, creating a shared viewing experience.
These inventions were sold around the world in touring exhibitions, with companies such as photography studios buying the cameras to start experimenting with them. At first, it was a simple matter of recording what was happening around them. One of Thomas Edison’s first films was of a laboratory assistant sneezing.
Then, inspired by the theater, filmmakers started telling stories, approaching them like filmed plays. Makeshift cinemas started to pop up around the country, mostly at vaudeville theater shows, where they were offered as an extension to their live acts. These were called Nickelodeons, because admission cost five cents, and their popularity grew very quickly. By 1910, as bigger theaters were being built, the cheap price of a ticket attracted a large rowdy working-class audience, who often chose the movies over the pub for a good night out.
The growing crowds created a big demand for content. Studios were built, and the process of producing films became more streamlined. Movie-making was both fast and furious, with each studio cranking out at least two short films per week.
During the late teens, film production began to center in Los Angeles. This was partly because of its ideal weather for filming and space to build studios, and partly because of Thomas Edison. He had tried to monopolize film production in New York by suing for patent infringement on his inventions, so everyone escaped to Los Angeles where they were free to use his inventions with less likelihood of legal trouble.
Silent films became longer and more intricate, and the films were screened in new movie “palaces,” elaborate theaters with lavish aesthetic design features that were designed to attract a more upmarket crowd. To fill the seats, theater owners specifically targeted female audiences.
The thought was that if you could entice white middle-class women into theaters, it would push out the raucous working-class crowd. These women would bring their husbands, and the theaters could charge more for tickets, advertising it as an elegant night out. So the palaces were built near shopping centers, coupons were placed in magazines, and free childcare was offered. This completely excluded non-white audiences of a lower class.
Movie studios wanted to cater to this middle-class female audience, so female writers and directors were hired to ensure the content would appeal. Karen Ward Mahar, author of Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, says these women were “believed to lend a moral tone to the movies that the middle classes appreciated.”
The silent era saw actresses such as Mary Pickford, Lilian Gish, Theda Bara, Greta Garbo, and Clara Bow become hugely popular. The fame of these women was almost a reflection of the changing ideas about ladies during these decades. For example, Mary Pickford was the innocent Victorian-era girl, while Clara Bow was the sexy 1920s “New Woman.”
The New Woman was part of the first wave of feminism in the U.S., which saw protests for women’s rights grow throughout the teens and into the twenties. The movement was successful in winning the right for white women to vote in August of 1920 with the 19th Amendment.
By the end of the 1920s, silent films featured complex plots, artistic cinematography, and glamorous movie stars, and attracted big audiences. But a new filmmaking technology threatened this silent utopia. The ability to record sound heralded the arrival of “talkies,” which forced a complete rethinking of how to make movies—such as where to hide the giant microphones. All of this was wonderfully lampooned in 1952’s Singin’ In The Rain.
This brings us to why women were pushed out of the industry. Firstly, many filmmakers, writers, and actors struggled to make the transition to this new style of making movies. Secondly, the success of a couple of talkies, such as The Jazz Singer, saw a select few movie studios rise to the top, and independent companies (often run by women) just couldn’t compete, often as a result of a lack of finances.
The Great Depression caused many of these small studios to go under, and the financial gain of making movies became the biggest focus. Filmmaking started to be looked at as a business instead of a creative enterprise, and corporate structures were implemented, complete with executives in charge.
At this time, women were not perceived as being business-minded or executive material, so positions of power on a movie set, such as directing, now were given to men. From the 1930s onward, Hollywood became a boys’ club. And women have been trying to make their way back into the industry for almost 100 years.
Here’s just how dramatic and entrenched this boys’ club mindset became. Between 1912 and 1919, Universal had 11 female directors who regularly worked for them, and who made a total of 170 films in these seven years. But from the mid-1920s right up to 1982, the studio didn’t hire a single female filmmaker.
Reading film history books I learnt all about D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille, and Georges Méliès, but I didn’t know a...