In this article:
- There are so few women in film today that it often surprises people to learn that cinema was once predominantly a woman’s game.
- Behind the camera, on the screen, and in theater seats, women made up the majority (as high as 83% in some cases) of the creators and consumers of film before the 1930s.
- Before male-run studios consolidated filmmaking into the tightly gate-kept industry we know today, women were pioneering a brand new medium of storytelling to share their stories.
- That history has since been largely forgotten by modern Hollywood but the industry still has these early women in film to thank for technology, scriptwriting conventions, and film editing techniques that it still uses today.
- This list of early women in film (along with movie recommendations) can be your starting point for remembering and honoring those pioneers that Hollywood has
Internet trolls might try to convince you that the phenomenon of female filmmakers is a new and terrible one; that we should go back to the good ol’ days when men were men and women just played bland love interests on-screen.
Here’s the funny thing, though: women have been directing, producing, and writing since the technology to make pictures move first arrived. Those good ol’ days were riddled with talented and difficult women, I’m afraid.
In fact, women once dominated the industry, both as moviemakers and moviegoers. According to the anthology of academic research, Silent Women, there were more women in film when film first emerged than there are today. Women also comprised the overwhelming majority of moviegoers, making up as much as 83% of the audience at one point.
Women in film during these early years shaped the direction that cinema would take, constantly innovating new technologies, filming techniques, narrative styles, and other conventions that would go on to be used in cinema even after the women who created them disappeared.
This brings us to the question: what happened to all those women? Not only are there fewer women in film today, the ones who pioneered the medium a century ago have been all but wiped from our collective memory.
A Brief History of the Erasure of Women in Film
During the silent film era, movies were a brand-new art. They were considered a weird, fringe medium that probably wouldn’t take off or generate much profit. As with all things that are new and unprofitable, the white male establishment largely ignored it.
That dismissiveness created a space for women and people of color to experiment with filmmaking relatively freely and to tell uncensored stories about their experiences. As a result, the United States enjoyed an outpouring of powerful films exploring issues of race, gender, and sexuality — all through the innovative and creative use of this emerging art form.
Many early films were first written by women. In those early days when “screenwriting” was not yet a cohesive form, filmmakers would compose “scripts” that were more or less just plot notes with a couple of lines of dialogue.
Over time, women established many of the conventions that are still in use in scriptwriting today.
While some women wrote movie scripts full time, even more wrote them at home, as a kind of side hustle. They would then submit their scripts to production companies in hopes of having their story accepted and turned into a moving picture.
In this way, moviegoers became moviemakers as the predominantly female audience would get home from the theater, inspired to write their own movie, and send it off to their favorite production company.
As filmmakers experimented with the technology, they developed new tools and techniques to pull off increasingly complicated cinematic achievements.
One of the most dramatic innovations of this kind came in 1929. Dorothy Arzner, a pioneering director in the silent era, invented the boom mic. By attaching a microphone to a fishing rod, she had made it possible for the first time to capture sound on film.
With the rise of talkies, the white male establishment realized that there was money to be made in movies after all.
These men decided it was about time to end the “tyranny of the woman writer,” as it was called at the time. If movies were going mainstream, they couldn’t let films promoting wild ideas like equal rights for all go mainstream with them.
Thus began the systematic sidelining of women in Hollywood. Businessmen built up a rigid, hierarchical studio system to tightly control film production in the United States, keeping women and people of color out of leadership roles.
Women were still kept as film editors, a role that usually went uncredited because it was just silly women’s work like typing or childrearing. They were also kept on as writers, often given the demeaning job title of “script girl” while the “writer” credit would typically be given to the (male) producer or director.
By the 1930s, the film industry had been completely reconfigured into the white male-dominated industry that we know it as today.
In honor of those early women in film who shaped the medium a century ago, let’s bring them back out of obscurity and reposition them as the pioneers and innovators that they were. Start by taking a cinematic trip through American filmmaking history with these women and their films.
The Pioneering Legacy of 9 Early Women in Film
What to Watch:
- The Wild Party (1929)
- Christopher Strong (1933)
- Craig’s Wife (1936)
Dorothy Arzner was ambitious and uncompromising. The prolific filmmaker worked her way up from typing scripts through editing film to becoming one of the most indispensable directors at Paramount.
She leveraged that indispensability to make films her way, demanding the studio give her control over the team she worked with and the films she made.
What to Watch:
- Hypocrites (1915)
- People vs. John Doe (1916)
- Shoes (1916)
- Where Are My Children? (1916)
Lois Weber was the leading director-screenwriter from 1907 until the mid-20s.
She and her husband often worked as a team, which helped her gain access to resources and funding that were often closed off to women. Though they were a team, it was Weber that wrote the scripts and handled the bulk of the directing.
During her most active years, Weber focused her efforts on making a series of controversial films, each focusing on different social issues.
In The People vs. John Doe, she calls out the cruelty of capital punishment. In Shoes, she addresses the wage gap and poverty. In Where Are My Children?, she explores issues around contraception.
In Hypocrites, she challenges the hypocrisy of the clergy and does so with an actress portraying “The Naked Truth” by appearing in the nude.
It was one of the first films to depict female nudity in a non-pornographic context. The implication that women could be naked without being sex objects sparked riots in New York in 1915.
Her work is a prime example of how early cinema was used to explore social issues and tell stories that rarely got told.
Eloyce King Patrick Gist
What to Watch:
- Verdict Not Guilty (1933)
- Hell Bound Train (1930)
Another director who got her start as part of a husband-wife partnership, Eloyce King Patrick Gist was entirely self-taught in both screenwriting and film editing. Like Weber, she used film to explore social issues, though her more religious background produced much different results than Weber’s “Naked Truth” in Hypocrites.
The lack of funding available to black filmmakers meant that the Gists had almost no budget to work with when producing their films. To distribute them, they would travel to Black churches around the country to play them for the church attendees.
What to Watch:
- Mickey (1918)
- Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)
Mabel Normand must have been the busiest woman in show business.
During her career, she would act in 167 shorts and 23 features, often working as both star and director in these films. She was also one of the first women to open her own studio. What makes this more impressive is that she accomplished all of this before her untimely death at the age of 38.
She quickly became the queen of slapstick, directing and starring in a series of comedic shorts like Mabel at the Wheel, Mabel’s Lovers, and Mabel’s Dramatic Career.
Alice B. Russell
What to Watch:
- The Darktown Revue (1931)
- Broken Violin (1928)
Actress and producer Alice B. Russell was married to Oscar Micheaux, one of the major producers of all-Black movies during the silent era.
She began acting in 1928, debuting in Broken Violin and continued to work alongside her husband until 1948. Scholars are now starting to argue that Russell, in fact, took the lead in producing many of Micheaux’s later films, though her official occupation was listed simply as “helper.”
What to Watch:
- The Purple Mask (1917)
- A Daughter of the Law (1921)
- Lucille Love, The Girl of Mystery (1914)
Starring in over 100 films and likely writing at least half of them (she was often uncredited but was widely known to “write everything”), Grace Cunard was prolific and versatile.
She also directed at least eight of her own films and often participated in the editing. Her films featured daring adventures and elaborate schemes that made Cunard an exceptionally popular celebrity in the early 20th century.
What to Watch:
- Back to God’s Country (1919)
- Wings in the Dark (1935)
Nell Shipman, fed up with the demeaning treatment women experienced in Hollywood, picked up and moved to Idaho to found her own independent production company in 1921.
While shooting films on her own and ignoring the demands of her investors, she managed to make many enemies during her career. Despite her enemies, she also made successful adventure films, often featuring strong female leads.
What to Watch:
- The Curse of the Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West (1916)
In 1917, Wong founded the Mandarin Film Company in a temporary studio at the back of her house in Oakland, CA. She acted as president, director, screenwriter, and costume designer.
With that company, she produced The Curse of the Quon Gwon, the first and only film in American history to be made by an all-Chinese cast and all-Chinese company. Unfortunately, the final reel of the film is lost, so what survives today is incomplete.
Zora Neale Hurston
What to Watch:
- Imitation of Life (1934)
- Children’s Games (1928)
- Logging (1928)
- Baptism (1928)
Better known as a novelist, many are surprised to learn that Hurston also produced ethnographic films and worked as a staff screenwriter for Paramount Studios.
In her film career, she worked with Fannie Hurst to adapt the novel Imitation of Life into a feature film. The film deals with the complicated issues of race for a mixed-race woman in America.
Her ethnographic films can be found in the digital archives of the Library of Congress. These were most likely made in conjunction with her anthropological research as a student at Barnard College.
Where to Learn More About Early Women in Film
For a more detailed history of women in film, explore the Women Film Pioneers Project website. They’ve compiled an in-depth record of women in early cinema and continue to write insightful profiles on the women who have been erased from cinematic history.
The project’s scope goes far beyond American film, too, making it a great resource for those who want to explore women in film around the world.
You can also read Silent Women: Pioneers in Cinema, an anthology of research compiled by Melody Bridges and Cheryl Robson. You’ll find insightful and well-researched essays on many of the women mentioned in this article.
For an insider’s look at the modern landscape of Hollywood, read The Wrong Kind of Woman: Inside Our Revolution to Dismantle the Gods of Hollywood. This book is part memoir, part data-driven account of just how pervasive sexism and inequality are in the industry today.