The pioneering women who helped build Hollywood
(Credit: Nicholas Demetriades)

The pioneering women who helped build Hollywood

“I like to direct because I believe a woman, more or less intuitively, brings out many of the emotions that are rarely expressed on the screen. I may miss what some of the men get, but I will get other effects that they never thought of.” – Lois Weber

Hollywood has often been accused of wide-ranging gender inequality issues, from pay gaps to accounts of sexual violations by some of the top names in the film industry. According to a report by the Centre for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 12% of the top 100 grossing films of 2019 were directed by women. That is, of course, an increase in representation from the dire conditions of 2013-14 where women directed only 6% of Hollywood films. However, things weren’t like this when Hollywood first started to emerge. Women had a much more active role in the film industry at the beginning but their names and contributions weren’t really given the proper acknowledgement they deserved.

When the industry was burgeoning in its early stages, Hollywood hadn’t really demarcated divisions of labour according to gender. Los Angeles became the place to go to for women all over the country who had an interest in the wonderful world of cinema. According to some scholars, almost half of all films in the silent era of filmmaking were written by women. One of the first-ever fiction films ever made, The Cabbage Fairy in 1896, was directed by a woman called Alice Guy-Blaché, who worked for Gaumont in Paris. She made over 600 short films and even founded her own production company, Solax, when she moved to the US. In 1914, she wrote, “There is nothing connected with the staging of a motion picture that a woman cannot do as easily as a man, and there is no reason why she cannot completely master every technicality of the art.” Guy-Blaché continued making films till the 1920s until she moved back to France to write and lecture on film.

Women played a major part in the huge success of the film industry during that period. Between 1912 and 1919, Universal had 11 female directors who made more than 170 films between them. In 1915, the Motion Picture Supplement published an article titled ‘Women’s conquest in filmdom’, which said: “One may not name a single vocation in either the artistic or business side of its progress in which women are not conspicuously engaged. In the theatres, in the studios and even in the exchanges where film productions are marketed and released to exhibitors, the fair sex is represented as in no other calling.” It also marked the emergence of other celebrated filmmakers like Lois Weber who worked under Guy-Blaché and eventually decided to become a director herself. She made brilliant silent dramas such as The Hypocrites (1915) and Shoes (1916). Weber has often been referred to as “the most important female director the American film industry has known”, and among “the most important and prolific film directors in the era of silent films”.

Weber and Guy-Blaché are not just one-off examples. Hollywood’s presence was propped up by the continued efforts of women who were involved in production, writing and editing roles for various films. Apart from the numerous prominent female directors of that time like Dorothy Davenport Reid, Zora Neale Hurston, Nell Shipman, Alla Nazimova, Cleo Madison, Mabel Normand and Marion E Wong among others, there were inspirational figures like Mary Pickford who started her own company in 1916 and focused on that. She was not interested in directing, stating that “I must be responsible for the entire production. So many things can ruin fine work”. Pickford helped set up and run the United Artists studio and many other female actors like Clara Kimball Young and Norma Talmadge proactively took control of their finances by forming their own companies.

However, the ambiguity in the division of labour of the silent era began to be subjected to structural changes which affected women adversely. The capitalist reformation of Hollywood led to the rise of specialised departments and the most prestigious and economically profitable positions, those of the director, the studio executives and the other people “calling the shots” were often reserved for men as the industry became a male-dominated one. In 1927, Lois Weber warned young women from pursuing a career as a director saying, “Don’t try it. You’ll never get away with it.” Her words were ominous because Universal, the studio she had worked for and the one that had hired so many women in the past decade, did not credit a single film director until 1982, a time when Amy Heckerling made Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Projects like the Women Film Pioneers are doing a great job at highlighting empowering female accounts in the history of cinema by archiving educational resources that are accessible to all. It is important for us to acknowledge the invaluable contribution of the women who helped build Hollywood in order to understand the deep-rooted problems that plague the industry now.

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