What was “women’s work” in the silent film era?

Authored by: Jane Gaines

The Routledge Companion to Cinema and Gender

Print publication date:  November  2016
Online publication date:  November  2016

Print ISBN: 9781138924956
eBook ISBN: 9781315684062
Adobe ISBN: 9781317408055


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Not surprisingly, 1970s Second Wave feminism was immediately interested in the sociology of workplace gender typing. For the feminist film festivalgoer as well as the scholar at the time, the test of the crack in the “glass ceiling” became the silent era female director. She was epitomized in an early publication on women and film by the French Germaine Dulac (Figure 25.1) (Van Wert 1977), the American Lois Weber (Figure 25.2) (Kozarski 1977), and the French immigrant to the US Alice Guy Blaché (Figure 25.3) (Peary 1977). Although later the Italian director/producer Elvira Notari was brought to our attention (Bruno 1993), the American 1910s and 1920s came to stand as a kind of “golden era” of female directors, writers, and producers (Mahar, 2006). As early as the 1970s, silent film researcher Anthony Slide argued that “there were more women directors at work in the American film industry prior to 1920 than during any period of its history” (Slide 1977: 9). For another two decades, Slide’s estimate haunted feminism and film. When in the 1990s another generation of scholars turned back to historical research after a twenty year lull, they found not only greater numbers of women in emerging international film industries but also examples of how these women wielded more influence than was first assumed (Williams 2014; Stamp 2015; Gaines and Vatsal 2013). While today we celebrate these women, we still cannot stop there because the numbers themselves tell us too little. First, the numbers only hint at the fluid work conditions at the emergence of cinema when, before labor became so strictly “gendered,” almost anyone could do any job. Second, the enumeration of directors deflects attention from the number of women in other influential jobs such as writing and producing. Third, numbers eclipse the silent era indecision about the capacity of women to direct motion pictures. More women than men had this question put to them by journalists and they expressed differing opinions. Some claimed that women were “just as good” as men; others insisted that directing was “men’s work” and that therefore women could not handle the job.

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