Women have a long history in the film, often serving as pioneers, yet they remain underrepresented in the industry.
Learn all about the history of women in film, notable “firsts” and efforts to recognize, celebrate and increase opportunities for women in the industry.
Working as a secretary at Gaumont Film Company in France at the dawn of cinema, Alice Guy saw Louis and Auguste Lumière’s Sortie d’usine and became inspired to make her own film. She began writing in 1895 and created her first film, La Fée aux Choux, in 1896. She was 23 years old. She went on to produce hundreds of silent films, which earned her recognition around the world, and served as the head of production at Gaumont between 1896 and 1906.
In 1907, Guy married Herbert Blaché, who became Gaumont’s production manager for the United States. The couple would later form The Solax Company with George A. Magie. Guy-Blaché directed many of the company’s films, which saw great success. However, when she and her husband divorced, their business partnership ended as well.
Despite her success as the probable first female film creator and director and numerous accomplishments in the film industry, including developing the idea of shooting films on location, Guy-Blaché was largely unknown at the time of her death in 1968.
Guy-Blaché remade her first film, La Fée aux Choux, the first movie directed by a woman, twice: once in 1900 and again in 1902. The film, thought to be the first narrative movie created, portrays the tale of a fairy who creates and delivers babies from cabbages. It was based on a legend of French folklore in which baby boys are born in cabbages and girls come from roses.
Initially hired as a singer, Weber later worked at Gaumont and began writing scripts. She then partnered with her husband, Phillips Smalley, to direct films. She became the first American woman to direct a feature film with her adaption of The Merchant of Venice, which came out in 1914. She established Lois Weber Productions, in 1917, becoming the first female director to own a movie studio.
With the addition of sound to films in 1927, many women in film saw an end to their careers. Arzner, however, was perhaps the only female director who was able to maintain her work, directing through Hollywood’s Golden Age. In addition to being one of the most prolific female directors in film history, her accomplishments include inventing the boom microphone and becoming the first female member of the Director’s Guild of America.
With more than 300 scripts to her name, Marion was the highest-paid screenwriter of Hollywood’s Golden Age in the 1920s and 1930s. She was the first woman to receive an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, winning for The Big House in 1930. Two years later, she received the award for Best Story for The Champ.
One of the first female documentary filmmakers, Sakane faced harassment as one of Japan’s first female directors. She made her first film, Hatsu Sugata, in 1936. Sakane produced films in Manchuria during the war, which focused on colonialism and the conditions in Northeastern China. After the war, she became an assistant at Shochiku, where she worked until her death.
When she became president of 20th Century Fox in 1980 at age 35, Lansing was the first female leader of a film studio. Previously, she had worked as a math teacher, model and actress before moving into a script reader role at MGM. After 20th Century Fox, she served as CEO of Paramount Pictures and became the first female head of a movie studio to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
In 1989, Palcy became the first black female director produced by a major Hollywood studio for A Dry White Season, which was released by MGM. She is also the first black director of any gender whose actor received an Academy Award nomination or to win a César Award or a Silver Lion from the Venice Film Festival. Notably, she also has the distinction of being the only woman to have directed Marlon Brando.
When Bigelow won the Academy Award for Best Director for The Hurt Locker in 2010, she became the first woman to earn the honor. She is also the first woman to win the Directors Guild of America award for Outstanding Directing and several other awards.
Women were critical to the film industry in its beginnings, as evidenced by many of the remarkable women who were pioneers of the medium. Guy-Blaché, Mary Pickford (co-founder) of United Artists), Clara Kimball Young, and many other women directed, produced, and created films in the early twentieth century.
However, with the advent of “talkies,” the film industry was viewed more as a business and less as an art, and jobs were largely seen as men’s domain. In fact, when sound was introduced to film, with regard to directing, Lois Weber advised women, “Don’t try it. You’ll never get away with it.” From the late 1920s until 1982, Universal Studios did not credit a female director. Amy Heckerling was the first director from Universal to receive credit after that period for Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Even roles for female actors became less prevalent during this period with the introduction of the Motion Picture Production Code by Will H. Hays. This code set boundaries regarding what was deemed “appropriate” and excluded such depictions as suggestive nudity, childbirth (even in silhouette), seduction, and more. Many roles for women were subsequently excluded or reduced. The Hays Code came to an end in 1968 but had a lasting impact.
Even today, women are underrepresented in the film industry, working in just 17 percent of behind-the-scenes roles between 2015-2016, according to a 2017 Women’s Media Center report. The report further finds that of the top 250 films made during this period, 92 percent had no female directors. Furthermore, in 2019, women received just 25 percent of Academy Award nominations in non-gender-specific categories.
In 1973 Tichi Wilkerson Kassell, then publisher and editor-in-chief of The Hollywood Reporter, founded Women in Film to provide opportunities for and chronicle the successes of women in the industry. Today, the organization offers educational programming including a Speaker Series, Film Finishing Fund, Scholarship Program, Mentoring Programming and more; initiatives to “foster gender parity”; and awards, notably the Crystal + Lucy Awards, acknowledging women’s excellence in the entertainment industry.