- Reviving the History, Revising the Historiography of Female Media Pioneers
Recent book releases attest to the ongoing vitality of "herstory," the feminist historiographic movement to reconstruct and promulgate knowledge of women whose contributions in arts and letters, politics, and social movements have vanished from cultural memory. It is heartening that university presses have recently, if belatedly, joined the thirty-year-old initiative by trade and specialist publishers to bring out overviews and biographies of forgotten female pioneers in film, radio, and television production in the United States, even as textbook histories of American screen and broadcast media continue to elide mention of their work and, indeed, of their existence. As film historian, archivist, and editor Richard Koszarski wrote in 1990 in his contribution to the exceptional multivolume History of the American Cinema, "The most remarkable thing about women directors in the silent period is not that there were so many of them, but that their contributions should have been so thoroughly effaced in all later histories of the period."1
Thanks to the growing numbers of painstakingly researched encyclopedic works, essays, anthologies, and monographs, some of the innovative women who helped build American media industries have happily regained significant historical standing.2 Readers may thus recognize names like [End Page 188] Alice Guy Blaché, who in 1896 wrote and directed the first narrative film and later added hundreds of shorts and feature-length films to her oeuvre over a twenty-five-year career in France and the United States; Lois Weber, who earned $5,000 per week in 1916 as Hollywood's highest-paid director and had fifty film titles to her credit through 1934; Dorothy Arzner, who managed a uniquely successful fifteen-year career directing major studio features during the Classical Hollywood sound-film period; and actress, director, and producer Ida Lupino, who worked in the 1940s through 1960s and also established herself as a television director. Besides in trailblazing publications, original historiographic research on pioneering women in cinema has found expression in documentaries as well as the reconstruction and video release of early female directors' films.3
Karen Ward Mahar's Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood impressively develops one strand of the film "herstorical" recovery project: recording the range of women involved in creating American movies, particularly before the industry-wide shift in the late 1920s to films with synchronized sound. Mahar pronounces as insufficient the standard explanation of women's disappearance from behind the camera at that time, which has often been attributed to new technology's requiring greater capital investment and closer production oversight:
The short answer to the question, "what happened to the female filmmaker?" is that she became marginalized as the film industry became a Wall Street-defined, vertically integrated big business. But there is much more to this story. The fate of the female filmmaker during the silent era illustrates how industrial growth and chance can unexpectedly open as well as close opportunities for women, the way that shifts in gender perception can accompany shifts in industrial strategy, and the tangled ways that the multiple voices of society, work, family and self determine the course of women's lives and careers(8).
Mahar, a historian, lays out her own account by drawing on gender and textual analysis of films and newspaper records as well as implementing the political, economic, and institutional approaches that the book's appearance in Johns Hopkins...