Introduction: Women and the Silent Screen

What makes women and the silent screen a compelling field of research – one that engages scholars, students and film-going publics – is the opportunity to explore film history anew. As this special dossier demonstrates, presumptions about industrial, cultural, artistic, national, political and social change in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are challenged when an apparently simple question is posed: who were making films, writing about films, and enabling the industry’s popular expansion? That women are located at every stage and in all facets of the silent era filmmaking process is significant. Across diverse geographical and national locations, women were directors, producers, scriptwriters, editors, camera operators, projectionists and – as if we could forget – actors and stars. Women were also involved in other kinds of authorship of on-screen content, for example, as set and costume designers, or choreographers and dancers. This recognition permits the critical expansion of the word “ filmmaker” and its relation to histories of cinema, gender and modernity. Equally noteworthy is the role of women in producing public discourse about the movies, and influencing associated economic and social changes such as urban migration and film industry development. Our title for this special dossier, “Women and the Silent Screen”, is a porous one that indicates – among other things – the possibilities of female agency in early twentieth century cinema and modern life.

As some readers will recognise, our title also borrows from that of the conference where the essays and notes collected here began their life: Women and the Silent Screen VII: Performance and the Emotions, held at the University of Melbourne in 2013. The conference constitutes the largest and most prestigious worldwide meeting in the field of gender studies and early cinema. Since the late 1990s, it has attracted outstanding scholars working in a broad range of disciplines, as well as dedicated archivists from major film preservation institutions. The Melbourne conference came on the heels of previous conferences that were held at the University of Bologna (Italy, 2010), the University of Guadalajara (Mexico, 2006), Concordia University (Montreal, 2004), the University of California, Santa Cruz (USA, 2001), and Utrecht University (Netherlands, 1999). In other words, the papers in this special dossier have grown out of a forum that promotes discussion and debate across disciplinary and national borders. The three-year gap between the Bologna conference and the Melbourne conference enabled Women and the Silent Screen to run in years alternate to the biennial Domitor conference, a decision that implicitly acknowledges the expanded – and often complementary – development of both.

Melbourne was the first city in the Asia Pacific to host the Women and the Silent Screen conference. While it would be misleading to argue that this represents a burgeoning of feminist silent film history in the region, it is heartening to realize that Women and Film History International, the conference’s umbrella organisation, is indeed an organization with a genuinely international membership. The contributions in this special dossier from scholars, archivists and film practitioners active in the Asia Pacific region provide valuable insight into the filmmaking practices of women who have until recently been marginalized both culturally and geographically from histories of film.

A now well-established academic event, the Women and the Silent Screen conference provides a forum where researchers can explore the significance of gender and early cinema in all its facets, and bring feminist perspectives to bear on the concerns that animate silent cinema studies.[1] Rather than a specialist forum within a broader disciplinary field, the conference offers an opportunity to present research that reframes the significance of gender in early cinema and thus reorients not only its history but the approaches and methodologies by which it can be undertaken. A key question concerns the complex processes – both contemporary and historical – that have shaped the absence from the archive and film histories of women’s contributions to late nineteenth and early twentieth century cinema. Like our colleagues who might have no particular engagement in women’s absence from histories of the cinema, but who are nevertheless aware of the contradictory nature of the archive, we begin with the presumption that film history is incomplete. Researchers working in the area are attuned to asking: What are the gaps in current film histories? Who has been forgotten and why? How can we write histories of cinema that are more inclusive while not eliding processes of exclusion or other dynamics of power? As we assembled this special dossier, three themes emerged that relate to these broader historiographical issues, ones that have for some time now persistently framed research in the field: female agency and control, the status of what counts as proper historical evidence, and the relation of researchers to archival materials. As our contributors variously demonstrate, for example, women have often been uncredited contributors to creative and industrial partnerships, but contemporary practices and discourses often obscured their roles. We foreground each theme below as they emerge across the essays in this special dossier to foreground how they shape research into women’s contributions to early cinema.

Agency and control
The dossier opens with an essay which, in focusing on issues of female agency and control, exposes the deficiencies of histories of Hollywood that typically fail to account for the contributions of women to its social and industrial development. Hilary Hallett argues in her article, “Sex Matters: The Rise of Early Hollywood”, that women migrating to work in the Los Angeles film industry in the early twentieth century made a significant contribution to the establishment of early Hollywood. Rather than becoming silent secretaries or forgotten extras, women entered new occupations and enjoyed new socioeconomic freedoms in a city and industry that they helped to shape. Hallett pays particular attention to the conflicting publicity and discourse that circulated after the death of Hollywood “starlet” Virginia Rappe on September 9, 1921 – an event typically named for the more famous star alleged to have cause her death, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle. As Hallett argues, the Arbuckle scandal became a powerful origins text about gender relations and power in Hollywood, and the dangers for naïve young women hoping to make it in the industry. However, as Hallett also points out, during the same boom period of the 1910s and 1920s Hollywood was also a locus of feminist ferment. Written from the perspective of a social historian, Hallett articulates the different meanings of “feminism” in the early 20th century, and Hollywood’s historical relation to it – indeed its cultivation of feminist sensibilities, identities and forms of everyday life. The New Woman, often travelling to Hollywood with the express purpose of participating in the film industry, became a defining figure in America’s modernity. Hallett reminds us of the connections between the various attractions of early Hollywood for women and the relation of this history to our so-called postfeminist era. While mindful of the paradoxical discourses that comprise the utopian fantasy of “Hollywood” in the 1910s and 1920s, Hallett recuperates the more positive aspects of Hollywood’s relation to the commodification of femininity, and to women’s labour in the new “colony.”

The following essay by film historian Richard Abel focuses on an allied arena of women’s off-screen labour, or as the title puts it: “‘A Great New Field for Women Folk’: Newspapers and the Movies, 1911-1916.” Abel cogently demonstrates how newspaperwomen such as Ona Otto, Gertrude Price, Mae Tinee (Frances Peck), Caroline Carr, Kitty Kelly (Audrey Alspaugh) and Louella Parsons wrote cinema into the streets, living rooms and parlance of America in the teens. Fundamental to the creation of a popular film culture, the newspaper columns, feature articles and reports written by these women contributed significantly to the circulation of new forms of knowledge, appreciation, language and movie-going habits, and to the reorganisation of America’s public/private spheres and the place of women in them. Abel points out that, even before the feminised Hollywood frontier rhetoric of the teens that Hallett traces, journalism was promoted to women in the late nineteenth century as a potential career path. Abel maps this terrain through the generation of thick descriptions of the work of several key female journalists writing in American newspapers in the 1910s. Not only describing particular kinds of journalistic labour that female reporters engaged in, Abel’s categories – from the flâneuese to the reviewer – also draw attention to the genres that those reporters wrote in, as well as the persona or type that they conveyed through their writing. He evidences the careful scholarly labour required when working at the coalface – or rather interface – of the not-so-new digital archive. Abel also provides some further detail of Louella Parsons’ early career and writing on Hollywood’s proper attractions for young women that complements Hallett’s discussion of Parsons’ significance in attracting young women to work and live in Los Angeles and Hollywood. He draws attention to a turn in Parsons’ writing with the new series “How to Become a Movie Actress,” and also highlights the double role of film reviewing in cultivating various forms of pleasure in going to the movies, as well as more high-brow forms of appreciation of film as art. His essay conveys something of the daily grind of journalistic practice and its intimate relation to the generation and sustenance of Hollywood’s early star system and fan culture, not only through writing – including fan participation via letters – but also the role of the images that accompanied columns and other genres of newspaper article in the cultivation of star appeal.

Shifting our focus to the Southern Hemisphere, Ann-Marie Cook considers a different mode of agency – a familial creative partnership in the early Australian film industry – in order to revise perspectives on its eventual demise. Examining the working relationship of the McDonagh sisters who together made four feature films in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Cook argues that Paulette, Phyllis and Isabel McDonagh engaged in the process of collaborative filmmaking for its sheer enjoyment. By foregrounding the role of pleasure and its relation to (privileged) modes of labour, Cook suggests that the collapse of the McDonagh sisters’ partnership should be considered less a business failure than evidence of their independence and personal investments in filmmaking in early twentieth century Australia.

Proper evidence
While the critical theme of female agency and control – whether in relation to economic independence or collaborative and creative endeavours – manifests itself in different ways across the essays introduced so far, another theme that links them concerns the kinds of evidence on which feminist film histories can be based. The opening essays by Hallett and Abel draw heavily on newspaper records as evidence of new discourses in film culture, whether those concerning the pleasures and dangers of the Hollywood colony for young women, or those shaping new modes of film reception in the early twentieth century. Pam Cook, in “Picturing Natacha Rambova: Design and Celebrity Performance in the 1920s,” extends this work on evidence to a consideration of the performative qualities of fan magazine photographs, costume design and set design as a way to reconfigure our understanding of celebrity persona Natacha Rambova, and her contributions to early Hollywood’s industry and culture. Shifting away from Abel’s attention to written journalistic discourse and the cultivation of a feminized film culture, Pam Cook makes images the primary focus of her study. In the absence of more typical historical sources, such as diaries, letters, and production files, Cook considers the publicity and art photographs, illustrations and film stills of Rambova and her work as costume and set designer (among other roles) as an alternative archive of Rambova’s career. Cook’s study offers a different, aesthetically focused perspective that complements Hallett’s social history of the bohemian image of Hollywood in the early 1920s, and the industry’s deployment of orientalist codes of glamour in shaping the images of its exotic stars. Cook’s focus on Rambova’s self-styled, flexible persona foregrounds one of the registers in which Hollywood offered its audiences alternative forms of feminine agency and independence, contrasting with the more rugged feminine individuality and frontier-style independence that Hallett tracks. Cook uses visual evidence to construct a historical argument that cannot be located in written reviews or diaries. Reorienting our historical gaze, Cook joins Hallett and Abel in arguing that female producers of early Hollywood film culture reshaped the emancipatory possibilities that Hollywood’s commercial and consumer-oriented culture offered for women in the early twentieth century. In this respect, we might think of these essays as collectively developing Miriam Hansen’s now long-established claim that early cinema offered women an alternative public sphere.[2]

Photographs are also key archival artefacts in Elena Mosconi and Maddalena Bodini’s essay “On the Stage: Mimì Aylmer’s Public and Private Life as Performance.” The co-authors explore the agency that Aylmer (aka Eugenia Spadoni, 1896-1992) claimed in the creation of her celebrity image through an examination not only of her newspaper clippings, correspondence, notebooks, and contracts but also more than 3,000 photographs. Aside from linking the breadth of Alymer’s archive to interdisciplinary interpretative practices today, Mosconi and Bodini also claim that Aylmer actively constructed her archive as a public performance. For Mosconi and Bodini, Aylmer’s extensive archive is evidence not of a lost or overlooked female voice in early film but rather of women’s historical capacity to harness all forms of media in the expression and construction of their identity.

Outside Hollywood and its developing relation with industries of publicity – the fan press and commercial photography, most obviously – feminist film historians are confronted with a different historical terrain more often characterised by the absence of evidence. How can historians recuperate the women who worked outside of Hollywood and who had no voice or presence in public forums such as the newspaper column or review, or the fan magazine? Responding to this historiographical question, Diane Pivac (Head of Audience at Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision, New Zealand) in her article “New Zealand Film Pioneer” reconceptualises the career of Hilda Hayward, a woman whose work and collaboration on 28 films with her famous husband (Rudall Hayward) has been all but ignored by film history. In a careful reading of the archival materials, Pivac highlights not only the historical forgetting of Hilda Hayward’s contributions to the films credited to Rudall Hayward as director, but also the contemporary contexts in which Hilda’s behind-the-scenes roles were suppressed or failed to be recognised.

Margot Nash’s contribution to this special dossier can be understood as representing an alternative relation to archival materials. In her reflective piece, “Lottie Lyell: The silent work of an Australian scenario writer”, she explores the material objects of the Lyell archive, in particular the delicate rice-paper copies of Lyell’s screen scenarios. Foregrounding her own “libidinal investments” as a screenwriter and director in recovering the work of an early Australian female filmmaker, Nash speculates about Lyell’s use of language and writing.[3] Nash reinforces an understanding of Lyell’s film authorship that extends beyond her onscreen roles as a screen actress.

Archival materials
Studies of women and the silent screen address not only what archives contain and their organisation, but the creative and collaborative links between female filmmakers and their own archives and archiving practices, as well as how best to interpret and make sense of them. The question of archival access becomes, therefore, far more than the recuperation of lost biographies about women who were active in the early film industry. One counterintuitive way to return to the film archive is through a fine-grained attention to non-filmic archives. In Eirik Hanssen’s study of the four lost American silent cinema adaptations of Henrik Ibsen’s protofeminist play, A Doll’s House, he considers the political limitations of the reception of the film adaptations of Ibsen’s plays. Reading the films’ publicity, reviews and advertising, he notes that performances of Nora were typically characterised in individual rather than collective terms. One of the larger implications of Hanssen’s study concerns the vernacular feminisms that circulated not only through the film adaptations of A Doll’s House but also other popular films of the era.[4] Hanssen’s conclusion suggests how inter- and transnational feminist issues may be sidelined at the very moment that film expresses a global and politicised female culture, drawing attention yet again to the always contradictory nature of early cinema as an alternative public sphere for women.

The insights generated by interdisciplinary feminist film histories and alternative forms of – and approaches to – archival sources are displayed in Mary Simonson’s “Dance Pictures: The Cinematic Experiments of Anna Pavlova and Rita Sacchetto.” Simonson demonstrates how a return to close readings of films aligned with a careful articulation of the discourses of their reception reveals a neglected set of early films as the site of creativity for modern choreographers and dancers. Though live performance is often set apart from its visual recording and is therefore inevitably ‘absent’ from the film archive, Simonson draws attention to the intimate relation between early film and its creative potential for female performers. While many of the essays in this dossier indicate how the turn to consider material forms of historical evidence other than film has opened up interesting new fields of feminist film history, Simonson’s essay is an important reminder that returning to the archive also promises to generate significant insights into how film creatively adapted and transformed live performance.

Sustaining feminist media histories
Last but certainly not least, we have given the final spot in this special dossier to what we regard as a galvanising essay by Shelley Stamp, in which she reflects on her longstanding project of recovering the history of one of the most significant directors of the early Hollywood silent cinema period, Lois Weber. “Feminist Media Historiography and the Work Ahead” represents both a snapshot of the most exciting work in histories of women and the silent screen, and a call to intervene in current dominant historical accounts, and their associated disciplinary practices and norms. We note that instead of “film” Stamp refers to “media” in her title. More than a coded nod to the new journal that Stamp helms, Feminist Media Histories, media might be taken as a critically strategic term. It situates and implicitly recognises in synchronic terms early cinema’s interdependent relations with other forms of media, broadly conceived – such as the newspaper columns, photographs, and dances discussed in essays in this dossier – as well as early cinema’s connections to earlier and later moving image forms, whether the panorama or YouTube. Returning to the issues framed in our opening paragraph, we think that several essays in this dossier – such as Pam Cook’s “Picturing Natacha Rambova,” Mosconi and Bodini’s “On the Stage,” and Simonson’s “Dance Pictures” – demonstrate the advantages of placing women within the broader context of media production rather than simply approaching them as filmmakers. Though such a strategy risks the loss of medium specificity, it opens up the possibility of novel perspectives on women, creativity and early cinema culture.

Stamp’s essay also seeks to address a longstanding problem in feminist film studies more generally: how to recover the work of female filmmakers, in the broadest sense of those terms, without replicating the implicitly masculinist paradigms of film theories and histories that excluded them in the first place. One concrete example that resonated for us is the textbook’s “grey box” which often serves to quarantine feminist film histories from the “main” and ostensibly more authoritative text. While we think that Stamp might grant such graphic layouts too much power in determining the significance of feminist film history for readers – some of us like the margins and actively seek them out – we wholeheartedly agree with Stamp’s call to “disrupt conventional narratives.” Some of the many paths towards disruptive historiographical and critical practices are represented in the essays and notes collected in this special dossier.

Thanks to our reviewers for their keen attention to earlier drafts of this introductory essay. We would also like to thank the Board of Referees for this Special Dossier: Mark Lynn Anderson, University of Pittsburgh; Kay Armatage, University of Toronto; Janet Bergstrom, University of California, Los Angeles; Giorgio Bertellini, University of Michigan; Elaine Burrows, Women’s Film and Television History Network, UK/Ireland; Vicki Callahan, University of Southern California; Mark Garrett Cooper, University of South Carolina; Adrian Danks, RMIT University; Minette Hillyer, Victoria University of Wellington; Sabine Lenk, University of Antwerp; Richard Maltby, Flinders University; Jill Julius Matthews, Australian National University; David Mayer, University of Manchester; Jacqueline Reich, Fordham University; Matthew Solomon, University of Michigan; Yiman Wang, University of California, Santa Cruz; Virginia Wright Wexman, University of Illinois, Chicago.


[1] A number of important publications have emerged directly or indirectly from the Women and Silent Screen conferences and their associated scholarly networks including Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra, eds., A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), Vicki Callahan, ed., Reclaiming the Archive: Feminism and Film History (Detroit: Wayne State University, 2010), and several special journal issues, such as “Early Women Stars,” eds., Jennifer M. Bean and Diane Negra, Camera Obscura 48 (2001); “Dossier on Another Cinephilia: Women’s Cinema in the 1920s,” eds., Rosanna Maule and Catherine Russell, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 46, no. 1 (2005); “New Women of the Silent Screen: China, Japan, Hollywood,” ed. Catherine Russell, Camera Obscura 60 (2005); “Femmes et cinema muet: méthods, approaches, problématiques,” ed. Rosanna Maule, CinémaS 16, no. 2 (2005); “Women and the Silent Screen,” eds., Amelie Hastie and Shelley Stamp, Film History: An International Journal 18, no. 2 (2006); and “Dossier: Transnationalizing Women’s Film History,” ed. Christine Gledhill, Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media 51, no. 2 (2010). See also the conference papers collected in Sofia Bull and Astrid Söderbergh Widding, eds., Not So Silent: Women in Cinema Before Sound (Stockholm: Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis, 2010) and Monica Dall’Asta, Victoria Duckett and Lucia Tralli, eds., Researching Women in Silent Cinema: New Findings and Perspectives (Bologna: Alma Mater Studiorum, Università di Bologna, 2013), available at
[2] See Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).
[3] See Shelley Stamp’s essay in this dossier, “Feminist Media Historiography and the Work Ahead,” which we discuss at the end of this introduction.
[4] Our “vernacular feminisms” is an allusion to Miriam Hansen’s concept of vernacular modernism: see “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism” Modernism/Modernity 6, no. 2 (1999): 59-77.

About the Author

Victoria Duckett and Susan Potter

About the Authors

Victoria Duckett

Victoria Duckett is a lecturer in Media and Communication in the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University, Melbourne. She is author of Seeing Sarah Bernhardt: Performance and Silent Film (University of Illinois Press, 2015) and co-editor of Researching Women in Silent Cinema: New Findings and Perspectives (University of Bologna, 2013). Victoria is on the editorial board of Feminisms, Medias, Histories and Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film. She is a member of the steering committee of Women and Film History International.

Susan Potter

Susan Potter is a lecturer in Film Studies in the Department of Art History at the University of Sydney. Her essays have been published in Framework, Screen and Camera Obscura. She is Co-Executive Secretary of Women and Film History International.View all posts by Victoria Duckett and Susan Potter →