This short essay provides an introduction to the short-lived but influential magazine Women & Film, published in California between 1972 and 1975. Two graduate students, Siew-Hwa Beh (b. 1945) and Saundra Salyer (b. 1946), from the University of California, Los Angeles, and San Francisco State, respectively, were the founders of this pioneering publication devoted entirely to providing a feminist perspective on film. They set up the magazine in response to a collision between their radical leftist and feminist politics and their cinephilia. This essay contextualizes some examples, which are reproduced here, of the first issue's contents. It also sheds light on the eclectic and impassioned approach adopted by the magazine's editors and contributors, bolstered by accompanying excerpts and images.
In early 1972, the first issue of Women & Film appeared in a small number of newsstands and alternative bookshops across Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. It was the product of a meeting between two women: Siew-Hwa Beh (b. 1945), then a graduate student in filmmaking at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and Saundra Salyer (b. 1946), an activist and journalist for Everywoman, a feminist newspaper based in Venice, California. Both were cinema enthusiasts and deeply involved in the radical politics of the era, but both were disenchanted by the sexism they had encountered on- and offscreen.
As its title suggests, the magazine's initial project was a broad one: to explore the relationship between two wide-ranging social and cultural categories. This remit primarily covered the issue of women's representation in films throughout the history of cinema, but other issues of investigation included the potential of film (and, later, video) as a revolutionary artistic medium; the absence (or overlooked presence) of women filmmakers in the film industry, past and present; the question of, and quest for, feminist cinematic auteurs; and the notion of alternative avenues for the creation, distribution, and exhibition of feminist film.
Women & Film was ultimately short-lived, with only five individual issues published between 1972 and 1975. Yet the magazine's emergence coincided with an explosion in women's filmmaking, taking place in the wake of the women's liberation movement in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. The year 1972 also saw the establishment of the first women's film and video festivals (in New York and Edinburgh) and the founding of vital distributors such as Women Make Movies and New Day Films. Women & Film was the first publication entirely devoted to recording such events and the activities of a new wave of women filmmakers. Its pages provided the earliest forum for the exclusive discussion of women's filmmaking and the development of feminist film criticism and theory in print.
An eclectic assortment of contributors—graduate students, academics, filmmakers, activists, and journalists—deployed a variety of critical approaches, ranging from film criticism and literary studies to psychology and Marxist philosophy, in an attempt to develop feminist modes of film criticism and theory. Many would go on to become influential figures in the developing field of film studies: Janet Bergstrom, Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, Marsha Kinder, Chuck Kleinhans, Julia Lesage, Bill Nichols, and Constance Penley published some of their earliest articles in the magazine.1
The headline on the magazine's first cover (figure 1) signals the issue's overarching theme, “Film History Revised.” Across the arts, feminists were undertaking a similar initiative in order to interrogate men's dominance of the canon and women's apparent absence from it.2 For these feminist scholars and activists, their efforts were about more than rejecting women's supposed lack of talent, ability, or creativity; they were about how sexism had helped perpetuate women's exclusion from creating art. For Women & Film, this desire is dramatized by the illustration of a hand-drawn filmstrip, torn almost in two, designed by Nicole Morisset. Within the frame, a woman unbuttons her blouse while a man points a rifle at her. The image is a reappropriated publicity still from Jean-Luc Godard's Les carabiniers (1963), showing a young mother forced to undress at gunpoint. The tear in the filmstrip bisects this image, ripping the male oppressor from his female victim and illustrating the magazine's promise to tear into sexist film culture, even as exhibited by Godard, one of the most celebrated “radical” filmmakers of the period.
“How many people have heard of Dorothy Arzner and who thinks of Ida Lupino as a director? Just about every major, influential picture made in the United States throughout the entire history of film has been directed, and most likely produced, by a man,” points out Christine Mohanna in her article.3Women & Film questioned who was writing this history, and how: this issue contains a reprint of a page literally torn from Andrew Sarris's canon-defining book, The American Cinema (1968). In his entry for Ida Lupino, he lists several other women filmmakers who make up the “ladies auxiliary.”4 As the editors of Women & Film point out, Sarris's lumping together of these women, and his dismissal of their work, is significant. Why indeed would people have heard of Dorothy Arzner or Ida Lupino if they had been relegated to the footnotes of film scholarship?
The magazine's debut editorial, by Beh and Salyer (figure 2), acts as its mission statement, outlining its radical intentions to disrupt the male-dominated status quo in film. The tearing motif on the cover is carried over within the magazine's pages, with the editors declaring that they “dare attempt to tear down the old vicious structures and assumptions that victimize us” and calling on women to join them in taking charge of their “minds, bodies, and image.”5 The ferocity of these intentions is not only articulated by the editorial's aggressive language; it is visually emphasized by torn reproductions of covers from Cinema magazine (Los Angeles, 1962–76), one of the era's best-known film journals. These covers decorate the editorial like the marginalia of an illuminated manuscript. They show actresses such as Ursula Andress, Natalie Wood, Bridget Bardot, and Sophia Loren in extreme close-up or in various states of undress, illustrating the critique expressed in the accompanying text: that a woman's typical role onscreen is restricted to that of “movie glamour queen” and sex object. By showing these women framed on the covers of Cinema, the page layout also suggests the complicity of conventional film scholarship in perpetuating the industry's own sexism.
In the text, the editors draw on the work of Herbert Marcuse and quote liberally from the 1969 manifesto of the Third Cinema movement, written by the Argentinean filmmakers Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino.6 It is perhaps the revolutionary drive of the Third Cinema's Marxist thinkers to overthrow the status quo, along with the rising fervor of radical feminism in the early 1970s, that inspires the violent language of tearing and ripping that characterizes this first issue. Beh and Salyer argue for the wholesale replacement of the deforming and exploitative Hollywood studio system with a “People's cinema” collectively made for the masses. As part of this battle, they target the macho world of American film culture—its filmmaking and criticism—both then very much in the thrall of the auteur theory. Jean-Luc Godard, as we have seen from the cover image, is not immune from this attack, despite being much admired by these feminist cinephiles. During this period, Godard was seeking to develop a militant cinema, one that, like the Third Cinema, would be the starting point for debate and action. His manifesto “What Is to Be Done?” (1970), from his Dziga-Vertov days, is in fact reprinted in this issue.7 What's more, Beh praises his more “bourgeois” Vivre sa vie (1962), calling it a “brilliant and sympathetic study of the woman's eternal dilemma in a world defined by men, money, sex and violence.”8
Women & Film's editors were equally concerned with what women were doing behind the camera (figure 3). This early infographic, also featured in the magazine's first issue, shows the membership numbers of key Hollywood unions: the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and Motion Picture Machine Operators (MPMO), as well as the Screen Writers’, Producers’ and Directors’ Guilds of America. As the table makes clear, certain specialties appear to have been more hospitable to women than others. The table appears above an illustration of a woman surrounded by branded food products such as Clorox and Wonder Bread, apparently cut and pasted from advertisements in mass-circulation magazines. As the collage hints, the dearth of female film professionals is perhaps the result of popular culture's continued relegation of women to the role of housewives and their enslavement to domestic work and consumerism. Popular images of women circulating far beyond the film industry have a profound impact on who works there, the juxtaposition suggests. And, in a circular logic, the table implies that without more women in positions of creative control, these limited perceptions cannot change.
Women & Film had disappeared by 1976 due to a shortage of funds and, to some extent, staff burnout; as with many self-published and -distributed magazines, the energy required of its editors and tiny volunteer staff was monumental and, ultimately, unsustainable. But out of its ashes rose Camera Obscura, founded by former Women & Film associate editors Janet Bergstrom, Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, Elizabeth Hart Lyon, and Constance Penley, as well as, in 1974, Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage's Jump Cut, both of which are still publishing today. Women & Film's greatest legacy is, perhaps, as a record of the impassioned and important work being done by women in film—onscreen and on the page—in the wake of second-wave feminism. In the midst of the current, apparent fourth wave, this legacy becomes especially important as feminists once again begin to scrutinize the cinema and ask questions about women's place on and off the screen.
Bill Nichols, “Confronting the Consciousness Industry: Two Analyses of Women's Role in the Media,” Women & Film 1, no. 1 (1972): 38–42; Constance Penley, “Cries and Whispers,” Women & Film 1, nos. 3–4 (1973): 55–57; Julia Lesage, “The Green Wall: The Peruvian Woman and Us,” Women & Film 1, nos. 3–4 (1973): 62–64; Chuck Kleinhans, “Two or Three Things I Know about Her,” Women & Film 1, nos. 3–4 (1973): 65–76; Sandy Flitterman-Lewis, “Heart of the Avant-Garde: Some Biographical Notes on Germaine Dulac,” Women & Film 1, nos. 5–6 (1974): 58–61. Janet Bergstrom (then Parker) was part of the group who interviewed Noël Burch for “Beyond the Theory of Film Practice,” Women & Film 1, nos. 5–6 (1974): 20–31.
See Linda Nochlin, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Art News 69 (January 1971): 22–39.
Christine Mohanna, “A One-Sided Story: Women in the Movies,” Women & Film 1, no. 1 (1972): 7.
Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968 (New York: Dutton, 1968); Ida Lupino's entry appears on 216.
Siew-Hwa Beh and Saundra Salyer, “Overview,” Women & Film 1, no. 1 (1972): 5.
Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, “Toward a Third Cinema,” Tricontinental (October 14, 1969), reprinted most recently in New Latin America Cinema, vol. 1, ed. Michael T. Martin (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1997), 33–58.
Jean-Luc Godard, “What Is to Be Done?,” AfterImage 1 (April 1970): n.p., reprinted in Women & Film 1, no. 1 (1972): 41.
Siew-Hwa Beh, “Vivre sa vie,” Women & Film 1, no. 1 (1972): 73.