The contents of this special issue on women's film history have their starting point in the “Doing Women's Film and Television History II” international conference, which took place at the University of East Anglia, England, in April 2014. Several of the texts began life as keynote lectures and presentations, while others were inspired by the discussions that took place across its packed three-day schedule. The second conference of the Women's Film and Television History Network, UK-Ireland, the inaugural edition of which had taken place at the University of Sunderland in 2011,1 provided another opportunity for researchers, archivists, and activists to share their ideas around histories of women working in film and television, forging connections across different national and temporal contexts. As Jane M. Gaines points out in her contribution to this special issue, the experiences of a contemporary filmmaker such as Beeban Kidron, interviewed on stage, were “constellated” with the histories of other women as far back as cinema “foremother” Alice Guy Blaché, drawing out the parallels and connections between past and present without forcing them into a misleading ahistorical homogeneity.
The wealth and variety of papers, panels, presentations, and screenings, and the high levels of engagement and attendance, building on the significant momentum created by the establishment of the network and its first conference, provided strong evidence for the dynamism of the field. And this ongoing event—due to happen again at the University of Leicester in 2016—is only one of a whole range of gatherings, networks, projects, and initiatives prioritizing feminist film history. There is the biennial Women and the Silent Screen conference, established in 1999, supported by the Women and Film History International network, which in turn feeds into the remarkable Women Film Pioneers Project, whose origins and findings cofounder Jane M. Gaines reflects upon in her article here. While the Women Film Pioneers Project has an international scope, other ventures are attempting to dig out more nationally specific information, including the Women and Silent British Cinema website, the Arts and Humanities Research Council–funded project “A History of Women Working in the British Film and Television Industries” covering the period 1933 to 1989, and the Nordic Women in Film project.
These endeavors in historical recovery have been accompanied by projects with a more contemporary emphasis, tracking and (crucially) attempting to nurture women's full participation in film industries in the here and now, among them the ongoing work of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, headed by Martha Lauzen, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council–funded project “Calling the Shots: Women and Contemporary UK Film Culture, 2000–2015.” These are just a few of the many schemes and initiatives attempting to address an ongoing marginalization of women—although positivist discourses that suggest that the inevitability of women's absence in the past is now being remedied gradually and incrementally have been confounded by the wealth of historical work showing that women were actually, as Gaines puts it herein, “as instrumental as men in the development of narrative cinema” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Gaines's “On Not Narrating the History of Feminism and Film” specifically addresses the reasons for this historiographic lacuna in the formative moment of feminist film studies' establishment. She suggests how it was impossible to imagine the existence of a female filmmaker such as Esther Eng: young, gay, Chinese American, and astonishingly successful at a time when we “knew” that the only woman director working in the U.S. film industry was Dorothy Arzner. The numerous beautiful photographs of Eng that illustrate S. Louisa Wei's essay “Finding Voices Through Her Images: Golden Gate Girls as an Attempt in Writing Women Filmmakers' History,” and which feature in her documentary on the filmmaker, Golden Gate Girls (2014), provide powerful evidence to the contrary, proving Eng's existence as a confident, stylish, accomplished professional. These beguiling images were rescued from a dumpster through pure luck, however, prompting questions about how many other invaluable sources for women's film history may have been lost forever to both the literal dustbin and the “dustbin of history.”
To pursue the analogy, is feminist film history an exercise in recycling, rescuing neglected and unknown women filmmakers from historical obscurity? Methodologically this is an issue for gender history as a whole. What does it mean to put women in the frame, to take note of their presence? Within film history more specifically, attention to a figure such as Eng begs a question: Was she an exceptional figure in her era, or a marker of a wider presence that has been overlooked and may or may not be recoverable? That question is in turn framed within film history by the figure of the director, whether cast as a romantic auteur, as an assemblage of tropes to be discerned across a body of work, or as a maverick, self-promoting creative. For women directors the terms of cultural visibility are not straightforward; the presence or absence of any one example is overdetermined by the ways in which she is made visible. As the film historian Shelley Stamp summarizes, our “views of female filmmakers … are often clouded by ideas of glamour and stardom,” requiring us to understand that “the importance of being seen always figures in their working lives.”2
For historians, putting women into the story may mean a focus on notable women (Anne Boleyn, say, the subject of revisionist history and fiction in recent years) but just as often involves taking account of the ordinary, unremarked, and everyday participants in the economy and cultural life of a particular era. The importance of taking account of issues of representation and visibility extends beyond images of the female director. Rebecca Harrison's essay on the “projectionettes,” women trained as film projectionists to keep British cinemas running during World War II, refers to the ways in which women's fulfilment of this job was presented and sometimes caricatured in the trade press. And as Melanie Williams demonstrates, while a costume designer such as Julie Harris could be described in the press as “the girl you don't see,” she could garner a certain level of visibility through being pictured in magazines and newspapers as a style maven.
Visual sources are vital historical materials, and yet, as these examples suggest, the visual is far from neutral, particularly with respect to evolving discourses of gender. The contributors here use a variety of visual sources, including frame grabs from films, costume design sketches, production photographs, and other digitized archival documents. In the process they seek to make the previously invisible visible. Yet a recurring feature of meetings of the Women's Film and Television History Network—with comments from academics and distributors such as Julia Knight, Felicity Sparrow, and Debra Zimmerman—has been to do with the material difficulties of getting women's film work seen.
The title of this special issue highlights the intertwined (and alliterative) concepts of activism, authorship, and agency. It was important to broaden the scope of what constituted creative agency beyond directorial roles, hence the consideration of Julie Harris's authorship via her work in costume design. And it has become increasingly pressing to encompass a wider understanding of women's film labor by paying attention to their work in distribution and exhibition as well as production. Rebecca Harrison's article presents a case study of a fascinating moment of agency and control, albeit contained and constrained, in the realm of film exhibition. Harrison also suggests that conventional notions of gendered looking relations might be problematized by the fact that women were doing the majority of the watching in the cinema, as viewers enjoying their leisure but also as projectionists overseeing the presentation of the images on the screen.
The power to look and to speak back also informs Barbara Evans's and Terry Wragg's personal recollections of making collective feminist work within the political context of the 1970s and subsequently. Wragg, for example, speaks of the Leeds Animation Workshop's 1983 short film Give Us a Smile as expressing women's political anger on multiple fronts: in relation to exploitative media imagery, to the sidelining of women in the industry, and to the police response (that women should stay inside) to the serial murderer operating in the area where Wragg and her collaborators worked. Both Evans and Wragg document the importance of film as a political tool within the women's movement of the 1970s—a visual space they used to challenge conventional meanings and assumptions about women. Both equally insist on the importance their filmmaking collectives attached to breaking down barriers between production roles. Evans recalls a system of mentoring specifically designed to demystify technical processes and boost women's confidence in taking over the means of (film) production, and Wragg describes the creation of a special union category that would accommodate the workshop's fluid job demarcations.
Sue Thornham's concluding essay, “Space, Place, and Realism: Red Road and the Gendering of a Cinematic History,”returns to those vital questions of historiography addressed in Gaines's opening essay and, implicitly, through this entire special issue. Using the case study of the British director Andrea Arnold, she asks what place can be found for women in histories of national cinemas, either as filmmakers or as narrative subjects. She describes what is at stake when we construct as exceptional or marginal figures who might be placed at the heart of film history, in this case the history of British social realism as a defining narrative of British cinema. She concludes by proposing a rethinking of the “gendering of time and space” upon which such exclusions are founded. Although, as she admits, this is “scarcely an easy task,” it is nonetheless an essential one, central to the wider project of feminist film history, and it speaks of a growing rapprochement between film history and film theory.
There is undoubtedly more to do to truly internationalize this work. Our focus in this journal issue has been Anglo American in the main, although, as Gaines notes, the work of feminist film history in relation to uncovering women's involvement in the early years is now as international as the industry itself. The case of Esther Eng also points to intriguing transnational connections and yet other sorts of histories to be uncovered. As these examples suggest, that work is going on, not just in relation to the silent period but across different eras.
In that spirit, all of our contributors here are concerned to point out not just that “she is there” or “she was there,” but to elaborate the ways of working, the diverse contributions, and the complexity of women's political and creative engagement with film, and more broadly with the realm of the visual.