“On Not Narrating the History of Feminism and Film” poses two questions: What happened to women in the early silent film industries, and why don't we know about them? While the author and others have addressed the first question elsewhere at recent international conferences and in publication, the second remains largely unanswered and is taken up here. It is specific to the field of feminism and film and media studies, where in the 1970s moment of feminist film theory, the powerful paradigm of “no women” or woman as “absent” could be taken as either theoretical or empirical. The question arises as to how to write a narrative account given earlier prohibitions against narrative and empirical work, even when that very kind of work has discovered evidence of women working in significant roles in early film industries worldwide.
The archival worker can get very wrapped up in historical enigmas, or we might say “tangled up” in the intrigue of past events. The case I take up here is especially confounding given the question at hand: how or whether to write a narrative account of why a narrative wasn't written. About the hundreds of women who we now know helped to start national film industries not only in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and France, but also in South America, parts of Asia, and the Middle East, we still say entirely too little. Today we ask: What drove them to do this? What did they have to give up? And, most persistently, why did they disappear?
It is now more than twenty years since I began collecting the names of women who might have worked in the first two decades of the international film industries before they were dropped from historical records.1 They may have been let go, one by one, but they did not always leave passively. Case in point: Florence Lawrence, who after her 1910 stardom started the Victor Company, and told Photoplay in 1924, “I WANT so to work!”2 There were so very many of these women (if we take the preponderance of female names as an indication), many more than anyone in the 1990s imagined that there might have been. Indeed, if I had known that there were so many, I might never have (even with the enthusiastic help of students) begun to collect these names at all. To give only one categorical example—women-owned production companies—the count has reached more than sixty in the United States, a phenomenon that Karen Ward Mahar has called the star-producer-owner of a “star name company.”3 Between two peaks that Mahar identifies, namely 1909–15 and 1916–23, there were Gene Gauntier Feature Players (fig. 1), Anita Stewart Productions (fig. 2), Petrova Picture Company (Olga Petrova, fig. 3), and the Clara Kimball Young Film Corporation (fig. 4), to name only a few.4 The roughly sixty of the U.S. total includes not only companies founded by actresses but also those started by writers, for example Eve Unsell Photoplay Staff Inc. and Marion Fairfax Productions (fig. 5). These companies, together with Lois Weber Productions, have emerged, thanks largely to Shelley Stamp's exhaustive research, as major holdouts against the rise of the industrial studio system.5
Taken together, these U.S. examples have the potential to counter the “coming to dominance” narrative of industrial expansion by demonstrating how even fly-by-night efforts held out against the evolving studio system. Nor are these alternatives limited to the United States; the same “self-named company” phenomenon appeared as well in Europe. In 1915 in Germany, an American woman from Watseka, Illinois, put a hyphen between her first and last names, producing the respectable sounding Fern-Andra Company in Berlin (fig. 6). As the project of researching women in the national industries grew and international scholars began to contribute to the project, more women's-name companies were located, for example in Italy, with eight in the Turin region alone, including Vera Sylva Film, Fabrèges Film (Fabienne Fabrèges, fig. 7), and Tornielli Film (Elsa Tornielli).6 Australian scholars have long since identified the company to which the actress Lottie Lyell, in partnership with her husband, contributed her name: the Lyell-Langford Company (fig. 8).7
That American, European, and Australian women gave their first and last or only their last names to these companies tells us that they had “earned” a name and that the earnings from their renown, no matter how short-lived, underwrote these ventures. At first glance we might be tempted to dismiss “named” companies as vanity undertakings, but even so they are important as manifestations of early celebrity culture. They might also indicate a straightforward business practice in which a name, if legal, helped to shore up a legal claim. If nothing else, thinking about female company names leads us to the unusual multiplicity of names these women took. While it is not unusual for show-business entertainers to take more than one name, women in the early industries, over multiple career stages as well as multiple marriages, claimed a relatively high number of names, including male as well as female pseudonyms. The well-known actress Alla Nazimova, who gave her stage name to Nazimova Productions, was originally Adelaide Leventon, but also Miriam Edez Adelaida Leventon and Alla Lavendera (fig. 9). On the theatrical stage she had been Alla Nasimoff, and she wrote as Peter M. Winters.8
While historical name collecting is often a preface to the kind of historical research on which narrative revisions are based, I was under no illusion that lists of names might make a breakthrough. These female-sounding names given to companies, after all, are in and of themselves no indicator of the degree of control women wielded relative to their male partners or the creative contributions they may have made, as Mahar early noted.9 So what was the purpose of the project of name collection begun in 1993? I will admit to two quite distinct motives. While one was pure fascination with collecting—names upon names upon names—the second was less straightforward and not at all easy to articulate at the time. It had to do with a gradually arising suspicion that the discovery project was at odds with feminist film theory as it had evolved since the 1970s. Indeed, this second motive was somewhat subversive for the way it challenged a then-feminist orthodoxy, that is, what today I would call an implicit prohibition against empirical work in favor of theory.
I worried that this seeming contradiction—or at least inconsistency—within academic feminism didn't seem to bother other scholars. Over the course of two decades, few had raised these delicate issues for the field of feminism and film, the one exception being Annette Kuhn and Jackie Stacey, who in their introduction to Screen Histories called for dialogue on the “theory/history” split that had characterized our intellectual undertakings.10 More recently, as academic feminism has begun to take stock of the Second Wave, the case of feminism and film relative to other feminisms has become ever more pressing.11 Here is where the discovery of so many silent-era women worldwide goes to the heart of an intellectual narrative that belongs exclusively to the fertile subfield of feminism and film. There may be no other field in which feminism has had to undergo such a marked “correction” of a first principle while still standing behind that theoretical principle.
To put it another way: the idea that there could have been so very many instrumental women in the first decades of so many national film industries is at odds with an essential theoretical assertion of feminism and film studies, established in 1973. To restate that principle: in the film industry as well as on the screen, woman as woman is largely absent. To quote Claire Johnston from Notes on Women's Cinema: “It is probably true to say that despite the enormous emphasis placed on woman as spectacle in the cinema, woman as woman is largely absent.”12 Never mind that this principle made a negative space from which to theorize the image of woman as a problem, because that negative has been so instrumental. Recall what great success 1970s feminist film theory has had with the conceptualization of the Lacanian “lack” elaborated as a “theory of absence.”13 But although the psychoanalytic notion of “lack” was not exactly synonymous with “not there,” the term was so ambiguous that, as “no women,” it could be taken two ways, that is, either as no empirical women or as “no women,” the construct belonging to a theory of absence. Without this construct and the psychoanalytic framework that underwrote it, scholars would not have been able to so productively use “no women” to analyze popular cinema as predominantly patriarchal.
Yet paradoxically, that very abstraction that rejected anything resembling a sociology later invited the challenge to “no women” on behalf of empirical women. Although it was never exactly made clear whether “absence” applied more to women in the audience than women behind the camera, the assumption that there had been no women was strong enough to support a “theory of absence.”14 Judith Mayne, early to challenge the abstract construct, called our attention to the apparent incommensurability of the empirical “real viewer” and the theoretical ideal female spectator. While at the time the tendency in film theory, she said, was to “dismiss one or the other,” she argued for a theorization of the very difficulty.15 Taking another tack, Laura Mulvey later reflected on the “crisis over theory” in which real, existing women challenged the very premises of feminist film theory. As she frames the issues: “Thus, in the case of the female spectator, psychoanalytically based criticism encountered resistance in the name of the empirically identifiable, real women in the audience and their conscious identification with empirically identifiable reality on the screen.”16 An antithetical relation emerged where none had been articulated before, but based more on the female spectator than on the female filmmaker.
Empirical historiography and feminist film theory thus came to be seen as having been placed in opposition. Significantly, Mayne's concern about the empirical spectator became one of the moves that underwrote a new feminist commitment to the moment of the “historical turn” in the field.17 One strong justification for the “turn” was that the field needed to research historically situated female spectators.18 It would appear as though in the late 1980s and into the 1990s that the empirical spectator, even before she was located through research, could trump the theoretical spectator, the construct that purportedly couldn't accommodate her.19 The female filmmaker in early Hollywood, however, was never an empirical “trump card” for the theoretical female maker, since that maker from the start was conceived as an empirical-theoretical entity.
Beginning in 1973, in the same essay in which “woman as woman” was conceptualized as “absent,” Dorothy Arzner emerged as neither a complete abstraction nor a historically existing figure to be researched (fig. 10). Arzner, half paradigm, half person, famously underwrote the critical move that entails “cracking open the entire fabric of the film” and critiquing the ideological construction of woman.20 Further, because Arzner was the lone female director in golden-age Hollywood, she stood for both the empirical absence (of other women) and for theoretical “subversion.” What was attributed to Arzner, the closeted lesbian director, has subsequently been attributed to many female writers and directors in the last four decades.21 Given the great numbers of women we have found in the silent era, we could now make the case for seeing many more surviving silent-era films as “subversive.” Except for one thing. Since 1973 the idea of female “subversion” has been predicated on reading against, but from within, a textual form to which women as industrial exceptions came late. We may be less inclined to ask how they “subverted” a male form if we argue that from the start they were as instrumental as men in the development of narrative cinema.22 One wonders whether the theory of absence would have come to dominance if we had known that between 1896 and 1925, in the United States as well as elsewhere, there had been so many women writers, directors, and producers.
Looking back, we can see now how our two questions might be perceived as intertwined. To ask about women working in the silent era—“what happened to them?”—calls up “why didn't we know?” Thinking back to 1973, “what happened to women in the silent motion picture film industries?” leads to our asking, “why didn't we know then that there had been so many women?” If we had known, would it have been possible to argue that narrative cinema was so thoroughly man-made? Further, consider how these two enigmas, fifty years apart, are drawn together. Women workers in a male-dominated industry were apparently “there” in the silent era and then suddenly “not there,” and a feminist research project that could have investigated this enigma did not come to fruition, at least not in those Anglophone academic circles that helped to establish film studies. The German case is quite different, however, given the interests of the feminist journal Frauen und Film, committed equally to feminist theory and feminist historical research.23 And in the 1970s, academics in the rest of Europe, most notably in Italy and the Scandinavian countries, followed the United Kingdom in their dedication to developing feminism and film theoretically.
As I draw the reader into my double enigma, my invitation to consider narrative events, I should acknowledge that this general direction appears at odds with my title. The reader may be wondering why I would begin to relate narrative events-in-time when my title is “On Not Narrating the History of Feminism and Film.” Why would I pose these two questions, both of which anticipate narrative answers? Those who already know something about feminism and film will understand that the double enigma that puzzles us about the events of the silent era's first decades—our subject to be researched—is also a feature of a 1970s theoretical conjuncture. Thus in starting to narrate the events of feminism and film, we may recall another prohibition, a political objection to narrative as a means to knowledge, a feminist theoretical legacy that predates the setting of a new research agenda beginning with the first Doing Women's Film History conference at the University of Sunderland in 2011.24 Perhaps the dilemmas of our legacy inform the eclecticism of new historical research approaches as well as a certain reflexivity.25 Exemplifying this awareness in her article in the “Doing Women's Film History II” conference special issue, Sue Thornham articulates our feminist legacies as both dubious and unavoidable. An example of such a dubious but unavoidable legacy is precisely the earlier feminist critique of the narrative form as patriarchal.26
But the prohibition against narrative, especially historical narrative, has never been a good reason not to try to answer these two interlinked questions: “what happened?” and “why didn't we know?” Here I take up only the second question, since it is most relevant to this informed readership. Presumably many first-generation scholars will recall the series of intellectual events, but each might order them differently. In the following, then, two possible narrative options are offered as routes into these events, each relating them from a different historical starting point. The effect of this staggered start is that each chronicle yields a somewhat different “history” and encourages a proliferation of “histories” as a means of heading off expectations of “the” history.
NARRATIVE #1: STARTING AT THE “HISTORICAL TURN”
From the vantage of 2008, Alison Butler summarized academic publications on early women filmmakers from the 1970s to the present. Her narrative begins with what she calls the “empirical turn,” citing the 1978 Brighton Conference and events around the 1995 Centennial of Cinema. As a consequence of the dedication to early cinema, she says, interest in women filmmakers was revived after a period she calls a “twenty-year lull.”27 Her account continues, looking back: “In the early 1970s, feminists had rediscovered pioneers such as Alice Guy-Blaché, Lois Weber and Germaine Dulac, but this work of recovery and celebration abated in the 1970s and 1980s.” She goes on: “In the 1990s, however, the general climate of interest in historical research on early cinema and the appearance of key publications, including Anthony Slide's The Silent Feminists, which documents the existence of over a dozen female filmmakers in the silent era, encouraged feminist scholars to question assumptions about the exclusion of women from early and silent cinema.”28 Butler brings events up to date with reference to Jennifer Bean and Diane Negra's 2002 collection and Bean's reference to this new moment as “an age of discovery.”29
NARRATIVE # 2: STARTING BEFORE THE “HISTORICAL TURN”
In 2015, let us “write over” Butler's version a second narrative.30 While Butler begins in 1978 with what she calls the “empirical turn” and others have dubbed the “historical turn,” a second narrative might start earlier, in 1972, at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, California, where both Sharon Smith and Tony Slide were discovering evidence of a surprising number of women working in the U.S. silent-era film industry. As Slide says, it was while “reading the trades” that it began to dawn on him that women in the early industry were not such an exception.31 Smith's findings were published in 1973 in the first issue of the short-lived Women and Film, and the following year in book form, while a later issue of Women and Film included Sandy Flitterman's Germaine Dulac translation.32 Slide published an article in 1974, and Early Women Directors in 1977.33 That same year, Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary's edited Women and the Cinema contained an article by Richard Kozarski on Lois Weber, one by Bill van Wert on Germaine Dulac, and another by Peary on Alice Guy Blaché, along with a shortened version of Laura Mulvey's “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” from the August 1975 issue of Screen.34
Here in my narrative I arrive at the juncture that corresponds roughly to the period that Butler calls a “twenty-year lull” between the 1970s and 1990s, by which I assume she means that little or nothing was published on the earliest women filmmakers.
Taking up the narrative again in the 1990s, following Butler's “lull,” one finds from within film studies a few single-authored works based on empirical research by feminist film scholars such as Sandy Flitterman-Lewis (on the French director Germaine Dulac), Giuliana Bruno (on the Italian silent director-producer Elvira Notari), and Judith Mayne (on the director Dorothy Arzner).35 In that decade as well, a new generation of traditionally trained history doctoral candidates began to research female U.S. industry workers of the silent era.36 In October 1999 the first of what became known as the Women and the Silent Screen conferences was organized by Annette Förester and Eva Warth at the University of Utrecht in Amsterdam, a meeting that has continued subsequently in the United States (Santa Cruz), Canada (Montreal), Mexico (Guadalajara), Italy (Bologna), Australia (Melbourne), and most recently in September 2015 in Pittsburgh. Significantly, the Utrecht conference acknowledged empirical research and publication, helping to reconfigure the scope of the field. Interest would first expand to encompass Europe and the United States and embrace all aspects of women's connection to silent cinema—as spectators as well as filmmakers—and looking finally at industrial workers, including janitresses, stenographers, clerks, machine operators, and negative cutters.
How, then, could we not have known in the 1970s? This, my unanswerable question, calls for recourse to theories of history. Those theories encourage us, when faced with an urgency to research the intellectual events of Second Wave feminism, to challenge some sacred cows of the traditional discipline, beginning with the term “history” itself.37 One way of challenging the rules is to acknowledge that every account of past events is an ex post facto version that affords the historical researcher a privileged position vis-à-vis past events despite the fact that “after the fact” knowledge is incomplete and partial.38 That researcher then can neither live up to an obligation to be “true to” that past, nor can he or she unreservedly claim to know “how it really was.” There is no way around either the impossibility of knowing or the “after the fact” retrospective advantage of the “now” on what Keith Jenkins calls the “before now.”39 That vantage may be an advantage in that today we know the outcomes of events, although we would be mistaken to think that an outcome is the “meaning” of past events. This new philosophy-of-history approach goes so far as to relocate the “making” of history, the narrative of events, from the past to the present. Following Hayden White, for example, “history happens in the telling”; history cannot be only “then,” in the “past now,” but rather is unfolding “now.”40 The burden of meaning-making is thus solidly placed on the historical present.
So what do the events of the past mean for us today? At the first Doing Women's Film History conference, Monica Dall'Asta and I presented a joint paper that proposed a way around the old worry about being “true to” the past with the idea that we are today “constellated” together with these historical figures, the historical present now brought into a coexistence with the historical past.41 We are thus “constellated” with Alice, Lois, Dorothy, and now the Chinese American Marion E. Wong (fig. 11) and the Mexican American Beatriz Michelena (fig. 12) as well as the two Italian Elviras—Elvira Notari and Elvira Giallanella—and the many others who are still coming to light. Exemplifying this, at the 2014 Doing Women's Film History II conference, toward the end of the second day, historical figures began to “constellate” with contemporary ones, as in the moment when the prolific British director Beeban Kidron, interviewed as part of the program, was compared with the silent-era writer-producer-director Alice Guy Blaché (fig. 13).
As we have seen in our two versions of past feminist film events, historical narrators enter at different “nows” and may, as a consequence, narrate these events in such a way that the unmoored past that we are trying to reconfigure appears to be moving. As testimony to this, in every decade since 1993 that I looked at this double enigma again, the two pasts—that of women in the silent industry and that of the 1970s feminism that missed them—appeared to me to have been rearranged, like furniture in a gigantic room. Yes, the historical furniture had moved, shifted, but past events were also receding, appearing smaller and smaller as present political imperatives changed and new events grew proportionately. Further, every decade gave past events a distinct shape. For instance, from the vantage of the 1970s, the few women makers featured in the festivals were lauded for “having broken into” film industries, on the analogy of contemporary women trying to “break in” to a studio system closed shop.42 But today we know in the U.S. case that in the 1910s, and even as late as the 1920s, women makers, unlike their equivalents in the 1970s, were not trying to “break in” because they were already industry insiders, albeit ironically before there was an industry. Then, in the early 1990s, because at that time “race” appeared even more pressing than “gender,” women in the early film industry appeared too white to justify our attention. The accompanying assumption that there were “no black women” meant that the larger field was not positioned to discover that African American women such as Maria P. Williams and Tessa Sauders both had started companies in Kansas City (fig. 14).43 By 2000, after Utrecht, feminist film scholars discovered that after Butler's “lull” we had to “catch up” from where others had left off researching in the 1970s, and empirical projects were still somewhat “haunted,” in Laura Mulvey's term, by feminist film theory, as it had been caught up in a “crisis over theory.”44
Still haunted would be Jennifer Bean's introduction to the coedited A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema, where she says: “The temptation to invoke history as a way out of theory's conceptual dilemmas can never be an acceptable answer for film feminism.”45 This restatement of the commitment to feminist theory did do that, but only in that there was as yet no dialogue between theory and history as approaches to knowledge. In 2000 the future of conferences following Utrecht was still uncertain, and it appeared that this was still the “wrong time” to study women thought to be “ahead of their time,” although this kind of study had been undertaken for Europe and North America by the first historians of women as workers, writers, and artists.46
To rein in the events that we would interpret and insist that there is no other choice of vantage point than that of our own present, let us however say this: any answer today to “what happened?” cannot be oblivious of the knowledge that women are still not well represented in the film and television industries worldwide. However, where in the United States they were in the 1920s pushed out, now they more forcefully push ahead. B. Ruby Rich, remembering when she and Laura Mulvey combed the world looking for titles to screen at the 1974 Chicago Women and Film Festival, recently reflected on the Sundance Film Institute gender statistics, reporting that women had a strong showing in documentary but were still poorly represented in feature fiction filmmaking.47 The Annenberg Center for Media, Diversity & Social Change reports that in 2014, of the one hundred top American films, 1.9 percent were directed by women.48
To commit to saying “what happened then” for the present historical moment is not to say “what happened” in the early pre-studio, pre–big business decades. It is to say what we most need to hear today. And what is that? I must digress just before my ending. What is most important to say returns us to the corollary to the objection to the historical narrative as the version of events always written, as we have been so often told, by the triumphant. That corollary contains a more astute analysis of any imperial political situation, and that is this: the outcome of the standard history, the “going narrative,” whether the history of the nation or of an industry, is predetermined. That history is always known in advance of having happened.49 Dramatically, in France in the first decade of the last century it was decided in advance that a secretary could not make the first moving-picture fiction film. Léon Gaumont's secretary Alice Guy, still in her twenties, could not have made a breakthrough work using the newest technology. Such a thing was unimaginable.
But, to bring our two narrative enigmas together again: “what happened to them?” and “why didn't we know?” First, Alice Guy's fiction film was unimaginable for the French Academy. Later, Alice Guy's fiction film was unimaginable for feminism. Alice Guy Blaché's remarkable career was quite unimaginable before we learned that she had made around one thousand shorts and features between the first decade and 1923.50 But to suggest that as feminists we couldn't entertain the “unimaginable”? Maybe this means that when we are tempted to despair, to think that world feminism has fallen short of its goal of political engagement, transformed lives, meaningful work, and freedom from domestic drudgery, instead we must imagine more for women. This time, we can't fail to imagine a future in which women are the equal creative workers that vanguardists such as the Chinese American lesbian director-producer Esther Eng set out to be as an immigrant living in San Francisco (fig. 15).51
To return to the historical enigmas with which I started—the problem of which narrative from what vantage. One of the ways that Marxist feminism has challenged traditional historical approaches is in taking from Marx the idea of the entire “whole” of history—the future as well as the past and the present.52 In that “whole,” “the future” is always part of the scheme of things because the goal of transformed labor shapes all historical interpretation. Yet as difficult as figuring the anticipated future into the “whole” is remembering to think of the present itself as historical, as Michel Foucault has insisted. Here Jacqueline Stacy has provided insights in “Crossing Over with Tilda Swinton” by locating Swinton as a figure of and for the historical present.53 Others may nominate the Swedish female director Anna Odell, who won the “best film” highest honor in 2014, the same year that Mia Engberg won for best documentary.
The ongoing work of “doing women's film history” via conferences, research, and publication is important in many ways, one of the most daring and challenging of which is the way contemporary scholarship points out what feminism forgot or overlooked—to emphasize what we had overlooked, not just what film industry official histories neglected. We may be post-feminist in that we straddle two feminisms—an earlier feminism and the later feminist critique of that feminism. Impatient with that “post” critique, we may be moving toward a post-post-feminist feminism. In trying to define the “today” of the Doing Women's Film History conferences, we can say that it is a moment that knows that the feminist revolution has been incomplete and that promoting women does not in and of itself guarantee social transformation. And yet we will not give up on feminism, especially as it imagines worlds transformed.