Feminist film history involves the ongoing rewriting of the past through the lens of gender/sexual difference and from the perspective of women, whose work is too often erased or sidelined in dominant narratives of the history of cinema. Feminist film history is often seen as having emerged as an academic subfield in the mid- to late 1970s, alongside a general “historical turn” by which film scholars came to emphasize archival research and historical contextualization over high theory and semiotic analysis.1 However, this founding myth conceals the profound degree of imbrication between feminist film history and feminist film theory, which has been vital to the field since the inception of feminist film studies.
In her canonical essay “Women's Cinema as Counter-Cinema” (1973), Claire Johnston articulates an idea of feminist film history that springs from the critical analysis and close reading of film images. Noting that early film audiences often had difficulty deciphering these moving images without the aid of a narrator or external device to establish context, Johnston explains, “Fixed iconography, then, was introduced to aid understanding.” Iconography, which she defines as “a specific sign or cluster of signs” that often encodes sexist film ideologies, relies on a “basic opposition which places man inside history, and woman as ahistoric and eternal.”2 In other words, woman as eternal muse—as nature, as Mother Earth, as the suspension of time itself—represents a certain kind of sign in film's mythmaking apparatus. By epitomizing nature (and thereby naturalizing film iconography), she conceals the artificiality of how woman is made to signify such a limited range of meanings in the dominant cinema. If the image of woman in patriarchal cinema evokes an evacuation of history, then, women's cinema becomes counter-cinema by refusing the notion of woman as timeless and instead anchoring her to the history of place, production, creativity, labor, and artistic expression.
Averting the hazards of historical amnesia has been a methodological rallying cry of feminist film studies at least since the 1970s. Feminist scholars have energetically compiled encyclopedias, edited volumes, digital databases, and imaginative historiographies to fill in the pervasive gaps in the general histories of cinema. Silent film has been a particularly productive terrain for the field, because there were more women involved in every level of international film production in the early twentieth century than at any time since. The forgotten careers of female film pioneers such as Alice Guy-Blaché, Lois Weber, Nell Shipman, Germaine Dulac, and Elvira Notari have been subjects of many crucial studies, by scholars including Kay Armatage, Giuliana Bruno, Alison McMahan, Tami Williams, and Shelley Stamp.3 Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall'Asta's Women Film Pioneers Project—a web resource that compiles career profiles of more than 250 women from more than forty countries—has accompanied the curation of women's films at international festivals (such as Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone), on DVD collections, and on web streaming platforms. This proliferation of digital and archival resources has been indebted to the research compiled in numerous biocritical dictionaries, anthologies, and edited volumes.4
What is the object of feminist film history? Recuperative histories are shaped foremost by their lost objects. For feminism, this requires unearthing works by forgotten female filmmakers, scriptwriters, producers, and other laborers or “makers,” as Karen Ward Mahar, Allyson Field, Sarah Keller, Anna Everett, Ayako Saito, Debashree Mukherjee, Erin Hill, and Hilary Hallett have productively undertaken.5 As a field, feminist film history is radically intersectional, circulating its lost objects across uneven and non-Western geographies and languages, and through different paradigms of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and nationality. This project also, of course, involves theorizing the unseen aesthetics that blow open patriarchal notions of narrative film style, a multifaceted approach exemplified by Nicole Fleetwood's Troubling Vision (2011), Priya Jaikumar's Cinema at the End of Empire (2006), Ranjana Khanna's Algeria Cuts (2007), Judith Mayne's The Woman at the Keyhole (1990), Miriam Petty's Stealing the Show (2016), Karen Redrobe's Vanishing Women (2003), Heide Schlüpmann's The Uncanny Gaze (2010), and Patricia White's Uninvited (1999).6 Ideas of film aesthetics can be vividly transformed through new histories of film spectatorship. For example, Annie Fee's work on 1920s French female fan publics pointedly debunks masculinist narratives of high-art cinephilia, further building on foundational scholarship by Jacqueline Bobo, Alison Griffiths, Miriam Hansen, Anupama Kapse, Patrice Petro, Lauren Rabinovitz, Shelley Stamp, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, and Yiman Wang that reveals the gendered, racial, and colonialist discourses that have long shaped global histories of moviegoing.7
Beyond supplementing the archive, feminist histories reveal the social impasses and intellectual challenges of the historical moments in which they were written. As Jane Gaines has put it, “For a historical explanation … to be received as adequate in its moment, it must demonstrate comprehensive explanatory power. … To ask why these women were forgotten is also to ask why we forget them.”8 What would it take, then, for a timely historical explanation to remain relevant beyond the instance of its immediacy? Feminist histories inhabit the gaps in official documentation through methods that speak pointedly to the limits of their own present times: from the optimism of archival consciousness-raising championed by B. Ruby Rich, Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, and Sumiko Higashi, to the prolific studies of female filmmakers by Jane Gaines, Patricia White, and Yvonne Welbon in the wake of the alleged “death of the author,” to the ongoing experiential turn toward issues of memory, emotion, corporeality, and sensation in works by Zhang Zhen, Weihong Bao, Rielle Navitski, Catherine Russell, and many others.9 In other words, even histories that yield new information will quickly be overlooked and superseded, if not reduced to cliché, without conceptual invention—without the imaginative insight that uncovers the profound links between today's social crises and the historical erasures of the past.
To do this work, feminist historians have drawn on alternative forms of evidence and documentation. Personal memoirs, fan magazines and scrapbooks, urban street maps, women's club minutes, and subtler affective and aesthetic traces have helped establish the prolific but excluded records of women's roles in shaping the history of cinema. For example, Amelie Hastie looks to cookbooks and dollhouses as both archival records and spaces for feminist creativity in Cupboards of Curiosity (2007), while Jacqueline Stewart reconstructs the formations of Black urban film spectatorship through literature and documents of American racial displacement in Migrating to the Movies (2005).10 Giuliana Bruno reflects on the epistemological challenges of relying on these alternative sources in her study of the forgotten Italian silent filmmaker Elvira Notari: “In the absence of texts, lost or destroyed, one can only speculate on the mode of production and reception, aware of the limitations of such speculation and its inability to account for differences.”11 In other words, a lack of archival evidence corroborates the ideological limitations of how history comes to be understood and reconstructed through such a narrow range of stories and concepts in the first place.
Shelley Stamp reminds us of this constant threat of marginalization in her inaugural introduction to Feminist Media Histories, noting that “scholarship produced by feminist media historians … has too often remained on a parallel track, confined to the peripheries of media history, relegated to sidebars set apart from the main text, cast as interesting marginalia in someone else's story.”12 It is the project of feminist film history not just to recuperate missing or forgotten archives, but to wrest these findings from their parallel tracks. In other words, feminist histories that offer new information without conceptual invention—without breaking through the walls that sideline feminist works—will be doomed to obscurity, when the general film history is still a masculine history and feminist examples must create their own positions within, alongside, and in defiance of those patriarchal structures.
There have been a variety of inventive approaches for inserting these lost or sidetracked histories into the center of cultural discourse and social debate. For example, Anne Friedberg's history of women's window shopping and its relation to nineteenth-century visual practices positioned itself squarely in the thick of debates about postmodern theory and emergent digital media technologies.13 Similarly, Laura Horak's Girls Will Be Boys (2016), Kara Keeling's The Witch's Flight (2007), Neepa Majumdar's Wanted Cultured Ladies Only! (2009), and Laura Isabel Serna's Making Cinelandia (2014) have mapped their archival findings onto ongoing debates about queer and trans feminist advocacy, antiracist activism, and postcolonial politics respectively.14 To this point, feminist film histories have the burden and the gift of social relevance, of marking their own timeliness, more than histories that assume their own intrinsic value and importance without the labor of having to forge their place in “the main text.”
In the moment that I write this short overview of feminist film history, I see an explosion of intersectional and global feminist activism and cultural activity—alongside an awakening to the political crises of structural racism, sexual predation, mass incarceration, perpetual war, violence against women, workplace inequality, climate injustice, and populist xenophobia. It is up to the feminist film historians to continue to speak to these existential challenges, which we know are nothing new.