About the Project

One of these days men are going to get over the fool idea that women have no brains…and quit getting insulted at the thought that a skirt-wearer can do their work quite as well as they can. And I don’t believe that day is very far distant, either.Cleo Madison, Photoplay (January 1916)

The Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP) is a digital publication and resource that advances research on the hundreds of women who worked behind the scenes during the silent film era. Always expanding, WFPP publishes original scholarship on women who worked all around the world as directors, producers, screenwriters, editors, and more.

WFPP features short career profiles on single individuals, longer thematic peer-reviewed overview essays, and shorter multimedia posts, all by film scholars, film curators, archivists, and historians. In our published profiles, we cover women who worked in national cinemas across six of the seven continents.

As of November 2019, there are 282 women represented by our published pioneer profiles.

AIM & SCOPE

This project began as a search for “women film pioneers” who challenged the established idea of the great “fathers” of cinema. Since researchers found more women than anyone expected to find, one principle came to organize the project: What we assume never existed is what we invariably find.

Today, the goals of WFPP are to jumpstart historical research on the work of women filmmakers from the early years of cinema through the coming of sound; to facilitate cross-national connections between researchers; and to reconfigure world film knowledge by foregrounding the fact that women worked in many capacities behind the scenes on a global scale.

As a digital reference tool and a portal to other resources and archival holdings, WFPP is dedicated to emphasizing the availability of still and moving image materials, as well as useful archival and bibliographic information, in order to encourage further research. Our Resources section includes bibliographies and primary source materials, links to research tools and related organizations, a list of films available online and/or on DVD, and much more.

BACKGROUND

Started in 1993 when film scholar Jane Gaines was a visiting professor at Vassar College, WFPP was first imagined as a multi-volume book set. However, when Dr. Gaines joined the Film & Media Studies Program at Columbia University, WFPP was selected to be a digital scholarship pilot project by the Columbia University Libraries. WFPP officially launched in October 2013 as an online-only resource.

WFPP comes out of and is indebted to many decades of feminist film scholarship and archival discovery. When feminism began to shape academic film studies in the 1970s, no one dreamed that so many women had worked in the early silent film industries around the world. Given the call at that time for more women “behind the camera” in places like Hollywood, it is not surprising that articles in the first US feminism and film collection, Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary’s edited volume Women and Cinema, focused on directors. 1 Similarly, the first US feminist film journal, Women and Film, brought silent-era film directors to our attention—the French Germaine Dulac, the Franco-American Alice Guy Blaché, as well as the Americans Dorothy Arzner and Lois Weber. 2 In the 1990s, the wider field begin to realize that these four prolific powerhouses were just the tip of the iceberg. Many more women had worked as directors in the silent film industry, and still more worked as producers, screenwriters, and in other roles. In the first wave of historical rectification, encyclopedias appeared, a bi-annual international conference, Women and the Silent Screen (WSS), was founded, and new feminist studies on the silent film industry were published.

Notes:

  1. Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary, eds. Women and Cinema: A Critical Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977).
  2. Gerald Peary and Karyn Kay, “Interview with Dorothy Arzner”; Gerald Peary, Alice Guy Blaché, “Czarina of the Silent Screen”; Richard Kozarski, “The Years Have Not Been Kind to Lois Weber”; and Alice Guy Blaché, “Woman’s Place in Photoplay Production, in Kay and Peary, eds, Women and Cinema. See also, Sharon Smith, “Women Who Make Movies,” Women and Film 1 (1973): 77-90, expanded into Sharon Smith, Women Who Make Movies (New York: Hopkinson and Blake, 1974), for the attempt in a feminist context to begin to enumerate women film directors. Other examples include: Anthony Slide, Early Women Directors (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1977) and Kay Armatage, “Women and Film,” Take One VI, no. 4 (1978): 43.