The Women Film Pioneers Project


The Women Film Pioneers Project (WFPP) is a freely accessible, collaborative digital resource that showcases the hundreds of women who worked behind the scenes in the silent film industry as directors, producers, editors, and more. Always expanding, WFPP features career profiles on each pioneer, longer overview essays on national cinemas and occupations, still and moving images, and archival and bibliographic resource materials. The goals of WFPP are to jumpstart historical research on the work of women filmmakers from the early years of cinema, ending with the coming of sound; to facilitate a cross-national  connection between researchers; to reconfigure world film knowledge by foregrounding an undocumented phenomenon: these women worked in many capacities.

Started in 1993 when Professor Jane Gaines was a visiting professor at Vassar College, WFPP was first imagined as a multi-volume book set. The project was caught in the transition from print culture to online publishing. Selected as a pilot project for the new Columbia University Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, it launched in September 2013 as an online resource instead. Over the years, students from the Radcliffe Institute, Stockholm University, Duke University,  Columbia University, and Barnard College have worked on the project.


WFPP focuses on the silent era, ending with the coming of sound. However, on a case by case basis, we might make an exception and include a pioneer from the early sound era.


While Phase I (launched online September 2013) places together the Americas, the U.S. in the North and Latin America in the South, the next phases (started in the summer of 2014) opens up the study of women in other national silent era cinemas: Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, Czech Republic and Slovakia, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tunisia, Turkey, The United Kingdom, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and former Yugoslavia.


As of July 2019, there are 280 women represented by our published pioneer profiles. These profiles are written by film scholars, curators, archivists, and historians.

Alice Guy Blaché (d/w/a/p)

Alice Guy Blaché (d/w/p/o). BEL


More women worked at all levels inside and outside the Hollywood film industry in the first two decades than at any time since. The high incidence of women workers, however, was not limited to the U.S. It was a global phenomenon. In Latin America, for example, women were instrumental in the struggle to start national film industries in six countries: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.

Lois Weber (p/d/w/a), PC

Lois Weber (p/d/w/a). PC

When feminism began to shape academic film studies in the 1970s no one dreamed that so many women had worked in the fledgling U.S. silent film industry. Then, great hopes were pinned on the ideal of women as Hollywood narrative feature film directors while still acknowledging that women had also made and continued to make experimental and documentary work. The emphasis on women as mainstream directors was a legacy of the 1970s Womens Movement film festivals in New York and Chicago. 1 At these events,  16 mm and 35 mm extant film prints representing the work of women makers from past decades were screened to enthusiastic audiences. Given the call at that time for more women “behind the camera,” it is not surprising that articles in the first U.S. feminism and film collection, Karen Kay and Gerald Peary’s edited collection, Women and Cinema,  focused on directors. 2 Similarly,  the first U.S. 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. 3 In the 1990s,  the wider field begin to realize that these four prolific powerhouses were just the tip of the iceberg. Not just these few but many more women had worked as directors in the silent film industry. Still more worked as producers and many labored at a wider range of jobs as well, some, but not all “behind the camera.” In the first wave of historical rectification, encyclopedias appeared, a bi-annual international conference, Women and the Silent Screen, was founded, and new feminist studies on the silent film industry were published. 4

Germaine Dulac (d).

Germaine Dulac (d).

This project began as a search for silent cinema “women film pioneers” who challenged the idea of established great male “pioneers 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. Thus the topics of five composite essays foreground the unexpected:  “Cutting Women,” “Women as Camera Operators or ‘Cranks,'” “French Film Colorists,” “Exhibiting Women,” and “African American Women in the Silent Industry.”


 Marion E. Wong (d/w/p/a/o).

The same can be said for extant 35mm motion pictures, the prints held in the archives of national members of the Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film. While it is well known that only a fraction of the motion pictures produced in the silent era survive, extant titles that we assumed were not in existence continue to surface. 5  Thus, one goal of this reference tool is to represent the availability of still and motion photographic image materials side by side with more traditional print materials, some of which are reproduced here as Documents. The goal is to foreground the differences between and approaches to a variety of documents as well as to take account of the visual components of the sources we use. We foreground  this is by providing full credits for extant titles but listing only by date titles we found were not extant, a way of challenging the assumption that no visual material exists.

Dorothy Arzner (d/w/e). UCLA

 Dorothy Arzner (d/w/e). UCLA

For years, all of the references to Asian American immigrant Marion E. Wong who started the Mandarin Film Company in Oakland, California, could be traced back to one short Moving Picture World notice. Then, a nearly complete print of her only feature film The Curse of the Quon Gwon (1917) was found to be held by her family, members of whom had made a 16mm print of the surviving two of seven reels.  Now restored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Madame Wong’s motion picture was in 2006 placed on the U.S. National Film Preservation Registry list. We now know that Mexican actress-producer Mimí Derba started Azteca Films in 1917 and that the company produced five feature films. If even a fragment of Azteca’s En defensa propia is found to survive its visual clues have the potential to transform the way in which we imagine and describe a Mexican silent cinema aesthetic. Fresh visual sources cue thought and transport lost imagery into a newly configured silent time.

How to Use This Resource


Social history overviews place key figures within current film industry scholarship, situating individual Career Profiles linked from names, for example: Dorothy Davenport Reid:

“How Women Worked in the U.S. Silent Film Industry”

Or Adela Sequeyro:

“Writing the History of Latin American Women Working in the Silent Film Industry”

Other Introductory Essays:

Career Profiles: Organized by Name

Individual profiles are inspired by Annette Föster’s model of the “professional itinerary” that she studies as a “careerography.” 6 Primary documents are increasingly available in print archives, allowing investigation beyond issues of Moving Picture World on microfilm, and critical articles more accessible digitally than ever before, thus the goal is a less encyclopedic approach to perplexing historiographic questions. Internet databases have revolutionized the way in which we access basic information and the entries following are structured in such a way as to facilitate use of internet sources and to stimulate further research using more obscure sources and collection material in both motion picture and print archives.

In captions pioneers are identified by their primary occupations: a, w, d, p, e, & o.
a= actress/ w= screenwriter/ d = director/ p = producer/ e= editor
o = other (i.e. assistant director/cinematographer/camerawoman/continuity/production designer/art director/production manager/exhibitor/studio manager/publicist/critic/scholar).

Bibliography: References at end of each Career Profile are modified “Works Cited” with often-cited works listed in Bibliographies:  Reference Works + Books & Articles

Archival Paper Collections: Archives used or where more materials can be found are listed by abbreviation at end of Career Profile. 

A. Archival Filmography: Extant Film Titles

Archival Filmography: Extant Film Print Sources: Full credits based on FIAF and AFI

Holdings used here as emphasis on existing prints. That said, many Archives listed in FIAF only have a reel or two of a title. So, if a print is listed in this source as being extant, it means some element of the film is in existence, but not necessarily the entire film.

B. Filmography: Not Extant Titles

Title and date only listed with breakdown by role.

Credit Report: Issues arising from contradictory records and retrospective corrections to credits.

Bibliographies: Reference Works + Books & Articles

Archives:  Paper Archives + Film Archives

C. DVD/VHS Sources

D. Streamed Media



Center for Digital Research and Scholarship Team: Rebecca Kennison (Director), Mark Newton (Production Manager), Jackson Harvell (Web Developer), and Leyla Williams (Communications Coordinator). At Butler Library: Nancy Friedland (Librarian for Butler Media, Film Studies, and Performing Arts) and Melanie Wacker (Metadata Coordinator).

The Radcliffe Institute, 2003 – 2004: Casiana Ionita, Jia Jia Liu

Duke University, 2001 – 2008: Jennifer Parchesky, Niku Arbabi, Sara Brodeur, Katy Fenn, Monu Lahiri, Anne Knox Morton, Michelle Koerner, Caroline Walsh, Ryan Vu, China Medel, Cameron Howard

Stockholm University, 2005 – 2006 : Sofia Bull

Columbia University, 2007 – present: Baruch Thaler,  Julie Buck, Yuan Chen, Ti-Kai Chang, Song Jegal, Bruno Guaraná, José Miguel Palacios, Matthew Hipps, Mengqian Xie, Alessandra Luciano, Linnéa Hussein,  Alexeis Reyes, Maria Cristina Alemán, Tarini Sridharan, Vika Paranyuk,  Neta Alexander, Rachel Schaff, Christana Jobe, Alexis Nelson, Diantha Vliet, Sonia Lupher, Sarah Dunn, Garineh Nazarian, Nadia Ismail, Kristin Nissen, Greta Nordio, Vera Salm, Jemma Hinkly, Chi Li, Anna Takayama, Jianqing Chen, Jessica Charle, Emily Damron, Carolyn Condon, Aurore Spiers, Nazish Tazeem, Augusta Forbes Faris Dayton, Emma Myers, Le Yin, Maya Rosmarin, Hannah Greenberg, Emily Bahr-De Stefano, Megan Heatherly, Mackenzie Roberts, Yishui Chen, Alia Haddad, Brinni Gentry, Alejandra Rosenberg, Xinyi Zhao, Tania Ahmadi, Juliana Clark, Denise Mok, Alex James, Insook Park, Sonia Brand-Fisher, Yolanda Zhang.

Project Managers: Maria Fosheim Lund, Diana Wade, Katy Gray, Kate Saccone.

Special Thanks to: The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, Academy Film Scholars Program. At Duke University: Hank Okazaki, Lisa Poteet, Sandy Swanson At the U.S. Library of Congress: Kim Tomodjoglou and Madeline Matz. At Columbia University: The University Seminars at Columbia University, The School of the Arts faculty, staff, and administration,  Sara Mason, Trish Loeffler, Nona Russell, Alex Wyles, Manuchar Mamukishvili.

Institutional Scholars: Christine Gledhill (University of Sunderland and New York University), Joanne Bernardi (University of Rochester), Hilary Hallett (Columbia University), Kathryn Hearst (Sarah Lawrence College), Paulina Sofia Suarez-Hesketh (New York University), Mónica Villarroel (Cineteca Nacional de Chile), Sabine Lenk (Cinémathèque de la Ville de Luxembourg), Richard Koszarski (Rutgers University).

Contributing Collectors: Randy Bigham, Jessica Rosner, Joe Yranski

Overview Essays Editors: Sofia Bull (University of Southampton) and Maggie Hennefeld (University of Minnesota).

The Women Film Pioneers Project expresses appreciation to the Schoff Fund at the University Seminars at Columbia University for their help in publication.  Material in this work was presented to the University Seminars: Sites of Cinema.

Mimí Derba. actress-writer-producer, Azteca Films, Mexico City, PC

 Mimí Derba (a/w/p/d/o), Azteca Films, Mexico City. PC



  1. See B. Ruby Rich, Chick Flicks (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000) for an account of the first U.S. women’s film festivals.
  2. Karen Kay and Gerald Peary, eds. Women and Cinema: A Critical Anthology (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1977).
  3. 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,” rpt. from Moving Picture World (11 July, 1914),  in  Kay and Peary, eds. See Sharon Smith, “Women Who Make Movies” Women and Film 1 (1973): 77-90, expanded in 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. In the U.S., Anthony Slide, Early Women Directors (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1977), as well as In Canada, Kay Armatage, “Women and Film,” Take One VI, no. 4 (1978): 43.
  4. Ally Acker, Reel Women: Pioneers of Cinema 1896 to the Present. New York: Continuum, 1991); Gwendolyn Foster, Women Film Directors: An International Bio-Critical Dictionary (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1995); Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey, Unterburger, Amy L., and Katrien Jacobs. Women Filmmakers & Their Films. Edition 1. Detroit: St. James Press, 1998; Louise Heck-Rabbi, Women Filmmakers: A Critical Reception (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1984); Annette Kuhn with Susannah Radstone, ed. Women in Film: An International Guide (New York: Fawcett, 1990); Barbara Koenig Quart, Women Directors: The Emergence of a New Cinema (New York: Praeger, 1989). The most important Anthony Slide, The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1996). Encyclopedias. Women and Silent Screen collections
  5. The most thorough explanation of the U.S. case is David Pierce, “The Legion of the Condemned—Why American Films Perished,” Film History 9 (1977), repr. in Roger Smither, ed. This Film is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film (London: Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film, 2002), 144 – 162.
  6. Annette Förster, Histories of Fame and Failure: Adriënne Solser, Musidora, Nell Shipman: Women Acting and Directing in the Silent Cinema in The Netherlands, France and North America,  Utrecht University (Amsterdam), 2005.