From Maude having an abortion pre-Roe v. Wade to Wonder Woman revealing a secret matriarchal world, women on film have been way ahead of the curve fighting for change for more than a century. With Ladies First, we’re tracing the often-forgotten legacy that these leading ladies left on history.
The world we actually live in often falls behind the world that Hollywood projects onto our screens. The appetite for cultural change — whether via conversations about race, gender, politics, or...orgasms — may thrive in entertainment, but it, in fact, stalls in real life when faced with barriers like bias, warring legislators, and Matt Damon trying to talk about #MeToo. It is on-screen where women for more than a century have tended to live more freely, as they desire, and the real world is left to keep pace. Something Good — Negro Kiss, released in 1898, was the first film to portray a black couple kissing, while Loving v. Virginia, which struck down statutes banning interracial marriage, was decided by the Supreme Court in 1967. And while But I’m a Cheerleader satirised conversion therapy in 1999, the first state didn't actually ban it until 2013. The truth is that most significant moments of social progress have come after Hollywood shined a light on the issue itself.
Prior to the passing of the Motion Picture Production Code (commonly referred to as the Hays Code) in 1930, women enjoyed an era of liberation both on- and off-screen that would surprise people unfamiliar with old Hollywood. Right there on the silver screen, they got abortions, had orgasms, dealt with birth control, went on adventures, and, in 1924’s The Last Man on Earth, ran the entire world. All men had to disappear for them to do so — we’re not talking the glorious female utopia of Wonder Woman’s Themyscira here — but did you ever imagine such a concept was greenlit and shown in picture houses in the early 20th century? The downright impudence!
It came down to the power of the purse versus the power of patriarchy. “Female audiences in the early years of cinema were really prized,” says Shelley Stamp, film historian and author of Movie-Struck Girls and Lois Weber in Early Hollywood. “By the end of the '20s, one estimate is that over 80% of movie audiences were female. And that statistic continues through the '30s and the '40s.” Films of the time showed women leaping out of trains and leading the charge into full-blown revolutions. Because that is what those majority-female audiences wanted to see, and what they would pay for.
This coincided with what was happening in the United States as a whole. In 1914, suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt wrote an article in The New York Times with the opening query: “What is feminism?” Women were leading campaigns for societal change, like suffrage, legalising contraception, and temperance (not all ideas are winners…). Were women in the Senate or the White House? No, but they were rallying for causes that would one day get them there. The tides, as a result, shifted, and the carte blanche women savoured in Hollywood, as well as the prosperity of the early 1910s, came to a screeching halt as conservatism gripped the country.
It’s as true today as it was a century ago. Even as Hollywood pushes the conversation forward, it is also subject to the same forces preventing change outside of the cinema. “There's this cycle of, ‘Okay, here we are!’ Change, change, change, and then the bottom falls out,” Stamp says. She’s talking about show business — on-screen, behind the camera, in boardrooms where decisions are made — but may as well be talking about society as a whole.
With Ladies First, Refinery29 is recalling these history-defining Hollywood moments when women, despite the opposition, refused to be silent. The moments when representation took a step forward, better late than never, and society followed suit. Like when 30 Rock introduced the term EGOT, and we all realised Whoopi Goldberg was already the first black woman to have one. Times when women (usually white women...intersectionality is a major work in progress) were given the power to make decisions — creative, financial, and more — and those decisions set off a snowball of change. “Women were doing things despite tremendous pressure from all sides and also very poor working conditions and insidious sexism,” says Erin Hill, assistant professor of media and popular culture at USCD, and author of Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production. They were making progress when the world was trying to thwart them at every turn.
Has there ever been a more apt description of the female experience?
It’s the efforts of these women that often led to, mirrored, or created a positive feedback loop with what was happening in society as a whole. That’s not to say Hollywood has completely toppled the patriarchy (sorry, Jill Soloway), nor has the almighty dollar been dethroned as the reason behind pretty much every decision an entertainment company makes. But you may be surprised to learn how early on women in Hollywood were setting the pace for the industry and for the country. Mary Pickford was one of the highest paid showbiz executives in the 1920s. Pauline Kael changed film criticism with her 1967 review of Bonnie & Clyde. Yvette Lee Bowser became the first black woman to create a primetime series when she developed Living Single at the age of 27 in 1993. That one is embarrassingly late, so let’s focus on the fact that Bowser was 27.
Here, you’ll find the moments when women stood up and shocked the system throughout Hollywood and U.S. history, and rejoice in the lesser-known women at the vanguard of representation, storytelling, parity, and feminism. They are the First Ladies of their kind, and now you know who to thank for turning these on-screen dreams into reality.
Special thanks to Julie Alvin, Morgan Baila, Christene Barberich, Anne Cohen, Kathryn Lindsay, Elena Nicolaou, Ariana Romero & Courtney Smith