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Women & Film – Struggles in Parallel


John Urling Clark chronicles how the worldwide battle to gain equal suffrage stands side by side with women striving for equality in the male-dominated world of film.


1881         Votes for widows and single women with property in the Isle of Man.

1893         Votes for women in New Zealand.

Alice Guy-Blaché

1896         Alice Guy-Blaché begins filmmaking for the French company Gaumont, a rival to the newsreel companies, which cover the British votes for women campaigns. She directs La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), arguably the first fictional film ever made.



1897         Millicent Garrett Fawcett founds the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), known as the Suffragists, it campaigns for votes for women through parliamentary means.

1905         Votes for women in Australia but not for indigenous people.

1906         Votes for women in Finland, then a Russian Duchy.

1906         Alice Guy-Blaché directs La Vie du Christ, a 30-minute film with 20 sets and hundreds of extras.

1903         Emmeline Pankhurst and daughters Christabel and Sylvia form the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), known as the Suffragettes.

1905         Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney are arrested for barracking Winston Churchill and Sir Edward Grey, the future Foreign Secretary. They refuse to pay fines and go to prison.

1909         A massive WSPU march in Newcastle is filmed by Warwick Trading company. Banners detail the number of male supporters in local branches – in the thousands.

1910         115 Suffragettes are arrested and many assaulted during a protest against PM Asquith withdrawing a parliamentary bill, which would have enfranchised women renting or owning their own residences.

1910-14    WSPU goes on a campaign of small-scale direct-action fire-bombing politicians’ homes, burning churches, disrupting Parliament with loud hailers and chaining themselves to Buckingham Palace. Many Suffragettes go on hunger strike in prison and are force-fed to prevent their martyrdom.

Lois Weber

1911         Lois Weber, already a star of the silent screen, becomes the first US woman director, co-directing A Heroine of ’76 – a woman obstructing her father’s plan to assassinate George Washington.

1912         Newsreel scenes show the WSPU march from the Embankment to the Royal Albert Hall after a record demonstration, some 15,000 strong. Previously imprisoned Suffragettes carry arrows on poles, mimicking the arrows on gaol uniforms.

1912-9     Universal Studios, already a leading US film company, has 11 female directors on its books. Between them they make more than 170 films.

1912         A Pathé newsreel of the Bolton by-election highlights the Suffragette contribution to the Liberal candidate’s victory.

1913         A Topical Budget newsreel covers the moment Emily Wilding Davison steps out in front of George V’s Derby horse. Her fatal injuries arguably make her the first Suffragette martyr. The newsreel describes her action as an attempt to capture the king’s horse. The race continues and the winner is declared regardless.

1913         Newsreel of Emily Wilding Davison’s funeral at St George’s Bloomsbury and her burial at Morpeth, Northumberland.  Hundreds of Suffragettes make up the majority of mourners.

1913         A Pathé newsreel records the cavalcade of WSPU buses heading for Downing Street, directed there by Sylvia Pankhurst after a Trafalgar Square demonstration. It is stopped by the police and Pankhurst, in disguise having outstayed her licence from imprisonment, is arrested.

1913         The Cat and Mouse Act ensures Suffragette hunger-strikers are released when near starvation, only to be re-imprisoned when they recover.

1913-18   Votes for women in Norway, Denmark, Russia and Poland.

1913         “Law Abiding Suffragists” Newsreel shows some twenty Suffragist (NUWSS) marches from all over Britain assembling in Hyde Park, London. Dozens of men are among the marchers.

1914         WSPU suspends militant action.

1914         Lois Weber co-directs The Merchant of Venice and directs 20 other films.

1915         “Women’s March through London” Newsreel shows Suffragettes’ support of women’s mobilisation into the munitions industry.

1916         Lois Weber is the US film studio Universal’s top director and the highest paid in the world.

Mary Pickford

1916        Mary Pickford, probably the greatest female of the silent screen, second only to Charlie Chaplain, becomes her own producer. She gains control of every aspect of her films’ production and ensures they are distributed separately from Universal’s regular “production line” treatment.

1917-9      The US silent film icon Clara Kimball Young is credited as producer on Shirley Kaye (1917), The Savage Woman (1918), The Better Wife (1919) and many other of her films.

1917         Lois Weber forms her own production company, which makes over a hundred films before going bankrupt with the arrival of sound.

1917         ‘Will There Be Women MPs?” Newsreel is used by Emmeline Pankhurst to re-launch the WSPU as the Women’s Party, which supports the Allied war effort.

Norma Talmadge

1917         Already an enormous silent screen star, Norma Talmadge forms the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation with her husband Joseph M. Schenck. She produces a series of hit films in which she stars, including Panthea famously screened in 1958, the year of her death, at the Venice Biennale.

1918         The Representation of the Peoples Act 1918 introduces votes for British women aged 30 or more who own or rent property with a yearly value of at least £5, or who are married to a man qualified for the local government franchise. Men can vote at 21 and 19 if they are in the Armed Forces.

1918         The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act gives women over 21 the right to stand for election as a Member of Parliament. But under 30 they still cannot vote.

1918         Constance de Markievicz becomes the first woman to be elected a British MP. But, a Sinn Féin member, she never takes her seat.

1919         Nancy Astor is the first woman to take her seat as a British MP.

1919         Mary Pickford founds United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, D. W. Griffith and her future husband Douglas Fairbanks. This is the first true film distribution company. It allows producers to work independently from the studios, which hitherto have owned both the production facilities in which films were made and dictated where they were screened. Pickford becomes the most powerful woman in Hollywood’s history. She remains a force in UA long after her acting career fades in the 1930s.

1920         Votes for US women but African American women still face substantial obstacles to voting, particularly in the southern states.

1922         Dorothy Arzner edits the Rudolf Valentino hit silent film Blood and Sand. She has been working her way up the film industry since joining Famous Players-Lasky Corporation (later Paramount) as stenographer in 1919.

Adventures of Prince Achmed

1926         Lotte Reiniger, the German pioneer of silhouette animation, directs The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest surviving feature-length animated film – over ten years before Walt Disney’s feature-length Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She makes over forty films using the technique she has invented.

1927         The first British general election in which women over 30 can vote.

1927         Lois Weber’s advice to young women considering a career as a film director was “Don’t try it, you’ll never get away with it.”

1927         Dorothy Arzner extracts a directorial contract from Paramount. Her debut as director is the financially successful Fashions for Women.

1928         The Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 finally allows all British women over the age of 21 to vote. This means that there are approximately two million more women voters than men.

1929         Margaret Bondfield becomes first British cabinet minister.

Dorothy Arzner

1929         Dorothy Arzner directs The Wild Party, Clara Bow’s first talkie. Arzner pioneers the use of a boom in sound recording.

1929           Mary Pickford wins the second Academy Award (Oscar) for best actress in her own production Coquette, her first talkie.

1932-43    Dorothy Arzner continues her career as an independent director, virtually the only woman working as a director in Hollywood during this period. She became the first woman member of the Directors’ Guild of America in 1936. She launches the careers of stars Katherine Hepburn, Rosalind Russell and Lucille Ball among others. Dance, Girl, Dance, starring Lucille Ball in 1940, is an overtly feminist masterpiece.

Leni Riefentstahl

1934         Leni Riefentstahl directs, produces and edits Triumph of the Will. Notwithstanding its gruesome subject matter –  the 1934 Nazi Congress in Nuremberg, attended by Hitler and the Nazi leadership and more than 700,000 supporters –  her camera angles and movements, her use of aerial photography, long lenses and music make it probably the greatest propaganda film ever produced. Riefenstahl wins several awards, not only in Germany but also in the United States, France, Sweden and elsewhere.

1938         Leni Riefentstahl directs, writes, and produces Olympia, her two-part documentary of the 1938 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Despite its political associations Time Magazine includes it in its top hundred films. At the time of its release the British Press hails it as “ravishing” and “even more technically dazzling than Triumph of the Will.” US film critic Richard Corliss has observed in Olympia Riefenstahl gives Jesse Owens, the black multiple gold medal winner, the same heroic treatment as she has given Hitler in Triumph of the Will.

1943           Dorothy Arzner is replaced as director by King Vidor on the war film Here Comes Courage, when she contracts pleurisy. This begins a long dearth of women film directors.

1944         French women finally get the vote.

1946         Italian women have the vote.

1946         Betty E Box produces The Years Between based on the Daphne du Maurier novel. She subsequently produced over forty mainstream, almost all popular, British feature films including the famous doctor films starring Dirk Bogarde.

Ida Lupino

1949         Ida Lupino, the British-born singer and unhappy Hollywood star of They Drive by Night and many other features, gets her break into directing on Not Wanted, when director Elmer Clifton suffers a heart attack and she takes over. The film, costing a mere $150,000, grosses more than a million dollars. The same year Lupino directs Never Fear about a polio victim, which she finances herself.

1950-53    Ida Lupino directs three features for Howard Hawkes’s RKO Corporation. Outrage is noted for its unbearably tense five-minute sequence showing the heroine being stalked by a rapist. The Hitch-Hiker is the first film noir to be directed by a woman.

Agnès Varda

1952         The French artist and writer Agnès Varda directs her first film La Pointe Courte, seen by many as heralding the New Wave. Famous French critic André Bazin calls it “a miraculous film. In its existence and in its style”. It proves a financial disaster but Varda goes on to direct several seminal French feminist features including Cléo from 5 to 7 in 1962 and Le Bonheur in 1965, perhaps cinema’s most graphic portrayal of male vanity.

For the 1985 documentary-style feature film Vagabond/Without Roof or Rule she received Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe

1953         Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is the year’s ninth most successful film at the box office but is now probably its best remembered, not least because of Marilyn Monroe’s Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend. The dumb Blonde and Sex Goddess lead characters, played by MM and Jane Russell, make the film seem superficially anti-feminist but careful analysis shows that in many ways it is the reverse. Monroe and Russell do look very glamorous and gorgeous, but everything is from their point of view. There is no male gaze at all in this movie. Men are the ones objectified.

Shirley Clarke

1961         Shirley Clarke produces and directs The Connection. From the play by Jack Gelber, it portrays the life of heroin-addicted New York jazz musicians. US censorship rules restrict its exhibition but it is a critical success and emerges as a landmark in the New York independent feature film movement. In 1963 Clarke wins the Academy Award for Documentary Feature with Robert Frost: A Lover’s Quarrel with the World. In 1967 Clarke directs Portrait of Jason, an unyielding portrait of a gay black hustler.

Lawrence of Arabia

1962         Anne V Coates wins the Academy Award for Best Film Editing on David Lean’s epic masterpiece Laurence of Arabia. She is subsequently nominated for Becket (1963), The Elephant Man (1980), In The Line of Fire (1993) and Out of Sight (1998). She is awarded a Bafta fellowship in 2007.

1965         Harriet Slater is made First Parliamentary Whip.

1971         Swiss women are eventually entrusted with the vote.

Liliana Cavanni

1974         Liliana Cavanni directs the Night Porter, starring Dirk Bogarde and Charlotte Rampling. It portrays the sadomasochistic relationship of a concentration camp survivor and her ex-guard.

1975         Margaret Thatcher is elected first woman leader of the Opposition.

1979         Margaret Thatcher is elected first woman Prime Minister.

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis as Louise and Thelma

1991         Mimi Polk Gitlin produces and Callie Khouri writes Thelma and Louise. Ridley Scott is the director of the first female road movie and is also credited as producer but it is Gitlin who originally takes up Khouri’s original project and safeguards the counter-cliché ending.

1992         Sally Potter directs Orlando.  Loosely based on Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography, it stars Tilda Swinton as the androgynous Orlando and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth 1.

Jane Campion

1993         New Zealander Jane Campion directs The Piano. Campion becomes the first woman director to win the Cannes’ Palme d’Or with her erotically charged drama featuring a mute woman pianist. Campion also wins Academy Award for Best screenplay written directly for the screen and gains a nomination for Best Director. Australian producer Jan Chapman wins Best Picture, Holly Hunter Best Leading Actress, Anna Paquin Best Supporting Actress, Veronika Jennet Best Film Editing and Janet Patterson Best Costume Design. Campion subsequently moves into television.

1999         Scottish director Lynne Ramsay makes her debut film Ratcatcher.


2002         Julie Taymor directs Frida, featuring the life of the Mexican Artist, Frida Kahlo. The star Salma Hayek, who brought the project to Harvey Weinstein, is one of the film’s three female credited producers. She has to sue him for breach of contract to keep her the role as the lead. Taymor’s partner places himself between her and Weinstein to protect her after a test screening.

2002         Lynne Ramsay directs her second film the awarding winning Morvern Callar.

Kathryn Bigelow

2008         Kathryn Bigelow is the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director. Her film The Hurt Locker is Nominated for nine and wins six Academy Awards in all, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Using the screenwriter Mark Boal’s experience as an embedded journalist, the film highlights the varying psychological reactions to combat.

2008         Phyllida Lloyd (title pic) directs Mamma Mia, the film version of the ABBA hit musical starring Meryl Streep.

Phyllida Lloyd and Meryl Streep – The Iron Lady

2011         Phyllida Lloyd directs The Iron Lady, the film biography of the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Its screenwriter Welsh dramatist Abi Morgan is nominated for a BAFTA award for best original screenplay. Lloyd and Meryl Streep combine to create one of the finest performances of the star’s career for which Streep wins a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress.

Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck with their Oscars for Frozen

2013         Jennifer Michelle Lee writes and directs with Chris Buck Frozen, inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale. Lee is the first woman director of a Walt Disney Animation Studios feature film and of a billion-dollar grossing movie.

2014         Leila Sansour directs Open Bethlehem. The feature documentary is a vivid portrayal of the of Christ’s birthplace and her own hometown, cut off by the Israeli government’s anti-terrorist huge, ugly concrete wall.

2014         Ava DuVernay directs Selma. She is the first black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Director. The film is also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

2015         Sarah Gavron directs Suffragette, with a screenplay by Abi Morgan. The film focuses on the courage of one woman who joins the often-violent struggle to win votes for women.

The Party

2017         British director Sally Potter writes and directs the riotous black comedy The Party.

2017         Agnès Varda becomes the first female director to receive an Academy Honorary (lifetime achievement) Award.

2017         Anne V Coates wins an Academy Honorary (lifetime achievement) Award.

Lynne Ramsay with Joaquin Phoenix

2017         Lynne Ramsay’s hitman thriller You Were Never Really Here wins Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix) and Best Screenplay (Lynne Ramsay) and is nominated for Cannes’ Palme d’Or, Grand Prix, Cannes Jury Prize and Best Director Award.

Frances McDormand

2018         Frances McDormand wins Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, it was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay, and also wins Best Supporting Actor. At the British Film and Television Academy awards it wins Best Film and Outstanding British Film. McDormand’s performance highlights the unglamourized maturity and iron will of the main character. She concludes her Academy speech with a call for actors to insist on an “inclusion rider” in their contracts requiring the proportional employment of women, people of colour, LGBT people and people with disabilities in the film industry.

2018         Rachel Morrison becomes the first woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography for Mudbound. Dee Rees is the first African-American woman to be nominated for Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.


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