5 Awesome Things We Learned About Female Pioneers In Film

Silent movie actress Mary Pickford, seen here in "The New York Hat" in 1912.  She played opposite Lionel Barrymore. (AP Photo
Silent movie actress Mary Pickford, seen here in "The New York Hat" in 1912. She played opposite Lionel Barrymore. (AP Photo)

There's a serious gender gap in Hollywood these days -- but it hasn't always been so bad.

The Women Film Pioneers Project out of Columbia University shares the stories and accomplishments of dozens of women who acted, directed, filmed, wrote and otherwise participated in the earliest days of the film industry. According to the Project, "more women worked at all levels inside and outside the Hollywood film industry in the first two decades than at any time since."

Here are five things you need to know about women in early Hollywood:

1. Women had “scored as directors" by 1919. Adapter and screenwriter Clara Beranger said in a 1919 interview with Moving Picture World: "Women are more than holding their own and in many instances proving that the female angle is worth serious consideration and that is in the contriving of situations in building up a continuity."

2. Actress Pearl White performed all her own stunts as early as 1914. In her 1919 autobiography, Just Me, White wrote:

I'm always learning to do something new for each picture. I’ve even learned to fly an aeroplane, a feat that took me many months. If I have to jump off a moving train, automobile, etceteras, I always take myself out and try it several times until I get to be pretty sure of myself before they take the picture.

3. Novelist Zora Neale Hurston may have been the first female African-American filmmaker. According to academic Gloria Gibson, Neale Hurston made a number of ethnographic films during her anthropology studies with mentor Franz Boas in the late 1920s.

4. Many actresses aspired to work behind the camera. In a 1919 interview with Motion Picture Magazine, actress Ruth Stonehouse expressed such an interest after being asked about her plans for the future: “Well, of course I do want to be a star… for a while… but eventually I want to be a directress, a producer; I want to be in the business end of it, that is, at the same time, the artistic end of it.”

5. Early silent film roles for women weren't limited to damsels in distress -- female directors and writers were charged with developing complex characters. Director and actress Fay Tincher was well-known for eschewing sex symbol characters in favor of strong, independent women. In a 1914 article, The Milwaukee Journal wrote of Tincher: “[She] persists and revels in making herself look awkward, no makeup… nor does she care how it makes her look provided it accomplishes her purpose -- to make people laugh and be happy."

Head over to the Women Film Pioneers Project to learn more.



Silent Film Stars