Women and the Silent Screen VIII

Women and the Silent Screen VIII: Pittsburgh 17-19 September 2015

by Christine Gledhill

It was good to return to Women and the Silent Screen, this year hosted at the University of Pittsburgh, 17-19 September, by a welcoming and highly efficient team led by Mark Lynn Anderson, to whom warm thanks were given.

paper titlesWSS VIII took the theme, Women, Labour and Working-Class Culture. However, panels explored these connections in different ways, complicating the relationships between class cultures, cinema, gender, and to a lesser degree, race.

Given three parallel panels, it was impossible to sample them all, so here I draw from those that stood out for me, while filling in the wider offerings from paper titles. Given the focus on ‘labour,’ presentations called for recognition of the many neglected roles that cinema offered to women as new occupations, from that of secretarial assistant, ‘extra’ girl or ‘support’ actress, musician, costume designer, scriptwriter, distributor, exhibitor, film critic, campaigner, film memorabilia collector and, last but not least, as fan engaging in loving craftwork around idealised stars.

At the same time, as some of the evening screenings showed, cinema offered a space in which women’s increasing participation in a variety of new roles was both represented and dramatised.

The telephone girl in question sticks to her post throughout a sweatshop fire (recalling the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire a year earlier that killed 146 garment workers, unable to escape their locked workshop). In the film-fiction her bravery saves the day.

telephone girl

Appropriate to this conference’s theme, a special plenary panel was devoted to the work of American Lois Weber, film director through the teens and into the 1920s. Her salary and status at the time matched that of DW Griffith–reputed ‘father of cinema’–but is only now returning to the history books, in large part through the researches and advocacy of Shelley Stamp, whose much anticipated study appeared this year. Weber’s films were as Weberformally innovative as Griffith’s but more challenging in the socially controversial themes that she interweaved into her fictions, including poverty, abortion, prostitution.

As Jane Gaines showed, studios’ salary ledgers reveal the economic inequalities between the visibility of the woman director and her un-fêted secretarial assistants. However, a theme of many papers suggested that a conception of ‘creative labour’ is required to appreciate the diversity of roles undertaken by women, which are neither perceived in the resulting films nor preserved in archives or recorded in film histories. In this context one panel examined different ways in which women’s writing–whether as scriptwriters, critics and novelists–might have ‘revised’ the cinema. For example, Liz Clarke showed how women scenarists’ guide books sought to overturn scriptwriting’s relegation as hack work by claiming both its technical skill and artistic creativity; and Donna R Castella examined Mary Manning‘s critical campaigns for an independent Irish cinema in opposition to Hollywood’s quaint stereotypes, while Jennifer Bean explored how writing and performing women responded to cinema as a space for gender adventure in fiction and fact.

As several panelists argued, women’s ‘creative labour’ is ‘hidden’ because so often ‘collaborative’, working against the hierarchical divisions which came increasingly to characterise commercial cinema, identifying the finished product with the, generally male, auteur. Collaboration involved not only crossing between different filmmaking roles but the boundary separating professional and amateur, as in the case of Mary Manning who, in the 1930s, combined critical polemic with setting up independent film productions, mixing amateurs and professionals.

As keynote speaker, Kathy Peiss argued that the cinema arrived at the point when, from different social positions, both working and middle-class girls were rejecting domestic work as a form of servitude. In this respect cinema offered both groups paid jobs, inviting women into a new labour market and the same consumerist space, with the potential for cross-class encounter and re-imagining social relationships. A panel on social reform explored the way upper-class Ruth Bryan Owen challenged her family by insisting on ‘work’ in semi-professional filmmaking; and papers by Connie Balides on Lois Weber’s much celebrated Shoes (1916) and Jennifer Horne on the ‘Better Films’ movement suggested how middle-class women used understandings circulated by the new discipline shoesof sociology to shift from their nineteenth-century role of moral guardianship–disapproving cinema’s impact on working girls–to articulate a broader sympathy for the social circumstances of the working class. Thus Weber’s articulation of what Connie Balides termed Shoes‘s ‘poverty shot’ calls not for the sentimental pity of Victorian piety, but a new kind of socially informed sympathy, demanding a kind of ‘secular’ or ‘civic’ spectator, no longer framed in religiously based, philanthropic terms.

Against the French cineaste’s contempt for working-class female cinemagoers and the construction of French cinema as invested in 1920s avant-garde cinephilia, Annie Fee mapped the spread of cinemas throughout the working-class districts of Paris, which, along with screenings, hosted meetings by trade union and Communist party groups, as well as local housewives protesting high food prices. From one meeting, once told the true worth of vegetables, these women issued forth to harangue stall owners in the market outside, beating down their sales markup to a fair price.

Finally, but not least, a panel explored the now over-a-year-old Women Film Pioneers Project Database, a separate report on which has already appeared as a WFTHN blog. The panel concluded with Laura Horak’s welcome talk about teaching with WFPP alongside the online resource, Wikipedia, it seeks to differentiate from, offering students their own experience of compiling entries and analysing the possibilities as well as the pitfalls of such facilities.

This blog ends with the much anticipated news released at this panel: the hosting of Women and Silent Screen IX by the Shanghai Theatre Academy in late June/July 2017: a true sign of the generative impact of the biennial conference’s project to map women film pioneers across the world. Start saving for the trip now!

Christine Gledhill is a Visiting Professor of Cinema Studies, University of Sunderland and the founder, with Julia Knight, of WFHN, now WFTHN. Her recent publications include editing Gender Meets Genre in Postwar Cinemas (2012) and, with Julia Knight, Doing Women’s Film History: Reframing Cinemas, Past and Future (2015), both published by University of Illinois Press.