19 Women In Film Who Changed the Industry

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When Congress passed the 19th Amendment on August 18, 1920, guaranteeing American women the right to vote, women in film were barely visible except on screen. Ever since the first national convention in 1848, pioneers like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Coffin Mott, and Susan B. Anthony led the charge for equal rights. Support of the movement, however, came with a price, often eviction or imprisonment. While the passage of the Amendment was long overdue, it didn’t guarantee equal opportunities or equal pay. Over the next nearly 100 years, battles for both in the film industry played out behind the scenes and on silver screens across the country.

Many of us are aware of the various challenges facing the women in front of the camera. But a 2016 study confirmed that women behind the camera face roadblocks in action, animation, and comedy, and that, unfortunately, “sexy love interest” continues to be the status quo.

Women In 800 Films Infographic

For decades women have pushed boundaries and changed the face of film, even when the numbers don’t always reflect those changes. So, in honor of the 19th Amendment, here are 19 women who changed the film industry.



Director & Pioneer

Alice Guy-Blaché

Someone always has to be first, and any discussion of women in film has to begin with French-born Alice Guy. From 1896 to 1906, she was probably the only woman film director in the world, directing more than 1,000 films, ranging from one minute to thirty minutes. At her studio in New Jersey, she experimented with sound syncing, color tinting, interracial casting, and special effects. A true film pioneer.




Lois Weber

With the 1914 silent version of The Merchant of Venice, Lois Weber became the first American female director of a feature-length film. Then, in 1917, she became the first woman to own her own film studio. With husband Phillips Smalley, she directed around 350 films. Sadly, less than 50 of these films have survived.



Writer, Editor & Director

Dorothy Arzner

Beginning in 1919, Dorothy Arzner moved up from stenographer to scriptwriter and film editor at what later became Paramount Pictures. With high-profile projects like Rudolph Valentino’s Blood and Sand (1922) and Old Ironsides (1926) on her resume, she gained tremendous clout in the industry. After threatening to move to rival Columbia Studios, she earned a directorial position in her debut film, Fashions for Women (1927), which became a financial success. In the 1930s, Arzner earned the dubious distinction of being the only female director in the US.



Actress, Writer, Director, Producer & Executive

Mary Pickford

As an actress, Mary Pickford was more than just “America’s Sweetheart.” She was “Queen of the Movies.” In 1916, at $10,000 a week, she became the highest paid actress in Hollywood. Three years later, she co-founded United Artists with Charlie Chaplin, director D.W. Griffith, and husband Douglas Fairbanks. Two years before winning an Oscar for her performance in Coquette (1929), she was one of the original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.




Mary Pickford & Frances Marion

In an era when men seemed to get all the plumb writing gigs, Frances Marion literally wrote the textbook on How to Write and Sell Film Stories. In a career that spanned from 1915 to 1946, she wrote stories and screenplays for over 300 films. Marion became the first woman to win Oscars for screenwriting for The Big House (1930) and The Champ (1932).




Hattie McDaniel

Hattie McDaniel iconic portrayal of Mammy in Gone With the Wind broke racial barriers when she became the first African-American actress to win an Academy Award. But it didn’t signal a change in Hollywood’s attitude toward black actors nor the roles they were expected to play. However, McDaniel’s strong, no-nonsense performance helped pave the way for the many talented actresses of color we know and love today.




Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland, still alive and kicking at age 101, was a true pioneer for actors in Hollywood. Rare was the opportunity for juicier roles like she had in Gone With the Wind and Hold Back the Dawn. So when her home studio, Warner Bros., offered roles unworthy of her considerable talents, De Havilland accepted suspensions without pay. At the end of her contract in 1943, she found out the suspensions had been tacked on and she owed WB the full seven years of her contract, period. The 27-year-old actress fought back and, in 1944, a California appellate court ruled the “tack on” provision of the suspension clause was invalid. The decision, informally known as the De Havilland Law, freed her and the rest of the studios’ contract actors from Hollywood’s version of indentured servitude.




Ann Ronell

In 1945, Ann Ronnell became the first woman to earn an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score for The Story of G.I. Joe, as well as another for Best Song (“Linda”). It would take another 51 years before another woman was nominated for a Score award when Rachel Portman won for Emma (1996). Today, women still struggle for visibility and recognition in this male-dominated field—less than 1% of all film composers are women. But the Alliance for Women Film Composers seeks to change that by increasing the visibility of women composers active in media scoring.




Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier in CARMEN JONES

After decades in the business, Dorothy Dandridge finally became a star in 1954 with her sultry portrayal of Carmen Jones, a musical remake of Bizet’s opera Carmen, earning her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, the first for a woman of color. Only a handful of talented African-American actresses have been nominated for lead actress (Diana Ross, Cicely Tyson, Diahann Carroll, Whoopi Goldberg, Angela Bassett). It would take another 57 years before Halle Berry finally broke through the glass ceiling with her win for Monster’s Ball (2001), to date, unfortunately, the only black actress to win.




Elizabeth Taylor in CLEOPATRA

It took an actress of Elizabeth Taylor’s star power to finally demand and receive pay equal to her male counterparts. In 1963, Taylor finally received a million-dollar paycheck for her role in the infamous remake of Cleopatra. Today, Sandra Bullock holds the female record with $20 million, which eventually turned into over $70 million once all the revenue streams were figured into the equation.




Pam Grier

The tagline for the 1973 film Coffy described Pam Grier’s character as the “baddest one-chick hit-squad that ever hit town!” The same could be said of Grier as an actress. Through a string of prison and blaxploitation films in the early ’70s, Grier became arguably the first black female action star, a genre usually reserved for men. Even Rotten Tomatoes ranked her as the second greatest female action heroine in film history, setting the stage for the badass women we see in film today.




Julia Phillips

On April 4, 1974, just minutes after a naked man streaked across the stage of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, Julia Phillips, her husband Michael, and Tony Bill accepted the Best Picture Oscar for The Sting. After becoming the first female producer to win, her career was on the rise with Taxi Driver and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Though her cocaine addiction, chronicled in her bestselling 1991 memoir You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again, got her fired from Close Encounters, Phillips’s success helped pave the way for women to be taken seriously as producers.



Producer & Executive

Sherry Lansing

Sherry Lansing only made two films in 1970 as an actress—Loving and Rio Lobo with John Wayne—before moving on to learn the industry from the ground up. She went to MGM as a script reader, working on The China Syndrome and Kramer vs. Kramer, before a brief stint at Columbia. At 20th Century Fox, she became the first female president of a major Hollywood studio.



Producer & Executive

Kathleen Kennedy

What do you do when you’re Steven Spielberg’s secretary but you can’t type? If you’re Kathleen Kennedy, you spin your great production ideas into a highly successful producing career and co-found Amblin Entertainment. You later start your own production company with your husband. Then in 2012, you join George Lucas as co-chair (now president) of Lucasfilm. The force is strong with this one.



Actress & Producer

Sigourney Weaver

Without Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, there would be no Thelma, no Louise, no Lara Croft, no Katniss Everdeen. While ALIEN was all about the monster, ALIENS was all Ripley. Weaver’s fierce performance proved that women could carry an action movie and earn an Oscar nomination in the process.



Actress, Director & Producer

Penny Marshall

Few would have suspected that Penny Marshall’s hilarious Laverne DeFazio on TV’s Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley harbored a first-rate film director. That all changed in 1988 when Big became the first film helmed by a woman to pass the magic $100 million threshold at the box office. She later moved into producing films like A League of Her Own and Cinderella Man.



Director & Producer

Kathryn Bigelow

It took Kathryn Bigelow’s two-fisted Oscar producer and director wins for THE HURT LOCKER (2009) to get Hollywood’s old boys’ club to sit up and take notice. As Manohla Dargis said the next morning in The New York Times, “[It] didn’t just punch through the American movie industry’s seemingly shatterproof glass ceiling; it has also helped dismantle stereotypes about what types of films women can and should direct. It was historic, exhilarating, especially for women who make movies and women who watch movies, two groups that have been routinely ignored and underserved by an industry in which most films star men and are made for and by men. It’s too early to know if this moment will be transformative—but damn, it feels so good.”



Animator & Director

Jennifer Yuh Nelson

It took the turn of the millennium before an Asian-American woman was allowed to direct a big-budget Hollywood film. Chinese-American Joan Chen’s Autumn In New York unfortunately didn’t set the box office on fire. Korean-American Jennifer Yuh Nelson had better luck. She parlayed her Annie Award-winning storyboarding for the opening of Kung Fu Panda (2008) into a directing gig for the film’s sequel three years later, becoming the first Korean-American woman to solo direct an animated feature film. The $665 million global box office further opened the door for female directors.



Writer, Director & Producer

Patty Jenkins

Speaking of big box office takes, no film has been talked about more in 2017 than Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman. Jenkins became the first woman to direct a film with a budget of $100 million, a gamble that paid off. The film made $103 in its first weekend, the highest grossing opening ever for a female director. To date, the film has surpassed Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s record with a global take of $789 million.

Women continue to push the boundaries of what can be done in every facet of film, in front of and behind the camera. But not even the 19th Amendment guarantees equal rights. Women In Film is dedicated to promoting equal opportunities for women, encouraging creative projects by women, and expanding and enhancing portrayals of women in all forms of global media. Charitybuzz features auctions that support this nonprofit’s important work as well as a number of other charitable organizations featuring women making important strides in the world of film.

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