Skip to Main Content

American Women: Resources from the Moving Image Collections

The Silent Era

American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. From showgirl to burlesque queen. 1903. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

At the close of the nineteenth century, a means of capturing and presenting moving pictures was developed at the Edison laboratories in New Jersey. After a brief period of experimentation, these early filmmakers turned to vaudeville, burlesque, and other forms of mass entertainment both for their subject matter and for their performers. On March 10, 1894, when production began on the twenty-eighth kinetoscope—a film viewed through a peep-hole cabinet—a Spanish dancer became the first woman to appear in an Edison film. Carmencita (1894) was soon followed by numerous risqué films featuring exotic dancers—such as Turkish Dance, Ella Lola (1898)—and scantily clad women, as seen in Trapeze Disrobing Act (1901).

As the commercial exploitation of the kinetoscope grew, filmmakers realized they needed to produce films that appealed to an audience that included middle-class women. The Hendricks (Gordon) Collection provides a sampling of films produced with this audience in mind, including Annie Oakley (1894), in which Oakley demonstrates her marksmanship; Imperial Japanese Dance (1894), with its Kyoto dance performance; and the famous May Irwin Kiss (1896). At the same time, the public exhibition of films of boxers, wrestlers, blacksmiths, barber shops, cock-fights, and voyeurism allowed women access to a masculine world from which they were usually excluded.2

Motion pictures continued to evolve as cameras were taken out of the studios and filmmakers began shooting scenes of everyday life—as in Women of the Ghetto Bathing (1902), scenic views of urban and rural landscapes—such as Panoramic View of Niagara Falls (1899, FLA 3523), or current events—for instance, Parade of Women Delegates; World's Fair (1904, FLA 4812). Such films became known as actualities.

Filmmakers also made re-creations of topical events, such as the sinking of the Maine and boxing matches. Temperance leader Carry Nation's (1846-1911) “joint-smashing” of the Carey Hotel Bar in Wichita, Kansas, was reenacted for the camera in Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901, FLA 4194) and Unidentified Coffeyville Historical Society, no.1: Carry Nation (ca. 1905, FEA 7974).

During the first decade of the twentieth century, filmmakers began developing narrative patterns. They enhanced plot and character and used plot conventions and genres, such as comedy, melodrama, crime, costume, social problem, and western. Soon these fiction films, rather than the actualities, dominated the market.

Women on the Screen

American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Birth of the pearl. 1903. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The Paper Print Collection (3,000 films, 1894-1915) is the cornerstone of the historic film holdings available in the Moving Image Research Center, providing an excellent overview of the development of both American actuality and narrative films. Images of women in this collection range from Girls taking time checks or Taping coils in the Westinghouse Works factory in East Pittsburgh (Westinghouse Works, 1904) to girls at play (Girls' Acrobatic Feats, 1898?, FLA 3506). They show the fashions of 1903 as worn by middle-class women on the bustling streets of New York in At the Foot of the Flatiron, as well as the attire of newly arrived immigrants in Emigrants [i.e., immigrants] Landing at Ellis Island.

Melodramas depicted the fate of young women who succumbed to temptation. In The Downward Path (1900, FLA 4010-4014), a girl who runs away from home ends up dancing in a disreputable saloon and finally commits suicide. The Fate of the Artist's Model (1903, FLA 4614-4618) shows a young woman and her baby who are abandoned by her artist lover. There are numerous voyeuristic films in which the camera is set as if in the audience of a vaudeville theater. In Peeping Tom in the Dressing Room (1905, FLA 3917), a man watches through a keyhole as a buxom woman dresses. Discovered, the Peeping Tom is brought into the dressing room, where chorus girls beat him with powder puffs. In Pouting Model (1901, FLA 3797), curtains open to disclose an aged man sitting on a chair and a nude young girl with her head turned toward the wall as if crying. Early examples of several genre films with a feminine twist can also be found in the Paper Print Collection. A female police operative attempts to save a girl kidnapped by Chinese “white slavers” in the crime film The Fatal Hour (1908, FLA 5373), and a horsewoman saves her lover from being hanged in the western The Girl from Montana (1907, FLA 5046).

Motion picture performers who acted in story films were originally anonymous. Because of the popularity of certain players, however, producers began to identify them in newspaper articles, in advertising, and finally, in on-screen credits, thus giving birth to the movie star. Among the paper prints are films of the very first movie stars, including Florence Lawrence (1886-1938), Lillian Gish (1896-1993), Mabel Normand (1894-1930), Mae Marsh (1895-1968), Blanche Sweet (1895-1986), and Mary Pickford (1892-1979).

The book catalog Early Motion Pictures: The Paper Print Collection in the Library of Congress (see below) is arranged alphabetically by title with an index including subject categories, place names, personal names, genres, and company names. Films related to women can be found under headings such as “Socially significant themes,” “Peep show,” and “Dance.”

Helen Keller who appears in the motion picture "Deliverance" based on her life of darkness. 1919. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Purchased from the estate of a film industry entrepreneur, the 456 films in the George Kleine Collection span the years from 1896 to 1926, and include dramas, comedies, actualities, and educational films. Public events staged by American suffragists and captured by newsreel cameras are presented in such films as Franchise Parade, Tarrytown, N. Y. (1915), and Suffrage Parade, New York City (1915). Narrative films in the collection include Deliverance (1919), starring Helen Keller (1880-1968) in a dramatization of her life; the melodrama Heart of a Waif (1915), featuring twelve-year-old Clare Boothe Luce (1903-1987); and The Tiger's Coat (1920), with photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942).

A genre of particular interest to historians is the social-problem film of the silent era. These films dramatized societal ills and concerns such as prostitution, women's suffrage, and birth control. Children of Eve (1915) is a child labor melodrama that calls for improved working conditions after a factory fire. Comedy was used both to support and lampoon social causes. In The Politicians (1915), a female detective and a suffragette chief of police thwart the schemes of two dishonest politicians, whereas The Sufferin Baby (1915) shows the comic misadventures of a suffragist's husband who is left to mind their child while his wife attends a suffrage rally. Ten comedy shorts in the James Montgomery Flagg's Girls You Know series (1918) present various popular images of young women, such as The Bride, The Good Sport, The Man-Eater, The Spoiled Girl, and The Stenog. These films can be found by searching the subject index provided in The George Kleine Collection of Early Motion Pictures in the Library of Congress (see below) and in the online catalog, by searching under headings such as:

The 318 films released between 1897 and 1934 that make up the Theodore Roosevelt Collection focus on Roosevelt and his life and times but also include many prominent women, especially those involved in the suffrage movement. The index to the Roosevelt catalog lists Margaret Hill McCarter, Sarah Bernhardt, Helen Rogers Reid, Harriet B. Laidlaw, Elizabeth Ogden Brower Wood, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, Florence Kling Harding, Edith Wilson, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, Elizabeth A. Bryce, Geraldine Farrar, Sallie White Bolling, and Helen Herron Taft as appearing throughout the films.

Mary Pickford in Rosita. 1923. Frances Benjamin Johnston Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

There is no better example of the silent-movie star than Mary Pickford. An internationally renowned actress, Pickford was also one of the world's most successful businesswomen and a motion picture producer who achieved control over all aspects of her films. The Mary Pickford Collection (100 films) consists of print and preprint materials sampling her entire film career, beginning with Her First Biscuits in 1909 and ending with her last film, Secrets (preprint), in 1933. Several movies in which Pickford collaborated with one of the most successful screenwriters in Hollywood, Frances Marion (1888-1973), are also part of this collection, including a film Marion directed, Love Light (1921).

Bain News Service. Con. [i.e. Connie] and Norma Talmage [i.e. Talmadge], George Grantham Bain Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The films of other popular female silent stars are found in the Raymond Rohauer Collection (350 films), including Norma and Constance Talmadge. Norma (1893-1957) specialized in melodrama, and Constance (1898-1973) carved out a distinguished career in sophisticated comedy. Talmadge films in the Rohauer Collection include Sawdust and Salome (1914, FEA 5091), Heart of Wetona (1918, FEC 1680-1685), A Daughter of Two Worlds (1920), The Woman Gives (1920, FGE 9134-9136), and Her Sister from Paris (1925, FGE 7281-7284). Also in the Rohauer Collection are rare silent feature films and early sound shorts with performers such as Fanny Brice (1891-1951), Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), and Agnes de Mille (1905-1993).

White Studios. Pearl White, no. 2 1916. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The motion picture serial—action melodramas that were presented one chapter at a time in weekly installments over the course of several months, each episode ending with a cliffhanger—was introduced to American audiences in 1912. Female performers dominated the genre throughout the silent era. Pearl White (pictured at right) in The Perils of Pauline (1914) set the pattern, as serial heroines leaped onto speeding trains, raced through flames, dived off bridges, and faced threatening buzz saws, all without stunt doubles. The Public Archives of Canada/Dawson City Collection has an extensive array of serials that feature women as spies, Robin Hood figures, telegraph operators, railroad professionals, and master thieves, played by such actresses as Pearl White in Pearl of the Army (1916-17), Helen Holmes in Hazards of Helen (1915), and Marie Walcamp in The Red Ace (1917-18). Also included are Lucille Love, The Girl of Mystery (1914), starring and written by Grace Cunard, and The Purple Mask (1917), which Cunard also directed.

Ephemeral films encompass a wide range of commercial and amateur motion pictures, including advertising and promotional films, educational films, and home movies. The division has examples of early advertising films hawking products for women or using women's sex appeal to sell products to men. Warner's Corsets (191-?) is a fictionalized story of “Warner's fashionable rust-proof corsets, guaranteed not to rust, break or tear.” Buy an Electric Refrigerator (1926?) is a product commercial and Admiral Cigarette (1897) features an attractive girl in a striking costume who hands cigarettes to a group of men.From Cabin to Castle (ca. 1930, FEB 4440-4442) is believed to be a promotional piece with still shots and footage of African American entrepreneur Madame C. J. Walker (1867-1919), her daughter A'lelia Walker, and employees at work in her cosmetics manufacturing company.

Educational films were intended primarily to instruct and inform and were shown in nontheatrical settings, mainly classrooms. The Truth about the Liberty Motor (1919, nitrate), produced by Ford Motor Company, combines promotional and educational functions in a film about women war workers during the First World War. This picture demonstrates that “after a few lessons, she is just as capable a mechanic as her brother who has gone to France.” Social Hygiene for Women (FEB 4183), produced by the American Social Hygiene Association in 1920, was used to illustrate lectures to women regarding reproductive organs and covering facts about gonorrhea and syphilis.

Family, friends, and vacation locales are the typical subjects found in home movies. The division's amateur film collections include those of prominent American women, such as celebrated poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), Evalyn Walsh McLean (1886-1947), a leader in the social life of Washington, D.C., from the 1910s to her death, and Agnes E. Meyer (1887-1970), author and social reformer, and her husband Eugene Meyer, editor and publisher of the Washington Post. The Meyer films, shot in the 1920s, include footage of two of their children, Katharine Meyer Graham (Mrs. Philip L. Graham) and Elizabeth Meyer Lorentz (Mrs. Pare Lorentz).

Women Behind the Camera

Studio saunterings--Madame Blache rehearsing cast in "Fra Diavolo". [1915]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The first person believed to have directed a narrative film is Alice Guy (later known as Guy-Blaché, 1873-1968). In 1896, Guy was secretary to Léon Gaumont, whose French photography company was expanding to include the sale of a motion picture camera. Guy asked permission to make a story film to demonstrate the new device. Gaumont agreed, but only if the project did not interfere with her secretarial duties. Within a year, Guy was head of Gaumont film production; and by the time of her emigration to the United States in 1907, she had produced (often directing) about 400 short films.

In America, she formed her own film studio, Solax (1910-14), where, as president and chief director, she supervised the production of more than 300 movies. In 1913, Guy concentrated on making longer films, eventually directing 22 feature films. Her career spanned the evolution of film from embryonic one-reelers to sophisticated feature films that touched on topics such as marriage, divorce, and gender identity. Only a fraction of the films directed by Guy survive. Of the three extant features she made, the Library has an incomplete copy of one, The Ocean Waif (1916). Several of Guy's surviving short films, including Algie the Miner (1912, FEB 7679), Canned Harmony (1912, FAA 1916), The Sewer (1912, FGE 5155), Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913), and A House Divided (1913), are in the Library's collections.

Bain News Service. Lois Weber. George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Before embarking on a film career, Lois Weber (1882?-1939) had already toured as a child prodigy concert pianist, worked as a missionary in Pittsburgh, and appeared on the stage. In 1908, she joined the Gaumont studio in New York City, where she wrote, directed, and acted in motion pictures. Weber eventually moved to Hollywood, where she became Universal Studio's highest-paid director in 1916. In 1917, she formed her own production company and continued to make films that reflected her moral stand on important social issues. She had addressed birth control and abortion in Where Are My Children? (1916, VBK 2378), capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), and drug addiction in Hop, the Devil's Brew (1916). Her later films included a realistic drama of married life, Too Wise Wives (1921), and a treatment of the problems of ordinary people, The Blot (1921).

[Mary Pickford, half-length portrait, standing, facing slightly left, with motion picture camera, on beach]. c1916. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Before the film industry became a big business, women were involved in nearly every aspect of production. Writer Lizzie Francke has quoted screenwriter Beulah Marie Dix (1898-1973) on this point: “It was all very informal, in those early days. There were no unions. Anybody on the set did anything he or she was called upon to do. I've walked on as an extra, I've tended lights (I've never shifted scenery) and anybody not doing anything else wrote down the director's notes on the script . . . I also spent a good deal of time in the cutting room.” As Francke remarked, “In such a relatively egalitarian atmosphere women seemed destined to become equal partners with men in this new industry.”3 The Library holds films created by many of these pioneering filmmakers, including works by Gene Gauntier (1891-1966), Helen Gardner (1885-1968), Mabel Normand (1894-1930), Cleo Madison (1883-1964), Grace Cunard (1893-1967), Julia Crawford Ivers (d. 1930), Ruth Ann Baldwin, and Dorothy Davenport Reid (1895-1977).

Women also worked as costume designers, readers, script girls, film cutters, editors, set designers, and casting directors. Perhaps most significantly, as Cari Beauchamp has noted, “during the teens, 1920s, and early 1930s, almost one quarter of the screenwriters in Hollywood were women. Half of all the films copyrighted between 1911 and 1925 were written by women.”4 The work of many of the major women screenwriters in Hollywood, some of whom also directed, can be found in the division's holdings, including films of Anita Loos (1893-1981), June Mathis (1892-1927), Frances Marion (1887-1973), Jeanie Macpherson (1884-1946), Ida May Park (1885?-1954), Bess Meredyth (1890-1969), Elinor Glyn (1864-1943), Lenore Coffee (1897-1984), and Jane Murfin (1893-1955). (See reference below for What Women Wrote: Scenarios, 1912-1929, for access to dozens of screenplays written by women.)

Even by the 1920s, filmmaking was not simply for professionals; it was possible for amateur filmmakers to produce fiction films for exhibition, whether for private audiences or in venues such as churches, schools, and community centers. Eloyce Patrick King Gist (1892-1974) used such venues to show films to the African American community. An independent businesswoman in the 1920s, Gist became involved with husband James Gist's filmmaking endeavors. She rewrote and re-edited his production Hell Bound Train (ca. 1929-30) and, along with James, produced, wrote, and directed Verdict Not Guilty (ca. 1930-33). The films in the Eloyce Gist Collection dramatize religious themes using casts of nonprofessional black actors. The movies were so widely shown that they literally fell apart along the splices and were received by the Library in hundreds of short fragments. Currently, only video copies of the out-of-sequence fragments for the two films are available for viewing (VBM 5130-5132). New 16mm prints will be made once the proper continuities for the films are determined. Correspondence regarding the films has been copied from the Manuscript Division's NAACP Records (box I. C-299—Subject File: Films and Plays-General—1924-33) and is available in the Moving Image Research Center.

Print Materials Referenced

The following materials link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog:


  1. Charles Musser, Edison Motion Picture, 1890-1900: An Annotated Filmography (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997; PN1995.9 .D6 M88 1997), 33-36. Back to text
  2. Lizzie Francke, Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood (London: British Film Institute, 1994; PN1995.9.W6 F675 1994), 6. Back to text
  3. Cari Beauchamp, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood (New York: Scribner, 1997; PS3525.A6549Z54 1997), 11. Back to text