In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women and the Silent Screen

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works and Overviews
  • Anthologies and Journal Issues
  • Methodologies

Cinema and Media Studies Women and the Silent Screen
Shelley Stamp
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0268


Research on women and the silent screen examines the role gender plays onscreen and behind the scenes in early film cultures worldwide. This vibrant subfield emerged in the 1990s in response to the rise of scholarship on early cinema that began after the Brighton conference in 1978 and the emergence of feminist film theory earlier in that decade. Scholars of women and silent cinema add a historical perspective to feminist film theory, while demonstrating the formative role that gender and sexuality played in early filmmaking, filmgoing, and film culture. Although scholarship on early cinema often focuses on the period prior to 1915, it has been important for research on women and the silent screen to consider the full scope of silent-era cinema since many female filmmakers became active after 1915, female audiences were significant throughout the silent period, and representations of gender and sexuality onscreen were central to evolving conceptions of modernity in many international contexts throughout the 1920s and into the early 1930s. Scholarship on women and the silent screen is not limited to the representation of gender onscreen, but examines the entire scope of women’s engagement with early movie cultures—as audiences and fans, as exhibitors and theater owners, as filmmakers, screenwriters, and other creative artists, as critics and journalists, as educators and activists. Much of this scholarship adopts a cultural approach to film history, looking at cinema in relation to wider contexts of changing gender roles, changing modes of work and industry, changing leisure patterns, changing sexual mores, the rise of consumer culture, and organized feminism in many global contexts. Cinema’s emergence as a popular entertainment form coincided with profound social change, and feminist film historians believe it is crucial to examine these two phenomena together. Some research on women and the silent screen examines these questions in relation to particular national or regional contexts, while other strands adopt a transnational approach, examining the global circulation of films, personnel, or ideas in cinema’s first decades. A majority of this scholarship has thus far focused on American cinema, so this bibliography is US-centric. Considerable research remains to be done about women and silent cinema in global contexts. Even still, arguably some of the best feminist film historiography in recent years has developed around the scholarship on women and the silent screen.

Reference Works and Overviews

Documenting the sheer scope of women’s engagement with early movie culture as artists and authors has been a central focus of scholarship on women and the silent screen. This scope is demonstrated in Gaines, et al. 2013, an ever-evolving catalogue of women who worked in early film industries around the globe. Lowe 2005 focuses exclusively on women working in the US industry. Stamp 2012 provides an overview of the central role women played at all levels of early American movie culture. Hershfield and Torres San Martín 2013 surveys women’s work at many levels of the industry across Latin America. Additional reference works pertaining to this period may be found in the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Cinema and Media Studies entries “American Cinema, 1895–1915” and “Silent Film.”

  • Gaines, Jane, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta, eds. Women Film Pioneers Project. New York: Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, Columbia University Libraries, 2013.

    An indispensable collection of entries on women active in early filmmaking around the globe, complete with filmographies of extant and lost work and bibliographies of primary and secondary sources. Also includes substantial overview essays on topics like African American women; women working in early Latin American film industries; and women’s work as editors, colorists, camera operators, exhibitors, and critics.

  • Hershfield, Joanne, and Patricia Torres San Martín. “Writing the History of Latin American Women Working in the Silent Film Industry.” In Women Film Pioneers Project. Edited by Jane Gaines, Radha Vatsal, and Monica Dall’Asta. New York: Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, Columbia University Libraries, 2013.

    A useful overview of women’s work in different Latin American film industries as producers, screenwriters, actresses, editors, directors, journalists, and exhibitors.

  • Lowe, Denise. An Encyclopedic Dictionary of Women in Early American Films, 1895–1930. New York: Haworth, 2005.

    A useful encyclopedia of short biographical entries on female filmmakers, screenwriters, designers, and performers, including film credits. Also included are appendixes on the WAMPAS baby stars and the location of early women stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

  • Stamp, Shelley. “Women and the Silent Screen in America.” In The Wiley-Blackwell History of American Film. Vol. 1. Edited by Cynthia Lucia, Roy Grundmann, and Art Simon, 181–206. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

    An overview of the key roles women played in shaping early American movie culture as audiences and fans as well as filmmakers and stars, critics, and educators.

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