There has always been a bit of theater in politics. The classic feature of breaking out into song from your standard musical is no match for the eruption of chants on the House floor Thursday as representatives belted out in unison, “U-S-A, U-S-A!” . From slamming gavels, to sit-ins, from the raucous town halls of 2016 to the rallies in Ferguson, the political process is a highly symbolic one.
It should come as no surprise that there is a connection between women in politics and women in cinema--particularly the early heroines of film. With the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, at the same time women’s rights were expanding, women’s presence as directors in film was contracting. Women have been fighting a multifront battle since the Seneca Falls Convention of the late 1800s. Where we have some successes (Roe v. Wade, Title IX), there still are areas where women’s livelihoods and full participation in society are threatened.
A new documentary series, Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers at BAMcinématek presented with Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress, takes a looks at the role of women in cinema as “directors, producers, writers and stars, and sometimes all at the same time” . Well before they won the right to vote, women like Guy Blaché, born 1873 and widely credited as the first female director, built their own studios and directed their own films .
Why don’t we know more about these women?
Similar to women in politics, women in the film industry have faced systemic barriers to participation. Manohla Dargis in The Real Gone Girls of Cinema, talks about how “directing, producing and editing [have] became masculinized” and have been “sex-typed", leaving writing as the most viable pathway for women .
The historical and collective amnesia surrounding the film industry causes many female filmmakers go unnoticed. “Too often [women filmmakers] have been written out of the history they helped make,” Dargis remarks. The power of political institutions is that they help take to task gender-biased industry practices and hold the institutional memory of our collective struggle for freedoms. At a time when there is a influx of women and people of color running for elected office in the 2018 midterms, revisiting the efforts that our forebearers have made toward ensuring full participation in society is crucial.
The current influx of women showing up as primary contenders has been compared to the 1992 Year of the Woman, when an influx of women--after the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas sexual harassment controversy--ran for office and won. Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her second congressional primary earlier this summer, and Lauren Underwood, a House candidate from Illinois, women across the country are taking up the torch, continuing the legacy of trailblazing women by making our presence known and pushing for a seat at the table.
The challenges that women have to hurdle are formidable--yet, not impossible. They often face blockades in their career efforts and aspirations that seek to erase or obscure their contributions to the workforce. While it is sobering to realizing how many omissions have become “maddeningly routine,” as Dargis says, Blaché in a Boston newspaper was noted to be “the first of her sex to break the male monopoly on the directing of motion pictures" . Women like Ocasio-Cortez and Lauren Underwood are not only hurdling the bar that women face in a run for office, they are challengingly, in their run, barriers that people of color also have to face.
“We have to be excellent,” Underwood said, in response to the challenges that minority candidates have to surmount. The impossibility of excellency should not be something thrusted upon any elected official. Missteps will be made. It is about how we can come together and learn from them. Minority candidates, often already have difficulty in finding initial support, combating racial stereotypes and, as Asted W. Herndon writes, “a lack of trust from even members of their own party [about whether minority candidates] can succeed in predominantly white districts” .
Lauren Underwood, is a 31-year-old African-American candidate in North Aurora who won the March primaries in a predominately white district. Her platform is focused on healthcare and reducing gun violence. Underwood is one of 14 minority candidates out of the 60 party-backed Democrats running this fall . She, like Blaché, is a part of a legacy of women who proved the once-thought improbable possible.
At a time when women’s reproductive healthcare is under assault, women advocating for their rights is as crucial as it was in the 1920s wherever they may find themselves, in whatever sector of the economy or political landscape they may be. The upcoming elections are about, yes, the policies that we would like to see changed and the ones we want to stay in place. They are also about what it means to advocate for who we are--as women, as people of color, as Americans.
Donny Deutsch, on Morning Joe on Friday said that the 2018 midterms are a “fight for what your grandmothers fought for” . He’s right; it’s the “vote of [our] lifetime.”