Archive for March, 2017

Women Make Movies, c. 1896-1943

Tuesday, March 28th, 2017

March is Women’s History month, and today we’re posting about three pioneers of cinema who you may not have heard of.

Not only was ALICE GUY-BLACHÉ (1873-1968) the first woman to make movies, but in 1896, at the age of 23, she directed the world’s first narrative movie.

In an era of “firsts,” she has a claim to many – first female director, first female film writer, the first director ever to film on location. She was also an early innovator of the close-up shot and experimented with visual effects and sound.

Guy-Blaché opened her own film studio in 1910, where she made more than 700 films. Later in life, when film historians chose to ignore her contributions to cinema and those made by other women pioneers, Guy-Blaché set the record straight on speaking tours and in her autobiography.

Increasingly cinema historians have recognized the importance of Guy-Blaché and her work. For example, the Whitney Museum of Art held a retrospective of her surviving films in 2009, and the Directors’ Guild of America honored her with a lifetime achievement award in 2011.

LOIS WEBER (1881-1939) was the first American woman to direct a feature film (Alice Guy-Blaché was French) and, in a rare feat for early Hollywood, she was a true auteur, writing and directing her own work.

Weber directed with her husband (they were billed as “The Smalleys”) before she launched her solo career.

Weber became a successful director at Universal Studios – in fact, in 1916 she was their highest paid director, man or woman – and used her position to tackle controversial social issues such as birth control and the death penalty, in the hope of bringing about political change. Keep in mind she was doing this at a time laws in the United States denied women their right to vote. (Of course, once women were no longer prevented from voting in California, Weber was appointed mayor of Universal City.)

Weber’s career was on a par with other powerful directors such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, but once movie-making became big business, women directors were shunted aside and their up-and-coming sisters felt the brunt of a shiny new glass ceiling.

Weber’s star waned over time. While Griffith’s and DeMille’s work enjoyed retrospectives and revivals, academics and film historians were more reluctant to recognize cinema’s formidable females.

Fortunately, Weber’s work has been rediscovered and restored… though slowly.
(Just in time to depress us with the fact that the social issues she was engaged with 100 years ago haven’t changed.)

DOROTHY ARZNER (1897-1979) was the only woman director working in the “Golden Age” of the Hollywood studio system, and the first woman to join the Directors’ Guild of America.

Dorothy Arzner learned movie-making from the ground up. She broke into film as a stenographer, worked as a scriptwriter and “script girl” (a/k/a script supervisor), then became an accomplished film cutter – in fact, the first editor to appear in the onscreen credits. She had to threaten Paramount Pictures that she would take a job offer at another studio before she was allowed to direct (even though she’d already directed “second unit” shots in a big-deal Rudolph Valentino movie… which she also edited).

Luckily, her first movie was a hit!

Unlike many of her freaked-out colleagues, Arzner moved effortlessly from the silent film era to sound; in fact, while directing her first talkie, she invented the boom microphone.

In the span of her career, Arzner directed dozens of movies, as well as WWII Army training films, TV commercials (remember television?) and documentaries. She went on to teach aspiring young filmmakers at UCLA, and her student Francis Ford Coppola credits her as his mentor.

Want to find out more about the women who created the art form known as film? The incredible Women Film Pioneers Project documents the work of more women cinema pioneers than you knew existed – anyway, more than get credit.

Women in Art – Not Just Nudes!

Wednesday, March 22nd, 2017

March is Women’s History Month, and today we’re posting a little about the history of women in art.

History has preserved the names and work of countless male artists, but it hasn’t been as loyal to women artists.

Of course, women have been making art from the beginning. It’s now believed that it was mainly women who were the cave artists in prehistory.

Although art history chose to highlight a few (mostly male) artists and to “forget” the work of others, countless women (and men) made art at every stage along the way.

Western classical history tends not to list many artists by name, but along with the few men, Pliny the Elder mentions painters Helena of Egypt (4th c BCE), Iaia (1st c BCE), Irene (1st c CE), Aristarete (1st c CE), and Timatete (5th c BCE).

In addition to medieval era monks, nuns were scribes and artists, producing liturgical books as well as beautiful illuminated manuscripts – sometimes collaborating with male scribes.

Hildegard of Bingen, Universal Man, c. 1163-1173

Embroidery was an art dominated by women, in fact, it is almost certain that most famous piece of embroidery, The Bayeux Tapestry, was the work of English seamstresses.

Ever see a self-portrait of an artist at an easel? This tradition began when Caterina van Hemessen painted her self-portrait as an on-the-job action shot in 1548.

Caterina van Hemessen, Self-portrait, 1548

Women worked as professional artists throughout the Renaissance, and Queen Elizabeth I employed the painter Levina Teerlinc at her court.

Portrait of Elizabeth I by Levina Terrlinc, c. 1565

Though it became more difficult in later eras for women to paint professionally – and to attain stature as artists – they continued to create and to influence art. Artemisia Gentileschi, for example, continued the legacy of Caravaggio.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith and her Maidservant (1613–14)

Angelika Kauffmann (full disclosure: one of this author’s favorite artists), was a neoclassical painter and one of only two female founding members of the Royal Academy of London. She was also friends with Goethe, who said she worked harder and accomplished more than any artist he knew.

Angelika Kauffmann, Self-portrait, 1770-75

Today, let’s remember that women have been at the forefront of the arts, even though history – and the people who write it – have withheld the credit and recognition that is their due.

Women Warriors of Africa

Wednesday, March 15th, 2017

It’s Women’s History Month, and today we’re looking at powerful African women in history – specifically, some powerful warriors.


Queen Nzinga (a/k/a Njinga Mbande, a/k/a Ana de Sousa) was a 17th century ruler of the Ndongo and Matamba kingdoms in present-day Angola.

Renowned both for her diplomacy and fierceness, Nzinga succeeded where her father and brother failed. She successfully defended her rule from the Portuguese slave trade and compelled Portugal to recognize her sovereignty – a rare achievement in her day.

Nzinga’s ruthlessness as a warrior led to the wild rumor that she immolated each man in her large harem after she slept with them.

Nzinga led with ingenuity and fortitude: she fought alongside her warriors, she married to forge an alliance with the nearby Jaga, she underwent religious initiation and negotiated treaties – all to defend her monarchy from the Portuguese and the Dutch (and her own brother).

Portugal had never contended with the likes of her – not before or since. When Nzinga established her territory in Matamba, she offered asylum to slaves escaping the Portuguese.

However, even the mighty Nzinga could not continue the fight after her death. In 1648, without a leader such as Nzinga to defend them, the Portuguese invaded and occupied Nzinga’s kingdom and other colonial territories for the next 300 years.



Amina was a 16th century Muslim warrior queen from the kingdom of Zazzau, now present-day Nigeria.

Amina was the first female leader of the Hausa people, and expanded their territory to their largest borders in history. She spent her 34-year-reign in constant battle. According to legend, she took a “temporary husband” from among her vanquished foes after every battle, and then had him murdered the next morning.

Anina began her military career in the cavalry, and ascended the throne after the death of her brother. She built walls around the encampments she conquered, some of which survived to modern times, and has been credited with introducing metal armor to her army.



Among the most dangerous fighting forces in African History were the Mino (“our mothers” in the Fon language), dubbed “Dahomey Amazons” by outsiders. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Mino soldiers were the world’s only female troops customarily serving in combat.

Although the elite Mino corps was formed sometime in the mid-17th century, they hailed from a proud Dahomean tradition of weapon-wielding women, including a long history of hunters. As the empire expanded, the Mino eventually comprised half of the military, and numbered among its most brutal and deadly combatants.

Outlandishly brave, the Mino rallied under the motto “conquer or die” and carried three-foot-long razor-sharp machetes and flintlock rifles into battle… against French Gatling guns. Though remarkably effective and more than willing to fight to the death, machetes were no match for cannons. In the 1890s, the Mino fell to the superior firepower of the French.

Women Authors of the Heian Period

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

March is Women’s History Month, and today we’re going to revel in the writing of Japanese women from the Heian period.

Women have been writers as long as writing has existed, but their work often has been lost or neglected. However, while the literary professions were generally dominated by men, it was women who were the driving force behind the Golden Age of Japanese literature, and their work has come down to us through the centuries.

The Heian period (794-1185) is known for its memoirs, autobiographical narratives, and love poems. The masters of Heian literature were women of the Imperial Court and members of the aristocracy who offer intimate glimpses into the lives of the powerful and the passionate.

The writer known to us as the “Mother of Michitsuna” wrote the Kagerō Diary, the first of the long tradition of diary texts written by women.

Lady Murasaki (the pseudonym of Murasaki Shikibu) wrote The Tale of Genji, often referred to as the first novel. It is remarkable for its philosophical insight into the world of the Japanese court.

Sei Shōnagon’s The Pillow Book fascinated her readers with its behind-the-scenes account of court life. It is noteworthy for its gossipy observations and its exhaustive, eclectic lists.

Izumi Shikibu was one of the greatest Japanese poets, and one of only five women included Fujiwara no Kintō’s anthology, Thirty-Six Immortals of Poetry. Her love poetry was so passionate, rumors flew about her robust love life, some of which were true.

Akazome Emon, a contemporary of all three writers above, was a poet and historian much admired by Murasaki Shikibu.

There are several theories about why were women so prominent in Heian literature. In this era of great respect for literature and the arts, families who educated their daughters were more likely to marry them off to men with access to power. While educated men wrote in Classical Chinese, their counterparts were free to write in their own language – the Japanese vernacular that was becoming more and more popular.

Professor Lynne Miyake goes into more detail in this interesting interview.

So let’s remember these remarkable women, whose own talents and industry fitted them for a place and time that recognized their merits and gave beauty and brilliance to their own time and ours.

Why is that so hard again?

Some Women of Early Modern Philosophy

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

March is Women’s History Month, so let’s go back in history and give it up for all the women in philosophy… if you can find them.

There are fewer places where women’s voices have been more conspicuously silent than in Western Philosophy. It’s chiefly male philosophers we remember and study when it comes to the ancient, early modern, Enlightenment, and Romantic eras. Here or there a woman might be recognized, but unlike other cultural movements to credit women’s work (for instance, in STEM and the arts), the result is that we just don’t hear much about women’s legacies in philosophy.

This has begun to change.

We are big fans of Duke University’s Project Vox. On their website you’ll find texts, syllabi, and other teaching resources about these women whose contributions to the development of modern philosophy demand that their work be welcomed to the canon.

Meet a few of these lesser-known, lost, and neglected early modern philosophers:

Margaret Cavendish

This 17th century English aristocrat was a poet, playwright, and fiction-writer who proudly published under her own name (quite rare for women of that period). She was also a natural philosopher of the materialist bent, hobnobbing and corresponding with respected and influential thinkers – Descartes, Hobbes, and Henry More, Platonist and foremost authority on philosophy in Britain. Although Cavendish was not included in the era’s intellectual pantheon, More took her seriously enough to disagree with her in print.

Cavendish was the first woman to be invited to attend a meeting of the Royal Society of London, though “Mad Madge” was not overly impressed with the company. And owing to the willful dimness of that august body (that excluded women for nearly 300 years), women’s cultural contributions continued to be hidden and dismissed, even as disingenuous gatekeepers demanded: “Where are all the women?”

Anne Conway

A contemporary of Margaret Cavendish, Lady Anne Conway began a correspondence with Henry More that developed into a tutorship and became a conversation among equals. More claimed he had “scarce ever met with any Person, Man or Woman, of better Natural parts than Lady Conway.”

Influenced by the Cambridge Platonists, Conway developed the idea of the monad that Leibniz drew upon, acknowledging her work in correspondence. Conway’s work was translated into Latin and known to the prominent philosophers of her day; however, she (and most women of her time) published anonymously, which helped her to slide into obscurity. In fact, Conway’s The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy was attributed to another philosopher who had merely translated it!

Émilie du Châtelet

This Parisian noblewoman was a translator, author, mathematician, and scientist, as well as a philosopher. Her legacy includes her powerful influence on the thought and writings of Voltaire, with whom she lived and had a 15-year romantic relationship.

Châtelet’s 1749 translation (with commentary) of Newton’s “Principia” remains the standard French translation, and because of her work as a translator and commentator, until recently her contributions to Diderot’s “Encyclopédie” were uncredited, misappropriated, or attributed to others.

Damaris Masham

The daughter of a Cambridge Platonist, Lady Masham was a close friend and philosophical sparring partner of John Locke. They were so close that her two anonymously-published books were sometimes attributed to Locke.

Masham also corresponded with Leibniz, and advocated for access to higher education for women.


We can learn many things from these formidable intellectual women of the past. Societal approval be damned. Take credit for your work before someone else does.