How Women Were Pushed Out of Hollywood—and Fought Their Way Back In

In an excerpt from "Hollywood: Her Story", authors Jill S. Tietjen and Barbara Bridges highlight the important contributions from women in the film industry from the 1890s to today.

By Jill S. Tietjen and Barbara Bridges

When you watch the credits roll at the end of a film, you discover that it takes many people with diverse skills and talents to create the movie you have just seen. Women have filled all of these roles at one time or another—actress, director, stunt woman, screen writer, composer, animator, editor and on and on. The hidden truth is that women have influenced every facet of the industry since the days when films were a mere flicker of light on the screen. Amazingly, women virtually controlled the film industry during the silent film era. Back then they had more opportunities, both behind the camera and on the screen, than they have had at any time since. The highest paid director during the silent film era was a woman. Women screenwriters during that period outnumbered men 10 to one. Talent and brains were what mattered, not gender.

Then movies started making money, which attracted more men to the film business. Men took over the studios and assumed almost all of the leadership positions, including director and producer. This cultural dynamic continued after World War II when women were expected to retreat to their homes and leave job opportunities for men. But still women persisted. Women continued to play all the roles in filmmaking but were more successful in some categories than others. For almost a century, women have endeavored to reclaim the important roles they had once played in film’s infancy.

Films tell us stories that help us to understand our world. When they don’t reflect real demographics, they give us an inaccurate picture. In the last decade of films, women have made up only 30 percent of the speaking characters. We see a woman in a leading role only 30-35 percent of the time. Of those leading women, only 4 percent are over 40. In fact, of all characters over the age of 40, only about 25 percent are women. All of this creates a distorted picture of our world. The failure of film to present women in their proper proportion contributes to a culture-wide tendency to dismiss women’s power, relevance, and autonomy.

It is hard to ignore the fact that women have made enormous and important contributions to film once you fully appreciate how many of them have been written out of the record. Women were always there but often invisible, marginalized, or minimized. A true history of Hollywood cannot be told without them and their diverse and extraordinary accomplishments. Hopefully these stories will help correct the record, and shift the perception and treatment of women, in the film industry and beyond.

The 1890s

Setting the Stage

The first female movie director, Frenchwoman Alice Guy-Blaché, became one of the
first individuals to make films on a regular basis. Picture from Cannes Film Festival

In 1893, Thomas Edison introduced the Kinetoscope, in which moving film was passed through a peephole for viewing by one person, as a novelty.The public loved it! Being a businessman as well as an inventor, he realized that the public needed motion pictures to view in their Kinetoscopes. To fill that need, he built the first movie studio that same year in West Orange, NewJersey. Believing that the market was going to grow, he also bought the rights to an invention that would project pictures on a large surface. This he named the Edison Vitascope.

To put all of the pieces together, he founded the Edison Company and began his filmmaking venture. Edison’s first movie, unlike those with which we are familiar today, was less than 30 seconds long and was filmed in 1895. It was titled The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, but Mary was played by a man. The first Edison movie in which a woman co-starred was the John Rice–May Irwin Kiss, which was created in 1896. Not surprisingly, considering the content, it was the first film to cause a stir related to morals. Edison did not patent his invention and other movie picture companies entered the business including Selig, Vitagraph, Biograph, Kalen, and Essanay. The year 1896 brought the first movie from the first female director in history to use film to tell a story. Produced by French company Gaumont, the film, The CabbageFairy, was directed by Alice Guy-Blaché, who would later become the first woman to build and operate her own studio. She would open Solax Studios in Fort Lee,New Jersey, the hub of filmmaking in America in its early years.   And the movies began.


Before Hollywood, a Time of Experimentation

Florence Lawrence is know as Hollywood's first movie star—she became the first actor to receive a film credit. Photo: Rex/Shutterstock

The infancy of the film industry was a time of experimentation and innovation. Talkies were still decades away. Movies were typically black-and-white silent films on one reel, with a reel holding up to 15minutes of film. Filmmakers were exploring ways to add interest to their movies using many new techniques, such as sound syncing systems, color tinting, special effects, close-ups, panning shots and artificial lighting.  The majority of the films in this decade, and throughout the silent film era, are lost to us forever. They were made with a film stock that was unstable and needed to be stored properly. This was rarely done, leaving the film to turn to dust. They are also lost to us because the studios didn’t value them, especially after the advent of sound. When they needed space, which was expensive, they simply got rid of the older movies, which to them no longer had value.  During this period, gender roles were not prescribed. Whoever could get the job done was welcomed, and women could be found in front of, as well as behind, the camera.

Women worked as directors, producers, screenwriters, editors, stuntwomen, camerawomen and actresses.   In those early years, movie actors and actresses were not identified byname. Actresses were identified as “The Vitagraph Girl” or “The Biograph Girl,”indicative of the production company with which they were affiliated. The first woman to be identified by her name, thus becoming “The First Movie Star,” was Florence Lawrence, who debuted in 1907 in Daniel Boone. Florence Turner also became a star once the public knew her name.  One highlight of this decade occurred in 1909 when Mary Pickford first came to the screen. She made 51 movies that year, averaging about one a week. This decade also produced the screenplay adaptation for Ben Hur, which was written by female screenwriter Gene Gauntier in two days. Women were finding their way in the movie business.


The Silent Film Era

The most profitable movie released by Universal Pictures in 1916 was a film on birth control and abortion, written and directed by that studio’s highest-paid director, Lois Weber. Photo: British Film Institute

During the 1910s, experimentation in filmmaking continued in both processes and equipment development. Movies were often shorts, one or two reels. Serials were at their peak of popularity, usually involving beautiful women in trouble. The cliffhanger was developed so that audiences would come back week after week to see if the heroine tied to the railroad track by the villain in the last episode had been saved. Women virtually controlled the film industry and had more opportunities during the silent film era than at any time since. Women screenwriters outnumbered men 10 to one. Many women directors were active in the film industry during this time. Directing was not yet considered “glamorous” and the pay was not high. Filmmaking was fairly casual; budgets and expectations were low. Movies cost about $500 to make.

The most important woman making movies in this period was Lois Weber. She became the highest-paid director of either gender in the silent film era. The first woman to write, direct, produce and star in a movie (seven decades before Barbra Streisand), Weber addressed moral and women’s issues of the day including birth control, racial concerns and capital punishment. When she needed a naked statue in her movie and no one else would do it, Weber posed in the nude, spawning moral indignation, free publicity and commercial success for the movie (which earned $3 million at the box office).  Films in this decade included The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, A Tale of Two Cities and The Birth of a Nation. Like many other films throughout movie history, these films would be made again and again. Many motion picture companies moved from New Jersey to the Los Angeles area where the workers were non-union, the weather was ideal and the scenery diverse, allowing for filming at nearby locations year-round.“Hollywood” had found its home.


Hollywood Becomes Big Business

Director Dorothy Arzner gave Golden Age female stars like Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell intelligent, complex roles. 

In the mid- to late-1920s, movies became big business. Full-length films could now cost as much as $200,000 apiece to produce and an epic could run to $1 million. Movie production became the most significant industry in Los Angeles. The small, independent film companies, many of them run by women, were put out of business.  Business structures and processes, similar to those that had been adopted in manufacturing industries, were applied in the film industry. Studios were organized into departments (such as story, camera, wardrobe, set, props and publicity) with an assembly-line mentality. Men headed the departments and directed the films. They didn’t wear multiple hats like the pioneering men and women before them. As the structures developed, roles became gendered.

Many studios unionized, and the labor unions would not accept women as members. Women film producers all but vanished as did women film editors and camerawomen. Those female editors who did hang on excelled and became the role models for the resurgence of women in the film industry in the second half of the twentieth century. The same was true of screenwriters. At a time when very few women were directing, Dorothy Arzner was able to achieve success as a female director between the late 1920s and the early 1940s. The films themselves changed dramatically in this decade, too. Sound was introduced. The first “talkie” was released in 1927. This mode of movie production required different skills from actors and actresses than had silent films. Many silent film era stars were not able to bridge the transition. Instead of writing scripts for a particular actress or actor as they had done previously, studios now created scripts first and then looked for cast members who would play the parts. Audiences had grown beyond the novelty of motion pictures and were looking for actors and actresses with sex appeal and movies with more realistic plots. Stars were looked to as fashion plates and many a fashion trend was started by the clothing or hairstyle of a particular actress. Another spotlight shown on the stars with the founding of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1927. The first Academy Awards, not yet nicknamed Oscar, were presented in 1929 with a ceremony that lasted a mere 15 minutes. The foundation had been prepared for Hollywood’s glamorous golden years.


Talkies, Technicolor, and the Great Depression

Frances Marion, the highest paid screenwriter at the time, earned her first Oscar in 1931 for The Big House starring Mary Pickford (pictured). Photo: General Photographic Agency

During the Great Depression, movies were seen as a release from the cares of the day. Whether it was Shirley Temple’s musicals, Mae West’s comedies or Bette Davis’s dramas, people were transported to another world. Technicolor had been experimented with for two decades. By the early 1930s,Technicolor had been greatly improved and the cost reduced. It became the most widely used color process in Hollywood. During the 1930s, films like The Wizard ofOz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939) popularized the technique. At the end of the 1920s, the studios had experimented with ways to add sound to the movies. By the 1930s, many obstacles had been overcome. With these improvements, it became clear that sound was more than a fad and the studios moved forward with talkies. Actors’ and actresses’ voices were now important. Heavy accents or squeaky voices would not do. Famous silent star Norma Talmadge couldn’t make the transition. Greta Garbo, in spite of her accent, was still successful. Her first talkie, Anna Christie (1930) was advertised as “Garbo Talks!” 

More women worked as screenwriters in this decade than in any other and talkies gave them more freedom to write dialogue with humor or realism and to create more intricate plot lines. The scripts often focused on intelligent and independent women. Although many women editors had been pushed out, those who remained had prominent roles and edited some of the most significant films of the decade. These women were able to capitalize on the evolution of editing from “cutting” films to actually telling stories. Actresses felt the need to create their own individual looks, as many were not only movie stars, but sex symbols as well. This was the advent of costume designers, an area of expertise where women found the door open. Movie stars, with the help of those costume designers, created fashion trends for the public, and department stores carried copies of the fashions the stars wore on screen.  And so the movies, with their dancing, singing, fashions and adventures, provided a place of escape from daily routines.


Hollywood’s Golden Age

The door to studio management was cracked open when Virginia Van Upp (right) was made Executive Producer at Columbia Pictures in 1945.

The age of classic cinema, the 1940s are considered Hollywood’s GoldenAge. Stars, such as Betty Grable and Lauren Bacall, manifested glamour and mystique. Advances in film technology grew significantly.The Oscars opened this decade with a bang, awarding Gone with the Wind eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Vivien Leigh won her Oscar for Best Actress. Hattie McDaniel became the first African American to be nominated for, and win, an Oscar: Best Supporting Actress. Judy Garland landed an Academy Juvenile Award for her performance as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Both of these films showed the promise of Technicolor, with audiences loving it.During World War II, however, studios saved money by making many films in black-and-white. Popular black-and-white films included Mrs. Miniver, which won BestPicture and the Best Actress Oscar for Greer Garson. Beloved holiday films were made in this decade:  It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) with Donna Reed and Miracle on 34th Street (1947) starring a young Natalie Wood.

Audiences wanted and got variety in stories and characters. Women screen writers worked hard filling this demand, earning Academy Award nominations and winningOscars. Two women won Academy Awards for editing during the 1940s, another strong place for women at this time. An Academy Award for costume designers was established in 1948, recognizing the significant contribution this field made to the production of films. Two categories would exist for many years—one for films in color and one for films in black-and-white. In1949, Edith Head received an Oscar nomination for The Emperor Waltz, the first of her 35 nominations, including eight wins, making her both the most honored costume designer and woman in Academy Award history. Also in 1949, Carmen Dillon was the first woman to win a shared Oscar for Best Art Direction (Black-and-White) for Hamlet. Ida Lupino began directing films during this decade and became the second female member to join the Director’s Guild of America, after Dorothy Arzner. And the door to studio management was cracked open when Virginia Van Upp was made Executive Producer at Columbia Pictures in 1945. Hollywood flourished during the 1940s, an era of magic and prestige.


The Breakup of the Studio System

Dorothy Dandridge became the Black woman to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance in Carmen Jones.

Societal trends significantly affected the movie industry following World War II and into the 1950s. Men returned from war, which forced many women out of the workforce. Families moved to the expanding suburbs and expected to find services there. They turned their attention to television and attendance declined at movie theaters located near city centers. Drive-in theaters became the rage, but suburban multiplexes wouldn’t show up for another decade or more. Under new trust-busting laws, studios were no longer allowed to own their own theaters. The studio system began to break up. The many individuals required to put a movie together were no longer under contract, but were instead hired on a project-by-project basis. This may have resulted in greater creativity and opportunities for actors to negotiate higher salaries, but it also meant significantly less job security. The women who were screenwriters and film editors lost ground. Even fewer women held decision-making roles in this new system.

Hollywood producers looked to television to help their bottom lines, with many major studios, such as Disney and Warner Brothers Pictures, becoming increasingly involved throughout the decade. One notable television “first” occurred in March 1953 when the Academy Awards were broadcast, receiving the largest audience in television’s short history. Although there were fewer female screenwriters, some of the most memorable films of the decade were written by women, sometimes with nods from The Academy. In directing, Ida Lupino’s continued work was a bright spot in a decade with few remarkable projects from women. But women did receive Oscar nominations in the field of editing, with Adrienne Fazan winning theOscar for Gigi in 1959. The costume designers flourished, with Oscar nominations going to women in every year of the decade and some Oscar wins along the way. A milestone was reached when Dorothy Dandridge became the Black woman to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for her performance in Carmen Jones. This decade was also known for McCarthyism, Senator Joseph McCarthy’s war on communism, which led to many Hollywood figures being “blacklisted” or boycotted. This stigma forced many out of the industry—some for years, some forever. With the growth of television and the suburbs and the changes in the studio system, the movie industry was in a very different place by the end of the decade than it had been at the beginning.


The Times Are a-Changin’

Women thrived in set decoration and costume design, perhaps because sewing and the arts fall under the category of “women’s work.” In costume design, Edith Head (pictured with Audrey Hepburn) continued her string of Oscar nominations and wins.

The movie industry was not immune to the sexual revolution, the VietnamWar, the women’s movement and other forces at play during the 1960s.  Many films in this decade, such as The Graduate and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, tried to stay relevant to the issues of the day. But big musicals made a splash as well. Many won Best Picture awards, but only a few provided vehicles for actresses to win Oscars. Of note is the tie for the Best Actress Oscar in1969 between Barbra Streisand’s musical comedy Funny Girl and Katharine Hepburn’s drama, A Lion in Winter.  A new phenomenon was on the rise. The purchasing power of teenagers grew in this decade, particularly that of teenage girls. A new category of films opened up as Hollywood welcomed this new market. The result was that young stars, such as Sandra Dee, Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld, emerged as “teen queens.” They lightheartedly talked about makeup and dating and still covered serious issues in their films.

The film industry had financial difficulties in this decade. Movie audiences declined, in part due to the dominance of television. American film companies began to diversify with records or television production. Although there were many women who attained star status and brought in big bucks at the box office for their films, these women did not have influence or power within the movie industry itself.  Women continued as screenwriters, but fewer in number than in previous decades. None of the women who were nominated for Academy Awards for writing in this decade took home the Oscar. Some women film editors, who were also decreasing in numbers, received Oscar nominations, with only one win—to Anne V.Coates for Lawrence of Arabia in 1963. Women, however, thrived in set decoration, art direction and costume design, perhaps because sewing and the arts fall under the category of “women’s work.” In costume design, Edith Head continued her string of Oscar nominations and wins. Many more women were recognized and gained influence in this area as well, with multiple women being nominated in every year of the 1960s. The cultural turmoil of the 1960s set the stage for the struggle to come as women strove to regain their power, in the film industry and throughout society.


Starting a Comeback

Dede Allen, who edited Bonnie and Clyde (1967), became the first editor to demand and receive a percentage of a film’s profits.

During this decade, women began making slow progress toward the goal of gender parity in the movie industry, paralleling a wider trend of women moving into the workforce. Emulating their sisters from the early days of the industry, women began finding ways to move their desired projects forward by multitasking. Whether they formed their own production companies or became their own screenwriters or cinematographers, they were able to direct and act in their own films. More women were hired as screenwriters and demonstrated their success in writing stories for all audiences. This was especially true for Nancy Dowd’s hockey film, Slap Shot, which she followed with a shared Oscar win in 1979 for Coming Home. Women writers were represented in nine of the 10 Academy Award seasons in this decade. Female editors let their voices be heard, becoming more influential and acknowledged by The Academy. Dede Allen, who edited Dowd’s Slap Shot, was one of the most successful female editors, becoming the first to demand and receive a percentage of a film’s profits. Margaret Booth’s lifetime of editing was recognized by The Academy in 1978 with an Honorary Award for her years of outstanding work. 

Although women film producers had been common in the early days of cinema, one broke a glass ceiling in this decade. In 1974, Julia Phillips became the first female producer to receive an Oscar for Best Picture, sharing the win for The Sting. She shared another nomination in 1977 for Taxi Driver.  A truly significant breakthrough occurred in this decade, when Lina Wertmuller became the first woman nominated for Best Director. Her film was Seven Beauties and the year was 1977. She received a second nomination that year for Best Screenplay WrittenDirectly for the Screen for the same movie.  Although Virginia Van Upp had reached the level of production executive in the 1940s, it was not until this decade that a few women were studio executives again. After decades of inequality, women in Hollywood once again began an upward climb.


Women Manage their Futures

In 1980, Sherry Lansing became President of 20th Century Fox, putting women in positions with considerable decision-making power. 

A significant event for women occurred in 1980 when Sherry Lansing became President of 20th Century Fox. Following in Lansing’s footsteps, some women were hired by major studios to fill positions with considerable decision-making power.  Women continued multitasking in order to make the films that interested them. BarbraStreisand co-wrote, directed, produced and starred in Yentl (1983). Gale Anne Hurd co-wrote and produced The Terminator (1984). It was just the beginning for them both. The decade delivered a slew of memorable performances from actresses. Musicals in this decade were all but absent, but Grammy-winner Cher found her way into an acting career, taking home the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Moonstruck in 1988. Meryl Streep has received a record-setting 21 Oscar nominations, including three Oscar wins, in her career. Seven of her nominations occurred in this decade, including her first two Oscar wins—1980 for Kramer vs. Kramer (Best Supporting Actress) and 1983 for Sophie’s Choice (Best Actress).

Women received Oscar nominations in nine of the 10 years of this decade for Best Film Editing with some Oscar wins, being trusted to edit films of all types. Two women won Oscars for editing films that also won the Best Picture Oscar—Claire Simpson for Platoon in1987 and Gabrielle Cristiani for The Last Emperor in 1988. Women were nominated in six of the 10 years in this decade for the Best Picture Oscar. Oscar nominations and wins for women also picked up in the Best Documentary categories—Feature and Short Subject. Women showed that they could write stories on any type of subject matter, earningAcademy Award nominations for their screenplays, too. Nora Ephron found her niche with romantic comedies. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala won the writing Oscar for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium for A Room with a View in 1987. Also for A Room with a View, Jenny Beavan received the Oscar for Best Costume Design. Women working on costume design continued to be successful in this decade, with nominations every year and some Oscar wins as well. Suzanne M. Benson became the first woman to be nominated in the Best Effects, Visual Effects category and took home theOscar for Aliens in 1987. But although some women directors had box office success, The Academy did not honor a woman in this decade with a Best Director nomination. Women were moving forward in the movie business, but there was still a long way to go.



In 2002, Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Monster’s Ball.

In 2002, Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Monster’s Ball. This decade also saw the first woman nominated fora shared Oscar in the category of Best Animated Feature: Marjane Satrapi for Persepolis in 2008.  Woman have been instrumental throughout film history in helping to move forward the technology of the movies and this decade proved no different. Dr.Kristina Johnson worked on technology that helped create RealD 3D imaging, responsible for new and improved 3D movies. It was used for the first time in the movie Avatar (2009) and is currently the most widely used technology for watching 3D films in theaters.

Sophia Coppola, daughter of director Francis Ford Coppola, became the third woman to be nominated for the Best Director Oscar in 2004, for Lost in Translation. As it was with the previous two nominees for Best Director, she also was nominated for Best Original Screenplay. In that category, Coppola took the Oscar home. In 2008, Diablo Cody also won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, for Juno. Women won Oscars in the area of Best Costume Design nine years in a row (from 2000 to 2008) and a woman was nominated in 2009. Thelma Schoonmaker was the only editor to take home the Oscar, with two wins: The Aviator in 2005 and The Departed in 2007. Women were fabulous in the Best Makeup category with nominations and wins throughout the decade. Cathy Schulman shared a Best Picture Oscar win for Crash in 2006. 2004’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King brought Fran Walsh two shared Oscar wins. One was for Best Picture and the other was with Philippa Boyens for BestAdapted Screenplay. In that same writing category, Diana Ossana took home the Oscar for Brokeback Mountain in 2006. It was a decade of breakthroughs, in the Oscars and in technology, as women gained ground across the industry.


Women Rise

Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker in 2010.

Starting the decade with a bang, Kathryn Bigelow became the fourth woman nominated and the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker in 2010. That night she also took home a shared Oscar for Best Picture for the same film. Greta Gerwig became the fifth woman nominated for theBest Director Oscar in 2018 for Lady Bird. Like three of the four preceding female nominees, she, too, was nominated for Best Original Screenplay for her film. 2018 brought Rachel Morrison the first nomination for a woman in the Best Cinematography category, for Mudbound. This decade also landed Lora Hirschberg the first Oscar win for a woman in the category of Best Sound Mixing, for Inception in 2011. The second shared Oscar win, and the third nomination for a woman in the category of Best Visual Effects, went to Sara Bennett for Ex Machina in 2016. Women began to pickup speed in the Best Animated Feature category, with three shared wins: Brenda Chapman for Brave (2013), Jennifer Lee for Frozen (2014) and Darla K. Anderson for Coco (2018).

Women in the Best Costume Design category showed no signs of slowing down with seven Oscar wins. Women celebrated six Oscar wins in Best Art Direction, which was renamed Best Production Design in 2012. In both of these categories, women received nominations every year. Women dominated in the Best Makeup and Hairstyling category with nominations and wins. They also demonstrated staying power in the Best Documentary Feature and Documentary Short Subject categories. Patty Jenkins directed a Wonder Woman (2017) blockbuster, which became the highest-grossing superhero origin film in history. These victories were the culmination of years of hard work by women in the industry, but the 2010s may come to be defined by the social change it led toward the decade’s end. The Time’s Up movement was founded in January 2018 to address inequity in opportunities, benefits and pay in the entertainment industry. Systemic harassment that had previously gone unacknowledged, and had been tolerated for too long, came to the public’s attention and began to be addressed as well. For more than a hundred years, women have enhanced the movie industry with their incredible accomplishments. They are to be celebrated for their achievements. Hope abounds that they will be able to fulfill their dreams and thrive in the decades to come.


Hollywood: Her Story, An Illustrated History of Women and the Movies

A historical compilation of the many women who contributed to the Hollywood film industry, Hollywood: Her Story, An Illustrated History of Women and the Movies highlights 1,200 women who have added their talent and creativity in the many categories needed to make a movie. Some of their stories are known, while some have been all but forgotten.

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