When Progress Ebbs: Career Women at the Turn of the 20th Century

Radha Vatsal muses on the shifting contours of social progress for women.

When Progress Ebbs: Career Women at the Turn of the 20th Century

IN HER 1954 MEMOIR Many a Good Crusade, Virginia Gildersleeve, long-time dean of Barnard College, lamented:

Married or unmarried, women’s chances of getting professorships in colleges or universities have deteriorated, I fear, during the last thirty years. Most colleges for women, which during their early decades had a large majority of women on their faculties, have during the past quarter-century made great efforts to secure a considerable proportion of men. As it is far from easy for women to obtain a post […] in a co-educational institution, this has made the situation rather worse than it used to be. (emphasis added)

Gildersleeve, who was born in 1877 and attended the Brearley School in New York (founded to prepare girls for Harvard’s entrance examination), had seen conditions for professional women change over the course of her storied lifetime — not, as she observes above, for the better. She went on to attend Barnard College, then housed in a cramped brownstone on Madison Avenue, and was part of a freshman class of 21 girls. By the time she graduated in 1899, the college had moved to its new spacious accommodations in Morningside Heights, across the street from Columbia University. The new halls seemed huge at first but were quickly filled with an increasing number of female students.

Gildersleeve taught at the college, received her PhD from Columbia in 1908, and was appointed dean of Barnard in 1911, a position she held for 36 years, until she retired in 1947. Despite having fought to allow married women and mothers on the faculty, she noted with dismay in her memoir that she had recently asked a young woman — a junior with top marks at one of the country’s best universities — whether she’d ever had a woman professor. “‘No,’ [the young woman] answered. ‘I haven’t. I never thought of a woman professor. I don’t believe I should like to study under one.’”

The phenomenon Gildersleeve witnessed — an explosion of women faculty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, followed by an alarming decline — was mirrored in other professions such as medicine. In her 1985 study In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America, Barbara Solomon relates the observations of a 1913 Radcliffe graduate who claimed that her decision to pursue a medical career was inspired by the many women physicians practicing in Boston when she was a child. The number of women doctors in the United States ballooned from under 2,500 in 1880 to 9,000 in 1910, amounting to six percent of all doctors — a proportion that fell steadily thereafter.

The idea that opportunities had been better for professional women in the early years of the 20th century, but went downhill in the following decades, might seem strange. It’s common to believe that social progress moves in one direction — upward — and to conflate different kinds of freedoms: political, social, economic. Since women won the right to vote in 1920, one might assume that they continued to make considerable professional gains in the aftermath of suffrage. As Gildersleeve’s remarks show, however, this was not the case. Opportunities declined in the 1920s, despite the previous three decades being something of a golden age for career-minded women.

Social optimism regarding the new careers for women found expression in the little-known silent-era action films of the 1910s that I have written about elsewhere. In these thrill-filled serials, women had ambitions that took them out and about in the world, like the aspiring journalist in The Perils of Pauline (1914), the working journalists in Dollie of the Dailies (1914) and Perils of Our Girl Reporters (1916), the railroad telegraph operator in Hazards of Helen (1914–1917), or the businesswoman in The Haunted Valley (a late example of the genre in 1923). The daring protagonists of these movies openly courted adventure: they drove cars, flew planes, battled villains on top of moving trains, even brandished guns when necessary. The actresses who played the leads were themselves examples of what women could do if given the opportunity: they performed their own stunts, and even contributed to the scripts. As Helen Holmes of Hazards of Helen put it: “if a photoplay actress wants to achieve real thrills, she must write them into the scenario herself.”

These adventurous onscreen women were matched by their colleagues behind the camera. During the first two decades of the 20th century, women worked in all aspects of film production — from writers, directors, and producers to exhibitors, editors, and script supervisors. For instance, Alice Guy-Blaché, one of the earliest filmmakers ever, was head of production at the Gaumont Company in France from 1896 to 1906. She married a fellow filmmaker, moved to the United States, and started Solax, her own production company. The firm was so successful that she built her own studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, in 1912. According to film historian Alison McMahan, the studio cost upward of $100,000. It was here that Guy-Blaché filmed her most expensive and ambitious Solax project, Dick Whittington and His Cat, which cost $35,000.

In her essay “Woman’s Place in Photoplay Production,” published in The Moving Picture World in 1914, Guy-Blaché exhorted women to become film producers:

It has long been a source of wonder to me that many women have not seized on the opportunities offered to them by the motion picture art to make their way to fame and fortune as producers of photodramas. Of all the arts there is probably none in which they can make such splendid use of talents so much more natural to a woman than to a man and so necessary to its perfection.

The transition to the studio system, however, made it more difficult for women filmmakers to access the large budgets and distribution system needed to make and sell successful movies. By the late 1910s, Guy-Blaché was working for hire; by the 1920s, she had stopped making films entirely. A similar fate befell Lois Weber, who in 1916 was elected to the Motion Pictures Directors Association, the only woman to receive such an honor. She went on to form her own production company in 1917, Lois Weber Productions, but her career slowed down after 1922 and she didn’t direct films after the late 1920s.

The same fate also befell relative unknowns like Madeline Brandeis, who used the fortune from her divorce settlement to finance her own Hollywood movies. Brandeis directed, wrote, and/or produced well-received short films for children in the 1920s, then went on to make educational films for Pathé in the later part of the decade, which she wrote, shot, and edited in foreign locations. By the 1930s, however, her filmmaking career had ended and she was writing children’s books, including one called Adventure in Hollywood (1937), in which the two main female characters dream, not of working behind the camera and making their own movies, but of becoming actresses within the studio system. One hundred years later, rather little has changed: in its 2016 “Celluloid Ceiling” report, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that “women comprised 17% of all directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films.”

All this raises the question: What precisely happened to cause career opportunities to dry up in so many fields? Women’s success in different professions wasn’t merely a wartime phenomenon — as the numbers show, women were prominent in fields like higher education, medicine, and film well before World War I broke out. One possible reason for the contraction in opportunities may have been societal backlash against women’s success. Certainly, the increasing enrollment of women in co-educational colleges and their growing academic achievements set off alarm bells. Quotas were enforced for women students, certain scholarships were designated off-limits, and “junior” colleges were established as more conducive outlets for gentler temperaments. In some fields, the mechanisms of professionalization created barriers to entry, requiring specialized studies or membership in guilds that expressly excluded women.

Books like Dr. Edward Clarke’s influential Sex in Education: or, A Fair Chance for the Girls (1873) had argued that, while it was perfectly reasonable to afford educational and employment opportunities to women, the usual timing was wrong for their gender. Clarke claimed that excessive study during adolescence diverted energy away from a young woman’s developing sexual organs, possibly leading to an inability to bear children and to consequent mental illness. Presumably it would have been acceptable for a woman to study or work during her 20s, after her reproductive system had matured, but by then she would be too busy as a wife and mother.

As Clarke puts it: “The fact that women have often equaled and sometimes excelled men in physical labor, intellectual effort, and lofty heroism, is sufficient proof that women have muscle, mind, and soul, as well as men; but it is no proof that they have had, or should have, the same kind of training; nor is it any proof that they are destined for the same career as men.” This is a wonderful way of both having one’s cake and eating it. Clarke’s theories allow him to claim that women aren’t in any way inferior to men, but because of the preexisting condition of being women, they should not receive the same training or have the same career opportunities as men.

We’ve come a long way from Clarke’s views, but not as far as we might hope. Pernicious undercurrents of gender bias continue to undercut professional women’s accomplishments. Women still earn less for comparable work than their male counterparts. Realizing that progress ebbs and flows, that gains made at a particular moment in time aren’t automatically protected, that they may be lost and have to be won again, is both demoralizing and inspiring. The fact that Gildersleeve, writing in the 1950s, lamented the professional setbacks for women she’d seen in her lifetime suggests that things were once much better and that the forward march of progress isn’t a given. Rather, it takes constant vigilance and dedicated effort to achieve and maintain.


Radha Vatsal is the author of A Front Page Affair and Murder Between the Lines, mystery novels set in World War I–era New York City, and co-editor of the Women Film Pioneers Project.

LARB Contributor

Radha Vatsal is the author of A Front Page Affair and Murder Between the Lines, mystery novels set in World War I–era New York City, and co-editor of the Women Film Pioneers Project. She received her PhD in English from Duke University. Photo courtesy of Juliette Conroy.


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