How Cinema Was an Unprecedented Space for Women

The ridiculous backlash against the Alamo Drafthouse’s Women-only screening for Wonder Woman provides a chance to revisit a time in history when the Cinema was an important, unprecedented social space for women.

I study film history in large part because there are many lost, forgotten histories or alternative cinematic experiences/practice that provide ways to re-envision what film (and or media) can be, especially to marginalized peoples. The first two decades of film (~1896-1916) provide many of these.

Below is an illustration that accompanied a 1911 article by Mary Heaton Vorse in Outlook magazine describing her experience in a Tuscon movie house. Note the audience composition. I’ll return to this in a bit.

When I teach intro to film, I include a week on early cinema. At the start of that week I ask my students what they imagine early film going was like. Without fail, they describe lavish movie palaces and upper-class audiences in their best attire. I assume this is how most people view the first audiences of film but this was much later, after film had been gentrified, sanitized, and streamlined.

Early cinemas (nickelodeons) were cheap, neighborhood movie houses and their most loyal audiences were immigrants, the working class, minorities, & women.

This would have been an example of a nicer Nickelodeon. Most were set up in existing, barely modified stores.

Much has been written on why this was the case for each of these groups, but the cinema satisfied needs that these people had that were not satisfied by existing social spaces or cultural institutions. Speaking generally, for women it offered a social space largely free of obtrusive social codes and expectations. An important cross-reference here is Miriam Hanson’s Babel & Babylon in which she writes that, “movies were one of the few places women of all ages and marital status could move in relative freedom from family and social control” (p. 62; Hanson’s classic study extends these early histories, the central importance of female audiences yet the presumed imposition of the male gaze, to interrogate popular feminist film theory). Historian Stephen J. Ross similarly argues that the movies:

were especially important in transforming the gendered uses of public space and expanding the limited range of public amusements available to women. Throughout the nineteenth century, men were free to spend their evenings roaming the streets and participating in any entertainment they desired. Women, however, were expected to remain at home, or if they did venture out, to do so in the company of a proper escort. (Working-Class Hollywood, 21)

Vorse’s illustration is not an exceptional case. Women were a crucial early audience and movie houses attempted different ways to appeal to their business. In one widely reported example, to meet the demands of mothers who would “drop-in” to cinemas, movie houses set up childcare services.

Neighborhood movie houses also acted as important community spaces. As just one example, Ross quotes a 1908 article in The Jewish Daily Forward that described the cinema as “female enclaves where large crowds of women gossip, eat fruit and nuts, and have a good time.”

What happened? In short, the arbiters of culture and “respectable” society were predictably concerned by large groups of immigrants, minorities, and women meeting together (they were especially worried by movie houses used by working class audiences to facilitate labor meetings) to experience a new form of culture that was not under their influence (given that many of the first filmmakers were immigrants and/or Jewish, there was also a fear that the entertainment itself was not safely “American”), and under the guise of safety (combustible film stock, fires, and the flu) and moral reform (“won’t somebody please think of the children!”) sought to police and regulate the movies and movie houses. At the same time, a new group of entrepreneurs were seeking to market the movies to “respectable,” middle-class audiences and families, and the economic and industrial practices that would shortly become the Film Industry started to take shape signaling the end of this far more democratic era of cinema.

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