There are many myths associated with Hollywood. One that persists to the present day is the one that asserts that women contributed only marginally to the film industry during its Golden Age (the 1920s to the 1960s) and that male executives ran the show.
Viewers and critics alike often fail to notice that there are roles other than director, producer, and talent (such as screenwriters and editors), and that women in the industry have been working toward gender equality and representation since the era of classic cinema.
As J.E. Smyth, an American-born film historian and professor at Warwick University, demonstrates in her book Nobody's Girl Friday: The Women Who Ran Hollywood (328 pgs., Oxford University Press, 2018, U.S. $29.95), the motion picture industry has a long--though underrepresented --history as a space for women's creative labor and empowerment. ("Girl Friday" is an American term meaning helper or assistant.)
Smyth validates her assertion by first turning to the employment records listed in Film Daily, a television-and film-focused publication that for 55 years (before it closed in 1970) offered a comparatively broad overview of who worked where and in which position. "Anyone expecting lists of uniformly male names is in for a surprise," Smyth quips.
"These women weren't secretaries fetching coffee, transcribing Dictaphones, and fending off their boss's wandering hands," says Smyth. Instead, they were heading research, publicity, wardrobe, sound, and story departments, contributing to studios' writing rooms, and founding crucial Hollywood guilds and unions, including the Screen Actors Guild and the Screen Writers Guild.
A rigorous revisionist history book, Nobody's Girl Friday compiles the exceptional biographies of Hollywood women who balanced fame, political commitments, public service, and home life. Smyth pulls from a vast archive of documentation, including payrolls, union lists, local papers, and even phone books, to harken back to what she calls "a golden age of employment" for women.
These women "believed in equal rights, hated socially constructed gender definitions, loved their work, and recognized that men could sometimes be greater allies than other women," and they never lost sight of "the importance of their identities as women in the workforce," writes Smyth.
Among the scores of working women in studio-era show business, particular attention is given to silver screen luminaries, including Bette Davis and Katherine...