The DGA hosted an event last Saturday night to celebrate the six women who created the Women’s Steering Committee 35 years ago. The 600-seat theatre was packed, with impassioned cheering and prolonged standing ovations punctuating speeches that just may become historic.
To women directors in Hollywood, those six, the “Original Six,” are giants. They are the heroes who launched the class-action lawsuit in the 1980s that launched women directors’ employment numbers from .05% in 1985 to 16% in 1995 — in just ten years.
They are: Lynne Littman, Susan Bay, Nell Cox, Victoria Hochberg, Joelle Dobrow, and Dolores Ferraro. Remember those names.
From 1979 to 1985, these women risked their careers to create change for all women in our industry. Their work changed the landscape for women directors and their teams forever. There is not a single woman director working in Hollywood today who does not have The Original Six to thank for their jobs.
For all its outspoken liberalism, Hollywood is an industry that has consistently shut women out. In the 20 years since the Original Six initiated legal action and moved up the job numbers to the 1995 highs, women directors’ employment numbers have sunk back. Today, in 2014, fewer women directors are working in American media than two decades ago.
On a global basis, this means that nearly 100% of US media content — America’s most influential export — reflects mostly a male point of view. This means that our industry’s astounding potential to share our nation’s passion for equality and female empowerment is lost to women and girls — to people everywhere — around the world. As Nell Cox put it, “Does it matter that one half of the population sees only a distorted image of itself on screen, and what purpose does this distorted picture serve?”
Great words were spoken Saturday night, even by Guild leaders who may have initially expressed reluctance about the event. Guild President Paris Barclay said in his opening speech, “Why is the DGA making such a big deal about this? We’re making a big deal because it matters.” And DGA leader and WSC co-chair Millicent Shelton called for women “to be brave enough to take action.”
Yet it took a new generation of women DGA members years, amid rancorous infighting within the DGA Women’s Steering Committee, to get this event voted on and approved by the Guild leadership. Why? The DGA leadership, particularly women Guild leaders, worried that such an event would be perceived as “negative” — that it could be “embarrassing.”
As women in Hollywood fight to smash the celluloid ceiling, nothing could be more important than understanding our struggle in the context of history. And ultimately, on Saturday night, we all have the DGA to thank for hosting an event that finally paid tribute to some of our most inspiring pioneers.
The speeches made by the Original Six were poignant and rousing. Joelle Debrow praised Michael Franklin, the DGA’s Executive Secretary in the 1980s who finally ordered the landmark class-action lawsuit to commence, calling him “Our point-man, our guru, our gladiator.”
And while inspiring the need for new action, Lynne Litman despaired that in all these years, little has changed: “We women have literally been disappeared from the profession because of our gender.” Victoria Hochberg, the very spearhead of the group, spoke enthrallingly about how new action is demanded of both women and Hollywood’s studios and institutions today.
What really needs to happen next?
Hope for women directors today is coming from newly inspired organizations, as well as a new generation of directors, academics, and activists. And it is mostly taking place online. Collective wisdom reaped from numerous sources: the ACLU, the EEOC, stats gurus like Martha Lauzen and Stacy Smith, and leading gender experts like Geena Davis and Jennifer Siebel Newsom, blogs like this one, and the individual voices of women director/activists around the world, from Jane Campion to Lexi Alexander.
These are the voices that are calling for sweeping changes in our industry:
1. The DGA must no longer stand as the primary policing entity for gender-employment equity for its members in Hollywood. The DGA, as a union run by its majority white-male membership, is in an intrinsic conflict-of-interest in advancing women directors. For this reason, DGA efforts in the past two decades have failed women members.
2. Revise DGA-Studio Collective Bargaining Agreements to create a double-mandate system to address the specific needs of women of all ethnicities, separate from male ethnic minorities. Today, Guild signatories can fulfill their diversity obligations by hiring male ethnic minority members and not hiring women at all.
3. Commence legal action for women directors, targeting Hollywood studios and institutions that violate Title VII.
4. Initiate a paradigm shift in cultural thinking about women directors though an ongoing mainstream and grassroots media campaign.
5. Create a dedicated program within the industry to provide individual advocacy for women directors and their teams.
Some of these efforts have already begun. This year, the ACLU announced a new campaign to address this problem. Women directors are encouraged to contact the ACLU (anonymously or openly) to tell their stories of discrimination.
Thanks to Saturday night’s DGA tribute to the Original Six, we are reminded that equal-employment opportunity is a right that we women must continue to fight for. Standing on the shoulders of giants, of those who fought for Title VII, and those great women who are the Original Six, we can create change.
Women directors in Hollywood can achieve employment equity, but we — like so many women women before us — must pick up the torch and prepare for battle.
Maria Giese directed the feature films When Saturday Comes, starring Sean Bean and Academy Award-nominee Pete Postlethwaite, and Hunger, based on the novel by Nobel Prize-winner Knut Hamsun. Educated at Wellesley College and the UCLA Graduate School of Film and Television, she is an active member of the DGA and currently serves as the Women’s DGA Director Category Rep. Check out her activist/agitator web forum Women Directors in Hollywood.