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Guest Post: Pioneering Women DIrectors, Then and Now

Guest Post: Pioneering Women DIrectors, Then and Now

This past Saturday night, the Directors Guild of America celebrated
the accomplishments of the Pioneering Women Directors of the DGA. Susan Bay, Nell
Cox, Joelle Dobrow, Dolores Ferraro, Victoria Hochberg, and Lynne Littman were and are six remarkable,
brave women who were the first DGA members to speak out against
employment discrimination against women directors in Hollywood. 

These six women
dedicated years of their lives, over weekends and at kitchen tables,
painstakingly analyzing DGA deal memos that went back more than twenty years. What
their efforts proved, without a shadow of a doubt, was that their lack of
employment was not due to a lack of talent or tenacity, but a
pervasive, insidious discrimination that was sidelining all female directors. In
1979, only .05% of the DGA directing deal memos were for women directors.

Due to their relentless efforts, a lawsuit was launched, a
committee was formed, and Hollywood hiring practices for women improved — a
little. Thirty-five years later, in 2013, women directed 14% of TV episodes and less than
4.7% of features. The women at the DGA event spoke eloquently of the need to continue to press
for gender equity and how, despite the fact that their lawsuit temporarily
galvanized the industry immediately following the lawsuit, the numbers of women
directing are getting worse, not better. 

Several of them pointed their comments
directly at the DGA, entreating them to use the guild’s power within the
industry to do more — much more. The jam-packed audience was thrilled to meet the
women and hear their stories, with standing ovations honoring these women who
risked their careers for the sake of making social change. 

DGA President Paris Barclay opened the evening by sharing
his discontent with the discouraging diversity statistics that had been
released earlier in the week
, highlighting no improvement in the past two
years. He said he hoped that the DGA Diversity Task Force pressure might
persuade our industry to change the status quo. He urged everyone with the
power to hire to take personal responsibility for making enlightened hiring

Then the evening shifted into a celebration of
three highly successful women directors: Patty Jenkins, Mimi Leder, and Betty
Thomas. Their careers were highlighted, they were lauded by notable filmmakers
and family members alike, and they each spoke individually and participated in
a Q&A, led by former DGA president Martha Coolidge.

The career ladder of a director, female or male, is often a
complicated climb. With no prescribed method for reaching the goal of calling
“Action!” on a set, there are myriad ways to apprentice one’s self and learn the
ropes. It was great to hear that Patty Jenkins’ path was as a 2nd Assistant Camerawoman, or focus puller, and that for seven years she worked on
music videos and commercials until she caught a break and was supported by
colleagues who believed in her. 

Mimi Leder came up as a Script Supervisor, an
excellent position from which to observe and learn the intricacies of directing
and the politics of a set. She also bravely talked about her eight-year dry
spell, when she could not find any work directing, despite her wildly
accomplished resume. Betty Thomas’ entrée was through acting, and being a
regular on a hit show (Hill Street Blues)
was certainly a great seat from which to learn the language of directing. 

While it was wonderful to hear these smart, forthright women directors share their stories, I strongly believe that the focus on
employment equity is not best served by merely feting a handful of successful woman
who have defied the odds. 

If change is ever to happen on a global level for
women directors, it will be through the unified voices of the many who create a
groundswell of demand, requiring the industry to take a good, hard look at nothing
short of widespread industrial discrimination. It would have been very
effective if these women had been asked to illuminate the producers and
networks who DO hire women directors, AND to call out the shameful practices of
those who hire no women at all. Our struggle needs to use every opportunity for
political action to help envision change and organize momentum.

Betty Thomas’ final words for the evening, “Now go out there
and meet someone who can help you in your career,” was a perfect example of how we
need to think differently. What is clear to me on working on this issue for
years is that none of us can afford to be solely concerned about ourselves. Like
the six women who inspired the evening, our prime concern must be social
change, which can only occur when we demand fairness for ALL. 

understand that Ms. Thomas’ intention was to end the evening on a positive
note, but I wish that she had instead urged everyone in that room to join together to create
a collective voice for women directors and to figure out how to apply pressure
to an industry that is complacent and fearful of change.

This event should have culminated with an opportunity for
the like-minded to forge coalitions dedicated to shaking up the status quo. Coffee
and cake, anyone? I applaud the DGA and the Women’s Steering Committee for the
wisdom of honoring these six extraordinary woman and for creating an event dedicated
to women directors, but if the DGA truly desires change, I urge them to
carefully reconsider the mixed message of celebrating the rare individual and
focus instead on enabling powerful political action dedicated to the success of
ALL women directors.

Rachel Feldman is a director and screenwriter in development with The Good Years, a feature film based on the life of Lilly Ledbetter. She has directed series television and movies for ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CW, FOX, HBO, Lifetime, Disney Channel, Teen Nick, and SyFy. Feldman has served as chair of the DGA Women’s Steering

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