Contested Spaces: Women and the Gendered Geography of Early American Cinema

AHA Session 10
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia Hall 1 (Washington Hilton)
Hilary Hallett, Columbia University
Kathy L. Peiss, University of Pennsylvania

Session Abstract

In the early twentieth century, cinema was among the most conspicuous and spectacular features of America’s cities. This panel examines the role of cinema in the lives of American women as they navigated the era’s rapidly shifting social, political, and cultural terrain. Cinema was not only a form of entertainment and a tool for disseminating ideas, it was also an industry that developed in tandem with the infrastructures (especially the railroads), markets and modes of production central to the rise of industrial and consumer capitalism. Our papers will examine the significance of cinema in understanding how women experienced and navigated the city and the screen.  

Cara Caddoo and Jeffrey Klenotic challenge the longstanding assumption that motion picture “showmen” and exhibitors were men. Caddoo’s paper unearths the forgotten history of early black film exhibition in black churches, which began before the nickelodeon period in the urban South and West. African American women were more likely to urbanize and constituted a majority of members in all the mainline denominations of the black church. As they sought new ways to raise money for their churches—which staked claims to urban space against the rising tide of Jim Crow segregation—black women began incorporating cinema into their fundraising strategies.

Jeffrey Klenotic demonstrates that women were also important players in the commercial realm of early American cinema. By using GIS technologies to map landscapes of early film exhibition in relation to a variety of social and spatial contexts, Klenotic shows how female moving picture entrepreneurs navigated not only the early twentieth century’s railways and roadways, but also the era’s gender expectations.

Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley’s paper also looks at the new career opportunities and geographic imaginaries that emerged with the rise of modern cinema. Fuller-Seeley examines the early work of Mayme Peak, a newspaper writer who reported on Hollywood for a readership located mostly in Boston. Peak’s columns situated Hollywood as a familiar space for her readers. Not only was Hollywood similar to New England, Peak’s writing suggested, it was also a place where women could--and should--have expanded career opportunities.

Lauren Santangelo’s paper explores another aspect of the relationship between women, cinema, and space by considering the ways the suffrage movement in New York City used the moving pictures and other commercial entertainments to nationally broadcast its ideas between 1910-1917. Although distant sympathizers and supporters could not participate in the spectacular parades and protests that took place in New York City, moving pictures provided visual evidence and a vicarious participatory experience across space and time.

Together, these papers demonstrate that the experience and ability to move through space--as geographer Doreen Massey has written--is contingent upon a multitude of factors, including gender and race.

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