The New Woman in Early 20th Century Cinema

Livia Camperi
10 min readDec 29, 2018


“Come, come, my conservative friend, wipe the dew off your spectacles, and see that the world is moving.” When Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote these words in The Woman’s Bible in 1895, she spurred a social movement that still resounds today with every “smash the patriarchy” shouted at a protest. Although she was initially ostracized from the women’s suffrage movement for questioning the implicit patriarchy in religious orthodoxy, Stanton was a pioneer for women’s rights in the nineteenth century. Since Stanton and the Seneca Falls Convention, women have gained the right to vote, the right to obtain birth control, the right to have a job and earn a living, as well as countless other civil rights and relaxed social expectations. It has been, however, a long process, and as reality changed the goals had to be adjusted and recalibrated. The feminism of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is not the same as the feminism of today, and something that was seen as progressive and groundbreaking at the time might be viewed as archaic or still-somewhat-sexist by modern standards. Films in the early twentieth century reflected the tentative step forward of first-wave feminism with the “new women” both in front of and behind the camera, as well as in the content of the work.

The early twentieth century saw the rapid evolution of American society from the closed-off and rigid Victorian era to the wild postwar Roaring Twenties. Over a period of twenty-something years, the United States embraced modernity, from the changes brought about by industrialization (including a rise in consumerism and capitalism) which spurred immigration, and the ensuing urbanization. Social classes evolved, and with them, social mores and traditions. Gender roles, which had previously been strict and enforced, began to evolve and become more fluid. Political reforms, such as individual states beginning to grant women’s suffrage, paved the way for social changes and evolving gender roles which challenged the norm. The “new woman,” a concept that emerged in the late nineteenth century, reached a head in this era. The New Woman was closely tied with consumerism, placing a higher importance on public image than her predecessors. This feminist movement brought new visibility for women in the public sphere, new power in the political sphere, and new or increased autonomy in the private sphere. Sexual mores evolved concurrently, with the beginning of the birth control movement spearheaded by Margaret Sanger in 1916, as well as the emergence of the idea of companionate marriage, a union that prioritized compatibility over economic ties or familial arrangements. New kinds of courtship rituals emerged that were more public or more sexual (what we would now call “dating”), and leisure activities (although still class-segregated) became more gender-mixed. It’s important to note that New Womanhood didn’t apply to all races equally: the iconic representation (especially in films) was a white middle-class woman, and although white women gained suffrage in 1920, black women didn’t until the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Cinema, when it first emerged, was seen by some as a passing fad, a curiosity with no lasting potential or artistic merit. However, cinema burst into the social consciousness in its first decade and quickly proved that it was here to stay. Once it became (technologically) easier to make longer films, narrative cinema emerged, and filmmakers started to explore how cinema could reflect the modern age. For many, this meant technological advances in filmmaking, showing more urban settings and leisure activities, discussing cultural and social anxieties of the era… As soon as the number of New Women in various circles reached a critical point and studios realized women were a large part of their audience, the women represented in film took on new roles and new personalities. They became more independent, became more and more interested in clothing, jewelry, makeup, and other commodities related to pre-depression consumerism.

Between 1918 and 1920, acclaimed American director Cecil B. DeMille made a trilogy of comedies about marital discord that showcased the New Woman, with a “sentimental heroine transformed into a clotheshorse and sexual playmate.” DeMille first adapted David Graham Phillips’s novel Old Wives for New (1918) on his colleague Jesse Lasky’s advice to “write something typically American . . . that would portray a girl in the sort of role that the feminists in the country are now interested in,” which was immensely popular yet received some backlash from wives. In response to this, DeMille’s writer, Jeanie Macpherson, wrote Don’t Change Your Husband (1919), an apparent role reversal of the first, where the wife is already a New Woman and the husband is the boring one who must change in order to win her back, although it still involves certain concessions on the part of the wife.

Finally, in 1920, DeMille made Why Change Your Wife? which expressed modernist changes most adeptly out of the three. The film explores the concept of companionate marriage, but only as it relates to the shift from “traditional” femininity to modern femininity. Beth (played by emerging star Gloria Swanson) starts modestly dressed, reserved, traditional: she likes to listen to classical music and read books such as How To Improve Your Mind. She “disapproves of her husband’s commodious wine cellar… [and] voices concern about postwar issues,” instead of enjoying the supposed happiness her husband is offering her. When her husband leaves her for younger, sexier, Sally Clark, Beth decides to abandon her old ways and adopt the attire of the New Woman and engage in new forms of leisure, such as going on vacation and drinking/partying with attractive men. Once she and her now ex-husband meet again after her transformation, he falls back in love with her and (after several catfights with Sally) they end up back together and happy.

DeMille makes it clear that only after her transition into New Womanhood can the companionate marriage take effect. This becomes obvious once we compare parallel scenes from their first and second marriages. For example, the scene where they are discussing music choices at the beginning of the film shows their obvious incompatibility: he wants to listen to a Fox Trot, she wants to listen to “The Dying Poet.” They argue, she clearly disapproves of his taste, and he seems bored by her. This incompatibility is only accentuated by the next scene, which shows her receiving the negligee he bought her and clearly refusing to wear it or “share [his] Oriental ideals.” At the end of the film, when she has changed and they are reunited, he offers to play “The Dying Poet,” but she refuses, breaks the record in half, and insists on playing the Fox Trot he wanted; they smile at each other, clearly in love, dance for a second, then kiss. The film closes on them bringing their single beds together, a hint that she may now be open to the intimate activities she seemed so adamantly against at the beginning.

DeMille’s trilogy of sex comedies showcase the evolution of marital relations in the consumer society of the 1910s-20s. His New Woman is independent and sexual, yet still somewhat subservient to her husband and expected to change in order to please him. As film scholar Sumiko Higashi states, “genteel middle-class women, it appears, had become spirited new women, but even in a companionate marriage they were still not equal to men.” In fact, although these particular women do actually gain something, another DeMille film, The Cheat (1915), shows a New Woman whose “sexual and consumerist desires become ‘contained within the institutional framework of middle-class marriage and the family’ and ‘the Victorian ideal of womanhood.’” Edith as a New Woman becomes the victim and her happy ending is being reintegrated into the patriarchy.

While directors like Cecil B. DeMille were putting new women at the forefront of their films, women were also greatly contributing to filmmaking from behind the camera. During this era, when women were starting to get jobs (although they were still only for married women or women who “had to work”), many of them found work in the “lesser” fields of the film industry, such as editing or writing. In Man With a Movie Camera, for example, we see an editing room entirely filled with women: in this case, since we see the man shoot everything and everyone in sight, one could argue that the women were the ones actually forming the film, since the assembly is so important to the final product. While the men had the visible and cushy jobs, the women were doing crucial ones that shaped the final product in significant (if ignored) ways. From 1912 to 1925, approximately half of all films in the United States were written by women. Some women also started to emerge as leaders in the industry. Mary Pickford, for example, started as an actress at Paramount in the 1910s, and quickly rose to fame and became a significant money-maker for the studio. She went on to co-found United Artists with her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, as well as D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, other titans of the industry. She was also one of the thirty-six original founding members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Frances Marion, one of the founders of the Screenwriters Guild, was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood between 1917 and 1930. These and other women were pioneers of the industry and trailblazers for women in film, and also served as evidence that women were emerging as authorities in the more public, visible, and prestigious positions.

Lois Weber is among early Hollywood’s most renowned filmmakers, considered one of the era’s “three great minds” alongside D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, although her contributions have been largely ignored or forgotten by history. While her contemporaries sought to legitimate the new art by aligning it with “highbrow culture,” Weber chose to make controversial and provocative films that engaged directly with modern life, especially with issues concerning women. As her career progressed, she realized the power popular culture had in constructing how women are seen and treated, so she committed herself to writing better and more complex roles for women, as well as taking an active stand against gender norms in Hollywood. As she explored the possibilities of cinema’s social impact, she also realized the possibilities of its visual impact as a storytelling medium. She experimented with cinematic techniques, both in-camera and in post-production, all the while using innovative methods to tell progressive stories about women. Her films often depicted non-traditional female characters who explored their sexualities individually (unmarried), or explored their relationships with their husbands and families in ways that challenged even the slightly more progressive social mores of the era.

In 1909, D.W. Griffith made a short film called The Lonely Villa, about a mother and her daughters hiding in their home while robbers break in and the husband races to the rescue. In 1911, Griffith made The Lonedale Operator, which essentially told the same basic story except the protagonist was a young girl working at a railway station. One big difference between the two films, however, is that in The Lonedale Operator, the girl actually manages to hold off the robbers on her own, before she is eventually rescued, by tricking them into thinking she has a gun. Despite only a two-year difference between the films, the latter showed a step in a feminist direction, as well as showing Griffith’s innovations in editing and cross-cutting. Two years later, Lois Weber made Suspense. She drew “on a rich intertext…assum[ing] viewers’ familiarity with Griffith’s formula: a young mother and her infant are isolated in a ‘lonely villa’ far from town where they face a male intruder.” Weber’s film, however, employed revolutionary filmmaking techniques in order to take on a cinematic figuration of femininity. Where Griffith used editing and intercutting to move the narrative, Weber used innovative compositions and screen techniques to put the viewer in the woman’s position, something not often seen at the time. When the mother and the infant are hiding on the second floor and the intruder is standing outside trying to get in, the mother looks out the window and Weber employs an extreme high-angle shot to show the mother’s point of view. Not only is it innovative in the evolution of filmmaking, it also pushes to the forefront something theretofore largely unseen: a woman’s point of view.

Besides her experimentations with filmmaking techniques, Weber also embraced controversial subjects in her films (until the Hays Code prohibited most of it in the 1930s). Possibly her most famous film, Where Are My Children (1916), discusses the issue of abortion and birth control. Using cutting-edge techniques such as superimpositions (with the ghostly children at the end), closeups, and various other special effects, Weber tells the story of a lawyer who, after prosecuting a doctor performing illegal abortions, finds out that his own wife has had multiple and is now barren. Although the film appears to be progressive in certain aspects, its less-than-ideal message and implied support of eugenics (since it acts sympathetically towards the poor who need birth control but shames and punishes the high-class women who get abortions) places the purported feminism in its era and stands as a time capsule of sorts for then-modern opinions.

The early twentieth century saw the rise of the New Woman in America; spurred by the writings of feminist activists in the late nineteenth century, the New Woman demanded equal treatment, and took her independence by becoming more educated and seeking a career, as well as physically changing her appearance, either to reclaim her sexuality or simply to allow for more activity (for example, it became a lot easier for women to use bicycles once they adopted bloomers). Cinema, as a reflection of modern society, evolved to depict more women on screen that mirrored the women in the audience. Women also started to claim more important roles in the burgeoning industry, as actresses, directors, editors, or even studio owners. The films of the 1920s, especially, serve as a microcosm of sorts through which to evaluate the social and sexual mores of the time, as well as how and where women were represented on and off screen.



Livia Camperi

One and a half degrees in Cinema Studies from NYU and this is the most productive thing that’s come of it.