Gender & Film Exhibition

Women Exhibitors 1901-18 with Gender Distribution by State 1910. Click Map to Expand Image.
Women Exhibitors 1901-18 with Gender Distribution by County 1910. Click HERE to Go Interactive!

Recently, I examined the case of film exhibitor May Burnham Richardson, who owned and operated the Star Theatre in Milford, NH from 1912 to 1920. Richardson was a suffragist and one of at least two dozen women who ran movies in the state during the 1910s and ’20s. Though it remains unknown how many of New Hampshire’s women exhibitors were suffragists, recent research by scholars such as Kathryn Fuller-Seeley and Karen Ward Mahar, Paul Moore and Louis Pelletier, and Germain Lacasse for the Women Film Pioneers Project has begun to explore the broader terrain of women’s film exhibition more fully, and this work has turned up increasing numbers of independent business women who owned or operated moving picture shows during the silent era.

In a new essay, “Roll the Credits: Gender, Geography and the People’s History of Cinema,” for the Routledge Companion to New Cinema History (in press), I continue to explore the gendered landscape of film exhibition during the 1910s and 1920s, with a focus on how the personal politics of gender within exhibitor trade associations during the late 1910s  converged with, confronted and were co-opted by macro-level changes taking place in the film industry (specifically the rise of vertical integration).

As a context for my research, I was curious to know how the geographic distribution of women exhibitors during this era compared to the gendered distribution of total population across the United States. Did women exhibitors appear more frequently in parts of the country where women formed a majority of total population? To answer this question quantitatively would require comprehensive spatial data sets that were precisely aligned temporally, and the use of statistical analysis to determine the significance of spatial correlations between the two geographic distributions at any given moment in time. Within a more qualitative mode of research, however, GIS visualizations combining two layers of temporally uneven geographic data served me quite well as a useful heuristic for beginning to think through the complexities of gender and geography as they may relate to the flow of culture and politics through networks of movie exhibition and distribution. Such visualizations may ultimately be more effective in raising new questions for further analysis – through statistics and/or the development of detailed historical narratives – than producing definitive answers in themselves.

Each map displayed at the top of this post visualizes two layers of data relating to gender and geography. First, the point data (representing locations where women worked as film exhibitors) is derived from an unpublished database compiled by Max Alvarez (“1901-1918 Women Exhibitors and Distributors”). The database is not comprehensive but it may well represent the most rigorous attempt yet to chart the full extent of women’s work as exhibitors and distributors, as it lists references to women working in these two areas of the industry as found in the following major film trade publications: The Billboard, Motography, Motion Picture News, Moving Picture World, The Nickelodeon, The Film Index/Views & Film Index, and Variety. The maps presented in this post include only the data for film exhibition. Second, the polygon area data (represented in the first map at the state/territory level and in the second map at the county level) is derived from data collected for the 1910 US Census and packaged for public use by the Minnesota Population Center (National Historical Geographic Information System: Version 2.0. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota 2011). As collected by the census, this data counted the number of men and women living in a given area of census geography. I used this data to create a new numerical field that represented the gendered distribution of population by calculating, on a state/territory or county level, the extent to which men or women outnumbered each other in terms of total population for that area.

At the state/territory level, women outnumbered men in six of fifty geographic areas: 1) Massachusetts = 55,920 more women, 2) District of Columbia = 14,969 more women, 3) South Carolina = 11,716 more women, 4) North Carolina = 9,335 more women, 5) Maryland = 6,896 more women, and 6) Rhode Island = 1,982 more women.

At the county level, women outnumbered men in 377 of 2,963 geographic areas. Of these, women’s majority exceeded 10,000 persons in seven areas: 1) Philadelphia County (PA) = 28,082 more women, 2) Middlesex County (MA) = 26,967 more women, 3) Baltimore City County (MD) = 22,095 more women, 4) District of Columbia (DC) = 14,969 more women, 5) Kings County (NY) = 14,769 more women, 6) Orleans County (LA) = 12,597 more women, and 7) Suffolk County (MA) = 10,866 more women.

As previously mentioned, the two geographic data sets are not temporally synchronized. One includes data spanning the years from 1901-18, while the other includes data collected for a decennial census conducted for 1910. Moreover, without spatial statistical analysis, the significance of any presumed visual correlation between the data sets cannot even be speculated upon. Nonetheless, I would suggest that what the maps lack in their ability to precisely answer research questions and close down multiple interpretations of the data, is quite productively offset by their capacity to generate research questions and open up multiple interpretations of the data.

What, for instance, might explain the absence of women exhibitors in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Rhode Island, where women outnumbered men? Did women exhibitors exist? If not, why not? Or maybe women exhibitors existed, but traces of their work were not captured in the trade press, owing perhaps to geographic unevenness in the activities of exhibitor trade associations? Would local newspapers turn up different results? Could county level maps showing areas where women outnumbered men in each state create starting points for future inquiry? More broadly, how might the moviegoing experiences of counties and regions have varied, based on the gendered distribution of population? What questions might lead us in the direction of fine-grained historical accounts of moviegoing experiences in, say, Central Pennsylvania, where women outnumbered men, as opposed to Western Pennsylvania, where men mostly outnumbered women? What was it like to be a woman exhibitor in each of these regions? And what might all of this have meant for the cultural and political geography of the women’s suffrage movement, as it made its march toward ratification in 1920?

A thoughtful map has the power to prompt us to search for answers to many historical and geographic questions; it can help us see who did what, where, and when, and it can aid us in the development of explanations about how and why events unfolded as they did. Just as importantly, maps can also inspire us to raise questions about who didn’t appear and what didn’t happen, where, and when; this, too, is part of the story.