By Maria Giese
Eighteen months ago, when DGA women hoped to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the DGA Women’s Steering Committee, newly elected WSC co-chair, Millicent Shelton, denied the origin date of the committee, pushing it forward from 1979 to 1991, thus nullifying the rationale for the event.
Shelton’s denial and attempt at deliberate alteration of historical fact would have re-made a history of women directors that no longer included legal action in fighting gender discrimination aimed at women in U.S. media.
In an e-mail to the DGA-WSC Events Subcommittee, Shelton stated: “According to the DGA the WSC wasn’t recognized by the National Board until later despite the initial meeting. That’s the record. This was discussed at the Activities & Events committee meeting.” She continued, “Any inconsistency with the DGA website should be brought to the attention of the Guild Communications Department.”
Shelton was recommending something our civilization has seen happen innumerable times throughout recorded history. The victors write history according to their own best interest; they weaken the appearance of the vanquished regardless of what the truth may have been.
But why would a women TV director want to change the official history of the women’s committee in such a way as to further damage her own sex? Wouldn’t a female leader in a Guild for directors want to glorify the history of women in Hollywood? Isn’t this an act one might expect to see coming instead from the entrenched white male establishment trying to maintain the status quo?
While many WSC members were deeply troubled and quite confused by their committee chairwoman’s statement, they also saw it as a great opportunity for the Guild to set the record straight while also highlighting the political origins of the committee and giving prominence the work of its six founders: Susan Bay, Nell Cox, Joelle Debrow, Dolores Ferraro, Victoria Hochberg, and Lynne Littman.
As women saw it, the Guild could use this moment to call attention to the many significant contributions the Women’s Steering Committee had made to promote greater employment equality in our industry, not just for women directors and their teams, but for ethnic minorities as well. After all, the WSC was the inspiration for all the diversity committees within the Guild, providing a multitude of platforms for the voices of the Guild’s broad multicultural membership.
The DGA holds a special place in the history of women in Hollywood in many ways, but no where is that more evident than in the support it has provided women since the founding of the WSC in 1979. It was a proud day in Guild history when the leadership– especially DGA Executive Director Michael Franklin– made the bold decision to lead the class-action lawsuit against the major studios, which ultimately helped send the number of women directors skyrocketing from 0.05% in 1979 to 16% in 1995.
The Guild then formed groundbreaking agreements in subsequent collective bargaining negotiations to create lawful gender equity for women and ethnic minorities in accordance with American civil rights laws. Article 15 of the DGA Basic Agreement and Article 19 of the FLTTA became the key legislature between the DGA and its signatories in pursuing equal employment opportunity according to U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII.
The WSC itself stands as an anthem to the past 35 years of Guild courage and strength of conviction in supporting gender equity in our industry. In this light, we see why it was so important to immediately clear up any confusion about the committee’s history. And especially as we moved toward celebrating the 35th anniversary of the committee and its many achievements on behalf of women the DGA has accomplished during that time.
In an effort to set forth the history of the committee’s origins with unambiguous accuracy, we WSC members turned to the DGA magazine (DGA News) issue of December 1990/January 1991 which is devoted entirely to women DGA members and is titled “Women: 10 Years of Action.” The sub-heading is “Women’s Steering Committee Special Issue.” On page five, an article entitled “Ten Years After” begins with the following sentence:
“In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Women’s Steering Committee, various active women members of the Guild were called together on sunny September Saturday morning to talk about…” and so on.
The accompanying photo includes five of the original six committee founders. Also in the photo are Betty Thomas and Leslie Glatter (sic). On page 19, there are photos of several women working at that time, including Mimi Leder and Martha Coolidge. Thomas, Glatter, Leder and Coolidge are all current officers or ex-officers of the Guild. Surely, these women still remember that the Women’s Steering Committee was formed 10 years before this 1990 issue appeared.
On page 25 there is an article about the lawsuit titled “Underemployment Reaction led to Legal Action” by Beth Brickell (who had been co-chair of the Women’s Steering Committee during the 1983 lawsuit).
And on page 20 there is an article titled “The Man Behind the Women’s Movement at the Guild” by Joelle Dobrow, containing an in-depth interview with Michael Franklin, National Executive Director of the Guild when the Women’s Steering Committee was formed in 1979.
In answer to a query by Dobrow about the make-up of the Guild during that time, Franklin replies:
“There were new people in the positions of leadership within the Guild. People like Gil Cates, Gene Reynolds, Jay Sandrich, Boris Sagal, Norman Jewison, Tom Donovan, John Avildsen, Marilyn Jacobs, Enid Roth, Elia Kazan, Jane Schimel, Karl Genus, John Rich, Arthur Hiller and Jackie Cooper. They merged together to support the committee, authorize funds and really move ahead in a broad front.”
The issue also contains an article by Glen Gumpel, current Executive Director (1990), which begins with these words: “Everyone at the DGA is especially proud that this issue of our magazine celebrates the10th anniversary of the Women’s Steering Committee of the Directors Guild of America.”
Finally, on page 32 there is a list of “DGA Women’s Steering Committee Current & Former Officers” that includes names of the original six founders as well as the several committee chairs after the tenure of the original six.
With the above evidence provided by the Directors Guild of America itself, it seemed an auspicious moment to create greater solidarity among the women of the DGA and redouble the cooperative efforts between the Guild and its female membership. In the past twenty years there has been an unfortunate slip in the numbers of female director employment from 16% in 1995 to 14% in 2014, according to the Guild’s most recent statistical study.
Within a few days of submitting a letter containing the above proof of the 1979 creation date of the WSC to Jay Roth (Executive Director of the DGA), an official announcement was made by DGA diversity head, Regina Render, to the WSC. Indeed, the committee was officially founded in 1979.
WSC director member, Rena Sternfeld, immediately asked: “Great! May we have our 35th Anniversary Event now?”
The event did take place some months later, though the WSC women who’d been fighting for it for years were cut out of it. Millicent Shelton and her two WSC co-chairs, Bethany Rooney and Liz Ryan, became active in its planning, appointing new women to the 35th Anniversary Events (planning) Committee.
Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that there is a “Girls’ Club” in our industry that is just as intent in holding on to its sliver of employment pie as the notorious “Boys’ Club” is to gripping on to the lion’s share.
Newly elected DGA president, Paris Barclay (who had also actively tried to stop the event from taking place) ended up introducing the entire WSC 35th Anniversary celebration. And in a display of nearly comical irony, Millicent Shelton herself made the speech introducing the courageous “Original Six” women who’d founded the committee– in 1979!
Shelton said in her speech, “We women must be brave enough to speak out.”