Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Monday, January 18, 2016

Birthers, Birth Certificates, and Bullshit

Why Birth Certificates Are Proof of Nothing

Barack Obama's Certificate of Life Birth,
released by the White House
and posted online in 2011

First, an explanation—I’ve created this blog in order to write about women’s history, and my post today isn’t about women’s history, women’s issues, or feminist perspectives. Well, since it’s a bit about me, and since I’m a woman, I suppose I could argue that it’s a post about a woman’s history, but that’s stretching it just a bit.

And second, a disclaimer—while I am an unreconstructed and unrepentant political liberal of the old-school tax-and-spend, bleeding heart variety (which should be pretty obvious to anyone who’s read any of these posts), and while the very act of writing about women and their history is most certainly political, what I have to say here about birtherism is not intended to be political, at least not in the sense of being a defense of or an attack on any particular candidate or party. I am not engaging with Tea Party conspiracy theorists still intent on proving Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya or with Trump supporters now intent on disproving Ted Cruz’s status as a “natural born” American citizen eligible to become president of the United States.

Rather, what I am focused on is the myth of the truth and inviolability of the birth certificate. When it comes to the “issue” of birtherism and the document that is supposed to be the “proof” of anything, it’s bullshit. Because when I look at my birth certificate—my official, state of Missouri-issued, proof of my American citizenship—it is a tissue of lies. 

Here's the truth. I was born in 1951. My mother and father were divorced in July of 1957, and my mother remarried just a little over a year later, in August of 1958. At some point after her second marriage, my original birth certificate was altered, and although much of what it now says is a lie, these state-sanctioned lies are, everywhere and for every official purpose, regarded as the truth. 

The copy of the birth certificate I have in front of me right now, my “official” birth certificate, headed “The Division of Health of Missouri Standard Certificate of Live Birth” and “filed 7/28/51,” proclaims “THIS IS A CERTIFIED COPY OF AN ORIGINAL DOCUMENT” and warns, parenthetically, “(Do not accept if rephotographed, or if seal impression cannot be felt.)”

Well, despite all its capital letters, seal impressions, warnings, and claims, this is not an “ORIGINAL DOCUMENT.” And I know it, even though no state or federal agency seems to care.

The first time I remember seeing my birth certificate was when I needed to show it for some reason or another at college. (If I’d needed it to get a California driver’s license, and I am assuming I must have, my mother must have kept it in her possession.) 

I remember being shocked the first time I saw it—I’d always known that when my mother remarried, my stepfather had adopted me and my sister, I'd always known my name had changed, and I'd always known my mother’s scorched-earth efforts to expunge my natural father from my “history” were never to be challenged (my younger brother had no idea that our mother been married before, or that my sister and I were, in truth, his half sisters, and he didn't find out until well into his teenage years).

Despite all this, I hadn’t realized that my birth certificate had been changed as well. As a young person, I found it more than unsettling. It was, and remained, deeply disturbing. 

Decades later, after a professional career focused on writing and teaching women’s history, I finally decided to recover a bit of my own. And so, quite naively, I filled out the Missouri Bureau of Vital Records “Application for a Vital Record,” had it notarized, wrote out a check for $15, and mailed it in, along with a cover letter asking for a copy of my “original” birth certificate. 

What I got back was a copy of the document I’d had all along. But I knew that wasn’t my original birth certificate. On this document, the “Child’s Name” is not my birth name—not the name I'd had for the first eight years of my life. My stepfather is listed as “Father of Child”—while I still keep his last name, I have always known that he was not my father for the first eight years of my life. (No matter how Orwellian my mother’s efforts at erasing and rewriting history, even she couldn’t erase my memories, though I kept them to myself.) The other particulars are my stepfather’s as well—his age, his place of birth, his occupation.

The document’s information about my “Place of Birth” is a little tricky. My birthplace is listed as “St. Louis,” but neither the “Yes” or “No” box is checked under “Inside Limits.” So, even this document seems a bit uncertain about whether I was born in the city of St. Louis or not, maybe because the “Usual Residence of Mother” lists an address in Florissant, Missouri. The falsity of this last bit of information is readily apparent—a quick online search of the address that was supposedly my mother’s “usual residence” in 1951 easily reveals that the house wasn’t built until 1953, and I am pretty sure that we didn't move into that house until 1954, at the very earliest. 

And there is a weird, unexplained date on the document. Although the certificate claims to have been “Filed 7/28/51,” there is a second date stamped in the lower left-hand corner: “Sep 24 1959.” It had taken me many years even to see this second date, and a few more to work out that this must have been the date the birth certificate was altered and reissued.

It took me the better part of a year to get a copy of the original original birth certificate—you know, the one that was actually issued when I was born, the one that was my birth certificate for the first eight years of my life and that reflects the reality of my birth. I finally have it, and it’s now folded up and included with the other one—the not-original "original" and official one that is filled with lies. Interestingly, while that revised and reissued document is stamped and sealed and covered with bureaucratic claims of being “certified” and “original,” this one—the truthful one—is stamped all over with “Void,” “Cancelled,” and “Superseded.”

But, there it is: my birth name, the one I never forgot, my father’s name, the one I never forgot, and my place of birth, St. Louis, with no equivocation. That’s where I was born, as the address listed under “Usual Residence of Mother” makes clear. And in the long process of getting this void, cancelled, and superseded document, I learned that, as I had come to suspect, the “Sep 24 1959” stamp was the date the amended certificate was reissued and the first one, although not destroyed, was sealed—I was never supposed to have it.

While the details of my own birth certificate(s) are uniquely important to me, my situation is not at all unique. There are millions of Americans who have birth certificates much like mine—documents that were changed and altered to suit someone’s needs or preferences or comfort or convenience, documents that are officially regarded as the truth, documents regarded as some kind of holy writ, unalterable and eternal. 

Except of course these documents are proof of nothing. These documents are . . . Well, frankly, these documents are, as I've said, pretty much bullshit. And having a birth certificate that is filled with lies, that robs its holder of his or her history, can cause a lifetime of pain. (For only one essay on this topic, “Why My Amended Birth Certificate is a Lie,” written by adult adoptee Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston, click here.)

The birth certificate of Eleanor Darragh,
mother of Ted Cruz

While I might be ready some day to write about my efforts to recover my own personal history, that is not the purpose of this post. Rather, it’s to point out the utter nonsense of birthers and their blind faith in documents that prove nothing.

To counter the birthers who claimed he was born in Kenya, Barack Obama released the short form of his birth certificate in June 2008. But that wasn’t enough, and so the so-called long form, the Certificate of Live Birth,” was posted on the White House website on 27 April 2011.

And to counter the attacks on his status as a “natural born citizen,” to prove he is the child of an American citizen, Ted Cruz released his mother’s birth certificate, published online in January 2016. 

But the reality is, of course, they prove nothing.

The most recent comment posted at the Brietbart News website, where Eleanor Darragh Cruz’s birth certificate was published, reads “Case closed.” 

Pardon me while I laugh my ass off.

Update (30 October 2016): For a story about another woman's reflections on a birth certificate full of lies, you may be interested in "Melinda and Judy," Episode 53 of Phoebe Judge's Criminal podcast: "When your very arrival in the world is marked with a fake birth certificate, you learn that you can't believe everything that you see." (To listen, click here).

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Men Write History--Of Men

Men, Women, and “History”

A few days ago, I ran across Andrew Kahn and Rebecca Onion’s essay in Slate—“Is History Written about Men, by Men?”

Of course, without reading the any further, I was pretty sure I could answer that question correctly: yes.

Even so, the findings of their study, inspired by VIDA’s annual “Count,”* are depressing:
We examined a set of 614 works of popular history from 80 houses, which either published books we defined as trade history or landed books we defined as trade history on the New York Times Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction best-seller list in 2015. . . . We found that 75.8 percent of the total titles had male authors. Interestingly, the effect was slightly less pronounced among titles that made the New York Times best-seller list—but only slightly (70.4 percent of those authors were male). University press and trade imprints had roughly the same proportion of male to female authors. The persistence of this imbalance, even among authors writing for presses that publish more academics, seems to reflect a continuing gender disparity among academic historians.
Kahn and Onion further note that 71.7 percent of all the biographies published in 2015 were about men—mostly Founding Fathers, presidents, war heroes, athletes, and male writers—and they were written by men (mostly—87%). Of the relatively few biographies about women published in 2015, most were written by women (only 6% of the biographies about women were written by men).

Rachel Hope Cleves's
history, published by Oxford,
mentioned in the Slate article
Just a few days later, last Monday, Alison Flood reported on Slate’s piece in her “Popular History Writing Remains a Male Preserve, Publishing Study Finds,” published in The Guardian. 

But Flood did more than summarize the Slate essay—she went on to report on figures in the UK, concluding that “the skew is just as dramatic.” 

Only 4 of the top-selling 50 histories published in the UK in 2015 were written by women, with 2 more co-authored by women. When The Bookseller, a trade magazine, previewed the top 57 history and politics titles of 2015, only 13 were written by women, with one additional co-authored by a woman (that’s roughly 22.5%).

In response, Imogen Robertson, chair of the UK Historical Writers’ Association, noted, “For me, the gender bias is horribly clear when you look at what women are supposed to write about: men write the grand expansive histories, the thesis-driven revisionist world views, and they mostly have the second world war to themselves. Women are allowed to write about, well, women.” 

Even though I'm now retired, I still spend my time reading and writing about women’s history. In fact, as my dear friend and colleague Tom can attest, about the time I had my fiftieth birthday, I had a bit of a flip-out, declaring that in whatever reading years remained to me, I was no longer going to read books by or about straight white men. He just laughed—saying I was not the first woman-of-a-certain-age he’d heard say that.

While I continued to teach medieval and early-modern literature until I retired in 2014—Beowulf and Chaucer and the Gawain-poet and Thomas Malory and Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser and . . . well, you get the picture, and it’s all literature I love—I have spent the better part of my career writing about women’s history and literature. (To be absolutely honest, though, I admit that I am thrilled I don't have to read Astrophil and Stella or teach even the first canto of The Faerie Queen ever again.)

Historian Mary Beard's new book is
one of the few "grand expansive"
and best-selling histories
written by women in 2015
So I find this latest analysis a bit depressing, if not the least bit surprising. Last year, as I wrote and posted an essay-a-day about women’s history, I linked to books about the day’s topic, whenever I could. Most of them were written by women. 

And it's not just who is writing and what gets written, it's about who is reading—and what readers are willing to read. 

Over the course of the thirty-five years that I taught at the university from which I retired, the student population shifted—today about 62% of the students are female. Even so, when I taught a medieval survey course or a Shakespeare course, the classroom was a mix of men and women, When I taught a semester-long course on Beowulf in the spring of 2011, a course I'd daydreamed about teaching for most of my career, 10 of the 14 students who enrolled were men.

But when I taught a course with the word “women” or, even worse, “feminist” in the title, I rarely saw a male student in the classroom. Oh, sure, sometimes there might be one or two men in who enrolled in these courses—wonderful, dedicated, interested and interesting, fearless men—but so few that most of those courses were entirely filled with women. 

An excellent new history
of the women's suffrage
movement, recommended to me
by Nate Levin, a reader of this blog
More often, if there was a male student in the classroom on the first day of “Five Feminist Classics,” for example, or “Barbie, Bratz, and Bella: The Construction of American Girlhood in the Twenty-First Century” (a first-year writing seminar), he was there by accident rather than by design—he needed a literature class or a writing class and just picked one that fit his schedule without noticing the course title, reading the course description I'd written, or bought the textbooks. Sometimes he stayed—I'd like to think that the course material looked so interesting he just had to stay.

But I can’t tell you how many men didn’t even make it through the first class session—it was pretty clear what was going to happen when we hit break time, and I watched as the one or two men hurriedly packed up all their books and laptops and left the room.

“Oh, no, I’ll be back,” I remember one guy assuring me when I asked if he was going to stay in class (there were a handful of wait-listed students sitting in that day, hoping for a spot). But he never returned from that first ten-minute break.

(By way of contrast, when my friend and colleague Tom taught a first-year seminar under the title of "Fathers and Sons," he always had a plenty of women enrolled in the course, eager for what the semester would bring.)

As I think about these topics—what is history, who writes history, what history is published, who reads history, and what history is being read—I am taken back to my own moment of enlightenment, reading Gerda Lerner’s The Majority Finds Its Past:
Flipping through the pages of The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History (1979), a book I just casually pulled off the library shelf one day, probably in 1981 or 1982, I found myself stunned at this observation: "women are and always have been at least half of humankind, and most of the time have been the majority." And then shocked by this one: "The overriding fact is that women's history is the history of the majority of humankind" (from the essay "Placing Women in History: Definitions and Challenges").
It's hard now to convey my surprise at Lerner's simple statements of fact—"women are and always have been half of all humankind," their history is "the history of the majority of humankind." What seems so obvious now was not at all obvious to me then--I had a B.A., an M.A., and by the time I found my way to Lerner's book, a Ph.D. I had just started my first teaching job at a private liberal-arts college.  I had spent my life studying literature and history, preparing for my career as an academic, and yet it had never occurred to me that I didn't know about any women writers before Jane Austen or about any women in history beyond Cleopatra, Elizabeth Tudor, and Susan B. Anthony.
We have come a long way since 1979but when it comes to "placing women in history" as writers, as subjects, as readers, we still have a long way to go.

(And, by the way, if you look around for who buys and reads more books in the US, it's women. Here are recent statistics from the Pew Research Center.)

*This link will take you to the most recent VIDA count—once there, you can search the archive for previous years’ statistics.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Hanging on to Jeanne of France

Jeanne of France: Duchess, Queen, Saint (1464-1505)

The unfortunate Jeanne of France,
briefly queen of France
In the year and a half since I retired after thirty-five years of university teaching, I’ve been letting go—not only of stress and anxiety, but of stuff. 

The first thrilling purge was when I was cleaning out my office on campus. Although I would keep artwork and memorabilia, I was determined to get rid of all of the books and files.

The books were surprisingly easy—I invited majors to come by my office and “shop” on my bookshelves. And they came. One student brought two backpacks, another a couple of cardboard boxes. 

Once these literature majors had taken what they wanted, I put all the rest out on a table in the hallway, underneath a sign labeled “Free Books.” Sometimes the assorted titles disappeared so quickly that most of them were gone before I’d returned from my office with another armload for the table. 

(By the way, relatively expensive hardbound desk dictionaries proved to be losers—I had several, and not a single one of them disappeared from the "free" pile. I couldn't even give them away. But I thought for sure no one would want the Norton Critical Edition of Thomas Aquinas on Ethics and Politics—somehow I’d managed to acquire two copies—I was shocked that they both disappeared as quickly as I put them on the “free” table. Who knew?)

The files proved to be easy, once I'd gotten rid of the books—I had spiral notebooks filled with notes from college classes, binders filled with notes I’d taken to study for Ph.D. exams, boxes of 3 x 5 cards of dissertation research, and 35 years’ worth of student evaluations, recommendations, lecture notes, and course files. Shredding what was confidential and tossing what wasn’t into huge recycling bins were liberating acts. 

The clean-out has continued here at home. Slowly I’ve begun whittling down my personal library as I look ahead to downsizing. My research files have also begun to go—mostly file drawer after file drawer of notes on and photocopies of critical articles, all of which are now available online via JSTOR.

And what has this to do with Jeanne of France? Well, my son was here the other day, moving some of his long-stored boxes (children’s books and dinosaur reproductions) from my garage to his basement, and he pulled out a box labeled “Louise of Savoy + Jeanne de France.” 

I’d forgotten about this box, honestly. but once I saw it I remembered why it was there, labeled and stored. After finishing a project on Anne of France, I had in mind a couple of new possibilities and hoped to come back to them. I’d put into this box all of the material that might be needed when I decided to write about Louise of Savoy or Jeanne of France, who was, very briefly, queen of France.  

But now I’m at the point in my life where I am facing the reality that I will never write about all the things I’d like to write about—in part, my last year of blogging about women’s history was a way to write about as many women as I could, even if I just posted a short essay, realizing that I’d probably never have the time to write more. 

And I included a lengthy post about Jeanne's sister Anne of France, a powerful and canny politician, even though I’d already written at some length about her and translated her book of advice, written for her daughter Suzanne. I'm always ready to tell anyone who'll listen about this remarkable woman.

I also posted about Louise of Savoy, admitting to myself that I’d probably not get to that long-imagined project, and I at least mentioned Jeanne of France, though only briefly in a couple of posts.

At first I thought getting rid of the box of stuff wouldn’t be a problem—at this point, I could simply toss it all into the recycling bin with no regrets. And that’s what I did. Drafts of material I’d written and then revised out of my Anne of France project, photocopies of articles, a carousel of slides I’d had made for a presentation. (To be honest, the last time I used slides in class, my students laughed at me, and shortly after that, the university got rid of all of its slide projectors because no one was using them. Anyway, if I ever wanted or needed them, I now had an infinite number of Google images at my fingertips.)

But there was one thing in that box that surprised me: I didn't remember that I had a photocopy of René de Maulde La Clavière’s Jeanne de France, duchesse d’Orléans et de Berry (1464-1505), published in 1883. As soon as I saw it, I remembered having ordered the book through Inter-Library Loan. And I could remember the student worker I’d paid to photocopy all 483 pages for me. 

I hesitated before tossing that photocopied biography into the recycling. But, realizing that I’d probably never need it, much less read it for fun, and remembering that I was, after all, downsizing, I dumped it.

And then I had second thoughts. I checked online—the biography is not available through Google Books, though I could buy one of those print-on-demand copies from Amazon for $39.95 if I found I needed it after all.

I could always get the book again through Inter-Library Loan, the same way I'd gotten it in the first place. It wasn't like I was throwing Jeanne herself away. Even so, I found myself late one evening, in the garage, digging the photocopies of the biography out of my recycling bin. 

It wasn’t just that I had spent the last decades of my professional life writing about women whose lives had been largely overlooked by standard histories, and teaching texts by women writers whose work had been “lost.” Although something of that did play a role in my “recovering” Jeanne of France. It was also the particular circumstances of her life:

Born in 1464, Jeanne of France was the second daughter of Louis of France and his wife, Charlotte of Savoy. Jeanne’s elder sister, Anne, had been born three years earlier. Jeanne was betrothed to Louis of Orléans when she was three weeks old and he was two. Since Louis XI had two daughters but, as yet, no son, the proposed marriage of his younger daughter to the heir presumptive to the throne was politically “useful.” 

In 1476, the marriage of the twelve-year-old French princess and the fourteen-year-old Louis was solemnized, though by this point, the king had a son and heir, Charles, born in 1470, and the young bridegroom was not eager to marry Jeanne—when asked if he consented to the marriage, he reportedly said, “I have to; there is no help for it.”

After the wedding, the young duke of Orléans refused to live with his new duchess, who was returned to Lignières, where she had been raised. Her father had no further use for her. Her “husband” threw himself into hunting, womanizing, and political scheming. 

After Louis XI’s death in 1483, the young duke prepared to annul his marriage, hoping both to find a wealthy bride in Brittany and to gain the throne of France for himself. In the meantime, he gathered his allies and travelled quickly to the chateau of Amboise, prepared to take over the regency of the new king, Charles VIII.

He was triply disappointed. Instead of gaining the regency for himself, he was forced to give way to Charles’s elder sister, Anne, who became regent of France. Instead of being able to rid himself of his unwanted wife, Louis found that, once again, political expediency required he maintain his alliance with the new king and with the regent--he couldn't dissolve his marriage to their sister. And in 1491, Charles VIII, married Anne of Brittany, the young heiress Louis had hoped to acquire as his second wife.

But the terms of the 1491 marriage contract between Charles VIII and Anne of Brittany were crucial to what would eventually happen to Jeanne of France: if the new French king predeceased his queen, she was to marry his successor. 

When Charles died childless in 1498, Louis of Orléans inherited not only the French crown, then, but the French king’s widow, Anne, and with her, control of Brittany. If only he could rid himself of the inconvenient wife he had--the woman to whom he'd been married for some twenty-two years.

Before he could marry the widowed queen, Louis had to have his first marriage, to Jeanne of France, annulled. To that end, he alleged several grounds for annulment—that they were too closely related (consanguinity), that they were spiritually related (Jeanne’s father was also Louis’ godfather), and that he had not freely consented to the marriage (he had been forced to marry under duress). All of these grounds were dismissed, leaving him with a fourth claim: that the marriage had not been consummated. 

Louis claimed that Jeanne’s physical deformity (there is a great deal of contemporary discussion about her “deformity”—including whether she had any physical defect other than being short and unattractive) had prevented consummation. Louis wanted Jeanne, now queen of France, to be subjected to physical examination, while she preferred to rely on testimony from witnesses that their marriage had been consummated (her father had reportedly made sure his son-in-law consummated the marriage in 1476 in order to ensure that there could be no grounds for annulment.)

But the witnesses proved to be not enough, and, thankfully for Jeanne, she was not subjected to the threatened physical examination. And so Louis supplied a sworn statement that, even after twenty-two years, his marriage had never been consummated. Oh, and that his wife was a witch. And since a statement under oath made by a ruling prince must be true, Pope Alexander VI obliged.

The marriage of Louis XII and Jeanne of France was declared void on 17 December 1498, and Louis was married to Anne of Brittany days later, on 8 January 1499. Louis "rewarded" Jeanne with the gift of the title “duchess of Berry.”

Jeanne of France, in the habit of a sister
of the Order of the Annunciation
of the Blessed Virgin Mary,
painted by Jean Perréal
She earned a more enduring title for herself, however; after the annulment, she devoted herself to the religious life, establishing a new order, the Order of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The order was approved by Pope Alexander in 1502. 

Jeanne died at the Annonciade convent in Bourges in 1505. (Her grave was desecrated and her body burned in 1562 during the French Wars of Religion.)

In 1631, a case for her canonization was begun, and she was beatified in 1742. On 28 May 1950 she was canonized.

And that’s really why I couldn’t throw away Jeanne of France, even if it was just her life on paper. She’d been pretty much ignored by her father and then discarded by her husband. Silly as it may sound, I just couldn’t toss her in the recycling.

Update, 27 December 2017: Since writing this post at the beginning of 2016, I have moved. I downsized from my home--with garage!--and moved back to Seattle, where I went to graduate school. Although I am now living in a condo in the city, I still haven't let go of Jeanne of France. The box is now in my son's basement.

And, when I wrote in 2016, René de Maulde La Clavière’s Jeanne de France, duchesse d’Orléans et de Berry (1464-1505) was not available online. It's still not available through Google Books, but it is included in the Internet Archive; you can access it by clicking here
Update, 4 January 2024: René de Maulde La Clavière’s Jeanne de France, duchesse d’Orléans et de Berry (1464-1505) is now available on Google Books—click here. And, by the way, I’ve been helping my son clean his out basement. Although we’ve dumped lots of stuff, Jeanne de France is still there…

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

After a Year of Blogging . . .

2016 and a New Post: Women and Film

My 2015 "daybook" project is now complete. I was able to post an entry on women's history every day during the year. Those 366 entries (I wrote an extra one on 22 May) remain in the blog archive, if you're interested, and, of course, the blog itself remains searchable via online search engines. 

But now what? I am not going to abandon this blog, though I have no plans to write every day. Rather, I'll go back to the 2014 schedule of posting here whenever something interests me--or, more frequently, when something angers me!

Lately the New York Times has been filled with articles about the upcoming season of awards for film and television. I read the online edition, and today's film section offered multiple articles on this year's Oscar nominations (soon to be announced), on today's Producers Guild of America nominations, and on Sunday's Golden Globe Award broadcast, just for starters. Online, Google has posted tons of links to stories about the Golden Globes broadcast (Mel Gibson will present an award! E! will be broadcasting "Live from the Red Carpet"!), as has my Comcast homepage. 

And so I thought I'd mention just a few of the things none of these breathless "news" announcements has taken the time to clarify: 

While significant numbers of women have made undeniable progress in their effort to achieve equality, we still have a long way to go. Despite the enormous progress that has been made, women’s participation in many areas of contemporary society remains limited—women are under-represented in government, in business, and in the professions, and they still suffer economic disparity simply because they are female. Nowhere do we see this gender gap any more clearly than in the field of entertainment. Whether their professional careers are in theater, film, or television, women are still not equal participants.

In commenting on the opportunities for women in theatrical productions, and in particular on the number of plays written by women that manage to make it to the stage, playwright Marsha Norman recently noted, “Women have lived half of the experience of the world, but only 20 percent of it is recorded in our theatres.”[1] In other words, “if life worked like the theatre, four out of five things you had ever heard would have been said by men.”[2] 

What's true on stage is also true on screens both large and small. Recent studies of the top 100 films released in 2014 demonstrate that only 11.2 percent of the writers were women; women accounted for only 1.9 percent of the directors and 18.9 percent of the producers. (If you expand the list to the top 250 films, women still accounted for only 11% of the writers, but the numbers for women directors rose to 7% and the numbers for producers rose to 23%.)

Behind the scenes, they were only 18 percent of the editors, 5 percent of the cinematographers, and 5 percent of the sound designers. 

From Directors Guild of America's Feature Film Diversity Report:
Women Account for only 6.4% of Film Directors
(but just 3% for major box-office titles)

On screen, a woman played a leading role in only 21 percent of the top 100 films—but not a single woman over the age of forty-five “performed a lead or co lead role.”[3] And none of these numbers address issues of pay equity.[4] 

While in 2014 women were more fully represented on television screens than they were in film—40 percent of the “major characters” on broadcast, cable, and Netflix programs were female—they still comprised only 26 percent of the writers, 14 percent of the directors, 26 percent of the producers, 21 percent of editors, and 2 percent of cinematographers, for example, among other roles.[5] 

As Stacy Smith concludes in her comprehensive study of inequality in the portrayals of women in film, “The landscape of popular cinema . . . remains skewed and stereotypical.” Films “continue to distort the demographic reality of their audiences,” and even after years of “activism, attention, and statements about addressing the issue, Hollywood’s default setting for characters and content creators remains fixed on ‘status quo.’”[6] 

Or, as Martha Lauzen, director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, says, more succinctly, when it comes to the big screen, women still encounter a “celluloid ceiling.” And on the small screen, it’s much the same: women are, even now, “boxed in.” 

So, over the "awards season," while you're watching the parade of female stars in hugely expensive designer dresses and jewels sashaying and posing on the red carpet (hey, I'll be enjoying it too), remember the numbers!


[1] Quoted in Suzy Evans, “The Gender Parity Count Ticks Up—Slightly,” American Theater, 20 July 2015,

[2] Marsha Norman, “Why ‘The Count’ Matters,” The Dramatist, November/December 201), 18. 

[3] Stacy L. Smith et al., “Key Findings,” Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT Status from 2007 to 2014 (Los Angeles: USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Media, Diversity, & Social Change Initiative, 2015). In addition to this longitudinal study, see Martha M. Lauzen, Women and the Big Picture: Behind-the-Scenes Employment on the Top 700 Films of 2014 (San Diego: Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 2015); Martha M. Lauzen, The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 250 Films of 2014 (San Diego: Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 2015); and Martha M. Laurzen, It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2014 (San Diego: Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 2015). 

For a study focused on women directors in film, see Directors Guild of America, “Feature Film Diversity Report,” Directors Guild of America (December 2015).

On the number of women in leading or “co lead” roles, Lauzen offers a critically important analysis of the percentages cited by Smith et al.: “Only 12% of all clearly identifiable protagonists were female. . . . In 2014, 75% of protagonists were male, and 13% were male/female ensembles. For the purposes of this study, protagonists are the characters from whose perspective the story is told.” Laurzen, It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World, 1. 

[4] The 10 November 2015 issue of Variety was dedicated to the issue of gender equity, including stories on professionals at all levels. On pay equity for film actors, see Ramin Setoodeh, “Equal Pay Revolution: How Top Actresses Are Finally Fighting Back,” Variety, 10 November 2015,

[6] Martha M. Lauzen, Boxed In: Portrayals of Female Characters and Employment of Behind-the-Scenes Women in 2014-15 Prime-Time Television (San Diego: Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, 2015), 1, 3. On such equity issues in television, see also Maureen Ryan, “ACLU’s Melissa Goodman on Gender Discrimination: It’s a Legal and Civil Rights Problem,” Variety, 10 November 2015,

[6] Smith, Inequality in 700 Popular Films, 21.