International Women’s Day:

Remembering Mary C. McCall Jr. and the Unfinished Battle for Women’s Rights

J. E. Smyth

It’s International Women’s Day, and women’s rights are being rolled back all over the world, perhaps, mostly notably, in the country that hosted the first International Women’s Day in 1909—the United States. Globally, women still make less money per hour than men, and their lifetime incomes are bled by childcare-related career gaps, lost promotions, and ageism. The places you can purchase a safe abortion around the world are disappearing, and in some places if your headscarf is askew, you can be killed. There’s no reason to celebrate, even in the decadent West, which once had a reputation for promoting women’s rights and occasionally sustaining them with meaningful legislation. No woman is likely to get a pay raise or a day off today.

If history has taught me anything, it’s that any woman can be erased from the history books. For a number of years, I’ve been writing about the many women working in Hollywood’s “golden” 1930s and 1940s, women who were known and celebrated by their industry and the national press but subsequently edited from the many popular and academic histories of the U.S. film industry written from the 1950s onward.

History has taught me something else, too: progress toward gender equality in the United States is not linear. Hardly a day has gone by since October 2017 without some story in the media about Hollywood failing women—whether it’s revelations of sexual exploitation or depressing statistics on the few films produced, directed, and written by women. How ironic to learn that Hollywood presented a more equal image to the world back in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of the industry’s top earners were women—not just actresses but screenwriters. There were articles in the national press and the trade papers touting all the work opportunities for women behind the camera. There were profiles of famous female creatives. The mostly male producers acknowledged that women were the main audiences for motion pictures and catered to them with films about women—even independent, working women. It was also a time when the unions were at full strength, and one of the most vocal and widely covered labor leaders in Hollywood was a woman.

If history has taught me anything, it’s that any woman can be erased from the history books.

Over the past few years, whenever I’ve despaired over the retrenchment of feminism and women’s rights, I thought about what Mary C. McCall Jr. would do. That’s right, she was named Jr.—after her mother, not her father. In 1936 she made one of the most important films written, directed, edited, and starring women, and in 1939 she went on to write a franchise centered on a fearless working girl that would inspire the writers for James Bond in the 1960s. She was first elected president of the Screen Writers Guild in 1942 and ran the guild during World War II and at the height of the blacklist. She helped write the first screenwriters’ contract, which safeguarded screen credits and got writers a pay raise during the war when the other union leaders were too scared to ask for one. She oversaw the production of documentaries and shorts to promote the war effort—outperforming her male predecessor in the job.

Like most Hollywood writers who lived through the notorious labor wars with the producers, she hated the conservative Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but once she’d secured the screenwriters’ contract, she became an influential Academy governor, helping to launch the Academy Fund, which planned a film research library and museum (finally opened to the public in 2021). She was a proud Roosevelt Democrat when being politically to the left could cost someone their job. When the blacklist came for left-leaning Hollywood screenwriters, President McCall sued RKO’s millionaire owner, Howard Hughes, for sacking and refusing screen credit to a communist writer.

And as for Hollywood’s impossible standards for feminine youth and beauty? She refused to dye her prematurely graying hair and co-created Frankly Over Forty, an organization designed to address and combat ageism and misogyny in Hollywood.

History has taught me something else, too: progress toward gender equality in the United States is not linear.

Not many people have heard of her—even film scholars, historians, and today’s generation of screenwriters tend to look blank when her name is mentioned. She isn’t part of university classes on film or U.S. labor history or even women’s studies. The media likes Hollywood women of a certain era to be glamorous stars or to suffer at the hands of evil studio moguls from Louis Mayer to Harvey Weinstein. Women are still valued for how they look, not what they say or create. McCall flouted this system all her life.

She never went on the record to say what she thought of International Women’s Day, but on March 8, 1945, McCall was speaking at a conference with the legendary British women’s suffrage leader and actress Dame May Whitty, French actress Michèle Morgan, New York Times Moscow Bureau writer Jeannette Reisbord, and a Soviet war veteran, Tank Commander Raissa Potanina, about women’s contributions to the resistance against fascism and the wider war effort. She also spoke of the importance of an international coalition of peacetime feminists who would be unafraid to fight the male establishment in order to create a more equal world. Because she knew this, ladies: our war isn’t over yet.

J.E. Smyth is Professor of History at the University of Warwick and the author of Mary C. McCall Jr: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Most Powerful Screenwriter.

Leave a Reply