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An Author's Perspective:

Women of the 1910s: From Movie Heroines to News Reporters, by Radha Vatsal

© 2016 - All Rights Reserved

Title: A Front Page Affair

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Release Date: May 3, 2016

Women filmmakers wrote and directed hundreds of films during the 1900s and 1910s, in all genres. Other women starred in hundreds of action films during the mid-1910s - brandishing guns, narrowly escaping danger, and chasing down villains.

I learned about these women while I was in graduate school, and my amazement - Who were they? Why had I not heard of them before? - prompted me to continue my studies in silent-era cinema. After I graduated, I wanted to share what I had learned but didn't know how. I tried writing a screenplay but didn't feel like it captured the excitement of the period - one in which women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, and during which American culture, politics and society changed rapidly.

Five years later, I sat down to write again, this time turning to one of my favorite genres, a genre all about the thrill of discovery: mystery. I pictured a young woman negotiating her own ambitions in New York while the United States inched towards World War I. Like the country in which she lives, Capability "Kitty" Weeks would come into her own while the rest of the world blew apart.

I planned a series in which Kitty would discover a new aspect of business, politics, culture or society as she conducts her investigations. Like me, she would be a fish-out-of-water. (Kitty arrives in New York at 19 fresh from Swiss boarding school; I came to the US when I was 16 to attend boarding school in Connecticut.) Kitty would also be inspired by silent-era action-film heroines, but for her those women would be contemporaries and she would watch their films at the theater right when they came out.

Movies aside, how would Kitty fill her time? She couldn't be a dilettante; she was a "New Woman" and must have career aspirations. So, I did what she might have done - I consulted a career guide. Vocations for Girls by E.W. Weaver, published in 1913, advised, "The girl must choose the work for which she is naturally fitted, the work that really attracts her. At the outset she must not forget that in all lines of profitable work there is more or less drudgery and that the choice should be made with due deliberation."

Kitty and I pored over her options. I even wrote an earlier version of A Front Page Affair in which Kitty spends days trying to come up with a profession that she would like and that her businessman father would approve. There were several career paths open to women in the 1910s. Kitty might work as a teacher, physician, lawyer, dentist, sanitary inspector, librarian, social worker, actress or musician, or with less formal training, she could become a typist, stenographer or bookkeeper. She could take up an artistic enterprise or an industrial one - like dressmaking, book binding, or upholstery. Vocations provided fascinating insights. For instance:

"The girl at the telephone switchboard listens to requests for numbers, makes and breaks connections, and keeps account of the calls for each party. She must have absolutely reliable nerves, physical endurance, sound hearing and clear enunciation."

Or, "Teaching requires the continual giving of thought and energy without the necessary compensation in broadening social and intellectual intercourse."

After considering several alternatives, Kitty turned to "Journalism and the Literary Arts." I had a feeling that this might be right for her. Vocations explained, "[T]here are many openings for young people in the writing business." Entry requirements were, "training in English, good general education, a fondness for writing, and the capacity for hard work." Educated at boarding school and fluent in three languages (German and French, as well as English) Kitty could definitely manage that.

Unfortunately, it went on to observe, "In newspaper work, women do not hold the highest positions. The editors, the reporters, and the men who rewrite stories, must be able to work under pressure in a way that is beyond the power of most women." Really? Kitty wouldn't let that deter her. She would show everyone what she was capable of.

"The acknowledged field of women in the newspaper world," the career guide declared, "is the reporting of society news and the editing of the women's page." So, Kitty found a job at the Ladies' Page of the New York Sentinel, and wrote up columns on the latest fashions and homemaking tips. Then, just when she's about to lose hope and thinks she won't be able to write about anything else, a man is murdered at July Fourth party that she's been assigned to cover and of course, like her onscreen heroines, Kitty starts to investigate ...

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