Early Hollywood was dominated by women both in front of and behind the screen. Here are 5 women who left a lasting mark in the film industry.

Anna May Wong was the first Chinese American movie star and the first Asian American actress to be known around the world. She acted in many movies in Hollywood during the 1920s, but moved to Europe in 1928, because she was tired of racism in casting. Actors of other races were often chosen to play Chinese roles. The roles offered to her were for smaller roles rather than the lead, frequently for mysterious or exotic characters. Wong retired early from Hollywood in 1942, but she did return to acting in the 1950s and became the first Asian American to play the lead in a U.S. television series.

Born Gladys Louise Smith, “America’s Sweetheart” Mary Pickford starred in fifty-two motion pictures. Pickford traveled promoting the sale of Liberty Bonds during World War I and co-founded United Artists as an actor’s rights advocate. Pickford was not only a successful actress but also an intelligent businesswoman who was the first woman in Hollywood to earn a million dollars a year. In 1927 Mary was one of the 36 original founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that host the Oscars.

Dolores Del Río was a Mexican actress who became the first Latin American Hollywood star. Del Río made her first film appearance in Joanna (1925) which elevated her Hollywood status. As quick as her film career rose it soon plateaued after the transition from silent film to sound. She starred in similar silent and sound films, in which she worked hard to perfect her English. As her Hollywood fame began to decline, she moved back to Mexico where she became an important fixture of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema, following the peak of her international career. Throughout her career, which included radio, television, and theatre, she was admired internationally as a cinematic icon.

Hedy Lamarr was an Austrian-American actress during Hollywood’s “Golden Age” and an inventor. Discovered at age sixteen, Lamarr worked on her inventions in her trailer on set. She and George Antheil patented the “Secret Communication System,” an early method of spread spectrum communication in 1942. The original idea, meant to solve the problem of enemies blocking or detecting signals from radio-controlled missiles during World War II, involved changing radio frequencies simultaneously. With the advent of the transistor and its later downsizing, Lamarr’s idea became important to both the military and the cell phone industry.

Born in Ontioro in the late 1800s, Florence Lawrence is considered to be the world’s first movie star. Lawrence starred in her first silent film in 1906, and over the course of the year she starred in a total of 38 films. She worked with pioneering director D. W. Griffith on dozens of films, including his first movie The Adventures of Dollie.She became to be known as the “Biograph Girl” for her leading roles in Biograph Studio films. Movies did not yet put actors names in credits so the public was unaware of Lawrence’s name but she was one of the most famous faces in America. That changed in 1910 when Lawrence became the first actor to be publicly credited for a film.


Are you feeling inspired by women filmmakers of the past? Support women filmmakers of today by attending the 2019 Women’s Film Festival San Diego! See the full line up of films here