History is full of remarkable individuals achieving female firsts. These include directing a feature film (Lois Weber), being one of the first Black headliners to appear in Carnegie Hall (Sissieretta Jones), and writing the first Native American opera (Zitkála-Šá). Their stories and many others come to life thanks to AMERICAN MASTERS “Unladylike2020”. The multimedia series consists of 26 digital short films. Each one features courageous, little-known, and diverse female trailblazers from the turn of the 20th century.
For the series, producer and director Charlotte Mangin uses original artwork and animation, rare historical archival footage, and interviews with descendants, historians, and accomplished modern women who reflect upon the influence of these pioneers. We encourage you to watch all 26 films, and free lesson plans are available for each trailblazer. The following seven films focus on Women in the Arts.
Unladylike Women in the Arts
Anna May Wong: The First Asian American Movie Star
Anna May Wong (1905-1961), the first Asian American female movie star, had a long and varied career spanning silent and sound film, stage, radio, and television. She resisted racism and typecasting in Hollywood and the practice of having white actors in yellow face play the roles of Asian characters.
Meta Warrick Fuller: Trailblazing African American Artist
Artist Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (1877-1968) moved to Paris from Philadelphia in 1899 to study sculpture. She began creating her expressive and groundbreaking artwork, which celebrated African American heritage and cultural identity and resisted stereotypical representations in her depictions of the black body. Fuller elevated African American history through the first federal art commission awarded to an African American and other exhibitions, including at several world fairs.
Lois Weber: The First American Woman to Direct a Feature-Length Film
Lois Weber (1879-1939) was an early film pioneer as the first American woman to direct a full-length feature film in 1913 and one of the first directors to own her own film studio.
Gladys Bentley: Trailblazing, Gender Non-Conforming Performer
Gladys Bentley (1907-1960) joined New York’s Harlem Renaissance jazz scene at age 16 and became an instant sensation and gender identity pioneer, performing piano and vocals at the most popular gay bars, wearing men’s clothing, and openly flirting with women in the audience.
Sissieretta Jones: Trailblazing Black Opera Singer
Sissieretta Jones (1868-1933) became the first African American woman to headline a concert on the main stage at Carnegie Hall in 1892. Jones was heralded as the greatest singer of her generation and a pioneer in the operatic tradition. She performed at a time when access to most classical concert halls in the U.S. was closed to Black performers and patrons. Jones also sang at the White House and abroad. She traveled the country as the star of a successful vaudeville show for almost two decades.
Queen Lili‘uokalani: The First and Last Queen of Hawai‘i
Queen Lili’uokalani (1838-1917) was the first sovereign queen and the last monarch of Hawai’i, who assumed the throne amid a government takeover by American business owners supported by the U.S. military. After being deposed and placed under house arrest, she fought to preserve native Hawaiian rights and traditions. A talented musician and songwriter, she composed over 150 songs, including Aloha’ Oe.
Zitkála-Šá: Trailblazing American Indian Composer
Zitkála-Šá, aka Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, (1876–1938), co-composed and wrote the libretto for the first American Indian opera, The Sun Dance Opera, authored autobiographical essays for Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly exposing the pressures American Indians faced to assimilate into European American culture and co-founded the National Council of American Indians to lobby for increased political power for American Indians.
About American Masters
Launched in 1986 on PBS, American Masters explores the lives and works of masters (past and present) and offers streaming videos of select films, outtakes, filmmaker interviews, the American Masters Podcast, educational resources, and more. The series is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET and is also seen on the WORLD channel.
Compiled by Erin Prather Stafford
Image and videos provided by PBS