July 6, 2017

Mary Pickford as a symbol of the ‘New Woman’

University of Redlands Associate Professor of History Kathy Feeley grew up in the ’70s watching a lot of TV—including many classic films from the 1930-1960 Hollywood studio era.

Feeley’s early interest in entertainment and her scholarly concentration in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies combined to produce her latest book, Mary Pickford: Hollywood and the New Woman, published in 2016.

The book is part of the “Lives of American Women” series, which allows instructors to incorporate American women of all backgrounds into the historical narrative. One of Feeley’s graduate school mentors edits the series and invited her to participate by writing the book.

Feeley found that Pickford, who was known as “America’s Sweetheart,” was much more than an actress. She was a groundbreaking producer, screenwriter, studio executive, philanthropist, newspaper columnist, suffragist and film preservationist.

“Mary Pickford is a good example of the early 1900s ‘new woman,’ because she succeeds in her profession and in doing so gains access to all kinds of opportunities,” Feeley explains, adding that the “new woman” is a moniker given to women who began to demand more autonomy inside and outside the home. “She was a suffragist who learned everything once she entered the early film industry—lighting, scenery, makeup and costuming, writing. She embraced all facets of the business and emerged as a star pretty quickly.”

The eldest of three children, Pickford was just three years old when her father deserted the family. When she was seven, she became the primary breadwinner for her family, first as a child laborer in stage and theatre and later as a film star. In the end, Pickford became wealthier and more powerful than most of those in her field, thanks in part to her dedication and hard work.

“Pickford is a lure to discuss other issues, such as the emergence of American capitalism, urbanization and industrialization,” Feeley says. “In the early 20th century, women were emerging as consumers—the people who drove what to buy, what to eat. Pickford eventually acquires her own production company and her own studio. She’s the boss; her power and influence persist.”

Feeley also directs the University’s Proudian Interdisciplinary Honor Program, in which 45 high-achieving, intellectually curious students are brought together to do interdisciplinary work in a series of challenging educational experiences.

The collaboration with other Redlands faculty members, particularly in the Proudian Program, is one thing she values most about being part of the Redlands community. “I enjoy the support of my colleagues,” she adds, “and I’m able to collaborate with colleagues and students I otherwise might not have contact with via the Proudian program.”

The University’s students are always encouraged to think more broadly beyond their major and work to develop good reading, writing and speaking skills. “For me, teaching Redlands students is distinguished from teaching elsewhere by students’ intellectual curiosity and their interest in wide-ranging issues,” she says. “They are better speakers, thinkers and communicators because of their time here.”