Talk to any honest filmmaker, and they’ll tell you: A movie is only as good as its crew. Yet for decades the ranks of camera operators, sound mixers and electricians were filled only by men, most often white men. When production work came with a union card, it was a relatively high-paying career, but it was not welcoming to women.
That began to change, however slowly, in the 1960s and 1970s, amid the tumult of the civil-rights and feminist movements. One catalyst was a 1971 sex-discrimination lawsuit against an NBC affiliate in Washington. Alison Owings, a plaintiff, recalled that the goal wasn’t even equal pay. “It was equal work,” she said. “I just knew that women could do basically whatever the men were doing, whether station chief or camera operator.”
Other lawsuits followed, and doors opened. Some women got their starts in television news and branched into film making, fighting for union access. Some came from other professions or armed with degrees from film schools, a rarity in the trade.
Today some of these early union members have moved on to other careers, but several are still very much in the field. These are edited excerpts from their stories.
CELESTE GAINEY, gaffer: I started out wanting to be a director. (At New York University’s film school in the early 1970s,) you had a three-person crew and shot these little 100-foot movies. I took on th