Nell Cox lives on the Upper West Side in one of those kooky apartments you see only in Nora Ephron movies—quaint with a certain country flair (her living room furniture includes a daybed topped with a vintage quilt), filled with precarious stacks of books and papers and knicknacks and the odd glass trophy commemorating a long creative life, the kind of perfectly charming mess that indicates an artist is in residence. When I arrive, on a freezing afternoon in early February, her radiator is hissing like a threatened snake. Cox, who is in her "seventies and happy with my age," doesn't seem to mind; we have a mission to complete. I am at her apartment to talk about her experiences as part of "The Original Six," a group of women directors who spoke out against gender discrimination in Hollywood in 1979, and who formed the Women’s Steering Committee, a branch of the Director’s Guild of America that advocates for female employment on film and television sets at the directing level. Cox and I are speaking on camera—her daughter, Rebecca, who is also a filmmaker and lives in Brooklyn, has never before heard her mother sit down and speak about her activism, and she wants to capture the interview for the family archives.
"She never talks about this," Rebecca says to me, handing me a glass of water and adjusting her camcorder (her father, who also works in the industry, handles a second camera nearby; no home movie made by a triad of filmmakers could ever just have one angle). "When we heard she was going to speak about this time in her life again, I knew I had to be here."
And so here we all are: me, Cox, who wears bookish glasses and speaks in a lilting Kentucky drawl, and two family documentarians, gathered to talk about how it was that Cox never got to direct a feature film, her one, big, glimmering dream. She came close—she came close so many times—but now she considers the dream to have been more of a mirage. Cox directed several episodes of TV (M.A.S.H, The Waltons, Ghostwriter, L.A. Law) and even a made-for-PBS "women's western" called Liza's Pioneer Diary in 1976, but no longform treatment she wrote for a big studio film ever made it past the development stage. At one point during our talk, Cox slides a sheet of paper across the table to me, filled with ideas for films that she had over the years. "Here are 10 full scripts I wrote," she says, "and there are probably 25 more treatments. God, this is depressing. I have pages and pages and pages of these things."
Many of the ideas are solid: a buddy road-trip comedy called Bad Girls, a biopic of the revolutionary Emma Goldman, an adaptation of Kate Chopin's The Awakening, a Masterpiece Theater biography about the famous British actress and outspoken abolitionist Fanny Kemble. But, as Cox admits, they are all women's films. They tell women's stories. And in the 1970s and '80s, when she lived and worked in Hollywood, those stories were not on most studios' wish lists (they still aren't, but more on that to come).
"With the Emma Goldman film, Harold Ramis co-wrote it and wanted to produce it," she says, sighing, looking a little misty and far-off. "He was at the height of his career! And we got Bette Midler, who would have been great. But ... it was a period piece. And it would have been a big, expensive film. And I was attached to direct. Harold, to his credit, never said he should direct it, which would have gotten the thing made. No, he was wonderful that way. But we worked on that for years, and nothing came of it."
Cox’s vision, when she moved to Los Angeles from New York in the mid-'70s, was to make an entire series of genre films, all from a woman's point of view: a gender-bending sci-fi, a war story with a female hero at the center. She only got as far as making the Western. "I thought, they're making all the genre movies where the men are the heroes and I want to flip this concept on its ear," she says. "Looking back, this seems naïve. What was I thinking? But the fact that this seems naïve perhaps says something important about our industry. At any rate, this vision was rejected."
At that point, Cox's voice trails off and she decides that she needs to take a little break, that she is growing weary of talking about herself. But before I pause the tape, I ask why she thinks more people don't come and find her, ask her to tell her true Hollywood war stories. "I just think our experience was so long ago, and it was kind of sad," she says. "So younger women may think, 'Let's not talk to them. Let's just move forward.'"
The morning the 2016 Oscar nominations were announced, and five male directors were up (yet again) for the top award, the first people I thought of were the Original Six. Thirty-five years after they started fighting for women's rights to direct big studio films, there has only ever been one woman to win Best Director, and in the six years since Kathryn Bigelow won, no new women have been nominated in the field at all. Did they feel that their fight had been worth it? Had they ever lost hope?
I came across their story late one night last year, when I was up trying to make some sense of the dismal numbers of women working in Hollywood. A University of Southern California investigation into Hollywood diversity found that, out of 400 films and TV shows made between August 2014 and September 2015, only 3.4 percent of the films, and only 17 percent of the TV episodes, had women directors. A different study conducted in 2014 by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film found that, out of 700 films that earned theatrical releases that year, women directed only 13 percent. Dr. Stacy Smith, who led the USC investigation, told NPR that "the film industry still functions as a straight, white boy's club. I think we're seeing, across the landscape, an erasure of certain groups; women, people of color, the LGBT community ... this is really [an] epidemic of invisibility."
When they founded the WSC, the Original Six presented statistics showing that only 0.5 percent of all films and TV show directing assignments were going to women.
It is clear that the problem is not a lack of talented women trying to make movies; there are thousands in that pool, and, as MTV News reported last year, women currently make up half of all major film school graduates. The exclusion is happening later on, at the highest levels, when women try to enter the arena of big-budget filmmaking. Hollywood studio executives, who are predominantly white males, tend to hire people who tell stories they understand—and who will represent their best interests on a film lot. According to a study funded by the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (and conducted by Dr. Stacy Smith at USC's Annenberg School for Communication), the presence of a female director is associated with more female characters on screen. Using a completely outdated logic, the suits in charge continue to believe that they cannot sell women’s stories to a mass audience.**
And even now that some executives have discovered that female stories can sell—as demonstrated by recent box office hits like Bridesmaids, The Hunger Games, Trainwreck, Mad Max, Divergent, and even the new Star Wars—these woman-centric films were still directed by men (even the new female-centric Ghostbusters has a man at the helm). Even as on-screen representation gets better, the behind-the-scenes power positions are still held, over 85 percent of the time, by men.
For decades, there has been a pattern of silence about why women directors are such rarities in the industry, why so few women get the chance to be household names for their aesthetic visions. At least these days, the media seems to be taking greater notice of the inequalities. Thanks to the Internet and the rise of voices that weren’t getting heard before, the dearth of women directors is no longer a secret. The statistics are public; the anger is growing. In 2015, we saw hundreds of articles about the dismal state of women's voices in Hollywood, about how Los Angeles is stuck in a perpetual cigar lounge from the 1950s, about how women can't even get in the room to pitch films, let alone get full financing to complete them. Actresses are speaking out: Patricia Arquette gave a speech about the wage gap, Viola Davis gave a speech about the need to seize the means of production as a woman of color, Jennifer Lawrence wrote an essay about how she won't stand to see actresses accept less money for appearing on the same marquee.
And yet, in the midst of all this lamentation, we don't seem terribly focused on how we got here, why things are still so bad for women in the dream factory, in an era when Beyoncé stands on stage in front of a giant glowing "Feminist" sign. Feminism is no longer a dirty word in Hollywood; celebrities use it all the time. So where are the stories about the women who have been working for decades to close this gender gap, long before feminism was a branding tool?
What I notice in so many of these complaints is a refusal to wrestle with the real history of feminist activism in Hollywood. In her huge New York Times Magazine cover story on the state of women in Hollywood from December, Maureen Dowd interviews 100 women currently working in the industry but barely acknowledges overt activism in the past. She trots out early female film pioneers, like Alice Guy Blaché, a silent film director who helped kickstart the medium in the 1890s; Lois Weber, who ran a production company in the 1910s; and Dorothy Arzner, who directed at least a dozen films between 1922 and 1943. But Dowd's background detour stops there; she leaps from World War II to the current day, briefly stopping to note that, in the 1970s, "America fell in love with the blockbuster, and Hollywood got hooked on the cohort of 15-year-old boys." Dowd explains away the last 30 years by saying that big movies and pubescent youths ruined everything, and the need to sell films to foreign markets have made it worse. End of story.
But there is so much more to the story than that. There are women who have been fighting for the chance to direct films for decades, often at great personal and professional risk. Which is why the story of the Original Six, and their bold public fight against the studio system in the 1980s, hit me in the gut. These were women who walked into boardrooms full of men and explained how deeply unfair the hiring situation was for female directors, and then pressed for legal action when the studios wouldn't listen. Because of these six women—Susan Bay Nimoy, Nell Cox, Joelle Dobrow, Dolores Ferraro, Victoria Hochberg, and Lynne Littman—and the landmark research they pursued as part of the original WSC in 1979, the DGA (not typically a radical organization) had sufficient evidence of gender discrimination to sue Warner Brothers and Columbia Pictures in 1983. The lawsuit was dismissed—more on that later—but because of this very public legal action, along with continued pressure from the DGA, the number of women directors working in the industry started, slowly, to rise. When they founded the WSC, the Original Six presented statistics showing that only 0.5 percent of all films and TV show directing assignments were going to women. By 1995, women were directing 16 percent of TV show assignments.
Unfortunately, 1995, which is now two decades ago, was the peak for women directors and marks the biggest victory in the Original Six's battle. Since that year, the percentage has stagnated, and, in certain years, even dropped. Still, it is important to understand why these numbers were able to rise over those 10 years, and how—thanks to the actions of a small group of determined women—the situation for women in Hollywood actually got much better before it got worse again.
Given all this history, I wondered, why were the Original Six and their legal battles left out of any current conversations about the state of women in Hollywood? The Original Six risked everything to protest the razor-thin opportunities for women in Hollywood . Why aren't we celebrating their legacy? Why aren’t we asking them where to go from here?
I went to find them.
The first member of the Original Six I reached was Lynne Littman, an Oscar-winning documentarian and features director who lives in a bright, high-ceilinged house near the Hollywood Bowl. Her emails were short but to the point: She would talk, but only if she could gather together the women of the "O6" together in one place. They were a unit, she explained: "This fight was central to all of our lives and careers and fortunately, we were products of our generation of feminists who believed in more than our individual ambition."
This is how I found myself Skyping from New York, in late January, with four women gathered around Littman's sunny kitchen table in Los Angeles. (Nell Cox is in New York, and Dolores Ferraro is missing in action; "We all searched for her, unsuccessfully," Littman says.) Littman, a petite woman with a wild mane of thick brown hair, decided that it would be best to gather the whole gang together for sandwiches and reminiscing.
Littman sat in front of one laptop with Susan Nimoy (née Bay; she had been married to Leonard until his passing last year), who had just returned from Sundance where she had seen Dr. Stacy Smith of USC present her depressing diversity research. Nimoy wore an elegant cream-colored sweater and a cashmere scarf, and sat close enough to Littman that they kept bumping shoulders, the two often exchanging the kind of private glances that only women who have known each other well for decades can. In front of the other computer sat Victoria Hochberg, the most talkative of the group, who was swaddled in an elegant grey wrap and spoke at high speed with many hand gestures, alongside Joelle Dobrow, who sported an asymmetrical haircut and Bauhaus spectacles and brought to the conversation a kind of laser intensity, often stopping to clarify facts and figures and ensure that I was really getting everything the women had been through. We were supposed to talk for an hour, and had enough to discuss to stay on for two.*
The first thing you should know about the women of the Original Six is that they are very funny. They kept cracking each other up. Right away, Dobrow began trying to give me tips on how the Skype should go, and Littman piped in, "Why don’t you let Rachel run this?" to which Hochberg cut in: "You have to understand that you are working with four directors! You have to take charge or we will run over you!"
Later, when Hochberg was explaining why it became harder to sue for discrimination after the election of Ronald Reagan, she started talking about how statistics were no longer enough. "You had to prove intent. So you had to prove in writing that not only did Paramount not want to hire women, but they didn’t want to hire Victoria Hochberg."
Nimoy piped in: "And that she has a vagina."
Littman: "In writing!"
Hochberg: "You had to prove in writing that I had a vagina?"
At that, they all got the giggles, and Dobrow said, "You see, this is why we had to work so hard to concentrate back then!"
Back then means 1979, and here is the story of the O6 as the women tell it: Noticing that it was difficult for them to find work as directors, despite plenty of skills and hard work, six women directors began talking at DGA meetings, and decided that they should band together in a more organized way and begin a formal investigation into the hiring practices of the major studios. With the blessing of DGA director Michael Franklin, they founded the WSC and, according to Hochberg, "spent a year gathering statistics." They found that Hollywood’s gender problem was systemic. So, with Franklin's support, the WSC spent the next three years in meetings with studios, urging them to meet with women directors for jobs, and to potentially "set aside" a certain number of directing jobs for women every year, recommendations that never led to real-world results. They even leaked the statistics to the media, hoping to catalyze change, but few studios were moved to act.
In June 1980, a group of 32 executives agreed to meet with the Women's Committee of the DGA, which then had over 100 members. Many executives turned up, including Barry Diller of Paramount, Ned Tanen of Universal, and Frank Wells of Warner Bros. Norman Lear, the legendary producer of sitcoms like All in the Family and Sanford and Sons, also attended what Nell Cox calls one of these "Honcho Meetings."
When I asked Cox if the group was ever afraid to protest in a room full of men who could potentially hire them one day, she said at times she felt intimidated. "I remember after one meeting the writer Aljean Harmetz from the [New York] Times wanted to take our picture. She said that if she took our picture we could be the front page of the entertainment section of the Times. If we don't have a picture, it'll be page 10 or something. So we took the picture, and I remember we all looked really sad in it. I think there was that feeling that we were being uppity, and we would be punished later for it."
Littman says that the group felt emboldened, however, by the activist energy of the time. "We were products of the women's movement, and the civil rights movement," she says. "And we alienated enough men so that they felt they owed us nothing, but we had so little left to lose. And the men in the DGA who helped us, like Michael Franklin, loved that we were fighters. Getting out there and advocating for our rights only made us feel stronger."
Despite the damning statistics and several Honcho Meetings with kingmakers, the O6 found that just advocating for themselves to the studios was not going to force anyone's hand. The men at the meetings knew it too—in 1986, Norman Lear told the Los Angeles Times that he felt moved by the WSC but not moved enough to make any sweeping changes. "I remember the (1980) meeting when those women revealed those embarrassing, shameful statistics," he said. "But then everybody went back to work, and I never saw any evidence of improvement."
"The fact of the matter is, women are twice punished. We are punished once for being women, and then again for not being able to work because we were women."
So in 1983, sensing the bleak limitations of endless meetings (and hitting a breaking point that the women now call "The Danish Debacle"—a day when the DGA ordered pounds of pastries for executives who never even bothered to show up to meet with the WSC), the DGA did something it rarely does: It sued two studios for discrimination. By that time, Dobrow was the only member of the Original Six to put her name on the suit—the others were working on projects, or had moved away (Cox had fled to New York). "Honestly, I don't remember how we decided on who signed the lawsuit," Littman says. "Although it's easy to be cavalier 30 years later, I think we were all afraid of being 'punished' and what the repercussions might be, even though none of us had much to lose job-wise."
Though not all signed the lawsuit, all six women worked to select the lawyer and their research with the WSC formed the bulk of the evidence in the class-action claim. In 1985, however, the suit was dismissed in court.
Dobrow and Hochberg explained the case:
Dobrow: "I want to give legal context for our case. When we filed the lawsuit, we were on the verge of post-second wave feminism, and Carter was in charge. Had our case moved ahead during Jimmy Carter, different judges, you may see completely different results now. But we had to hold the case back a year, and we haven't ever really talked about why."
Hochberg: "What happened was, is when the WSC started meeting with the studios, this was also during the civil rights movement, and several African-American males felt upset, because the DGA was coming out in favor of our political action, but had not done so when they wanted to organize. We hadn't known that, and we wanted to be fair. So we discussed it, and though some of us felt coerced, we thought the right thing to do would be to include them in our class action suit, so the DGA could sue on behalf of women and minorities. But what happened in the year we waited for the minority committee to compile their research was that the world changed. The EOC was cut, Reagan appointed a woman judge who became our judge, a Schlafly type. She was a well-educated, very bright woman, but she was of the generation who didn't understand sisterhood as powerful."
The judge, Pamela Rymer, dismissed the cases in 1985, based on counter-claims filed by Paramount and Warner. The studios claimed that the DGA had no leg to stand on because it, too, had hiring power. As the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986: "The studios argued that the DGA contract gives directors the right to select the first assistant director, and the first assistant the right to select the second assistant. Thus, the studios could only hire the director, not the assistant directors. How could they be accused of discrimination if they couldn't do all of the hiring? Judge Rymer ruled on this claim rather than on the actual issue of whether discrimination had occurred."
In essence, the judge ruled against the Original Six because the DGA had its own very real gender inequalities—which is true!—but it was heartbreaking to lose on such a technicality.
Director Maria Geise, who has spent years researching the case—and who helped organize a new American Civil Liberties Union investigation into Hollywood gender bias that began in 2015 and is still ongoing—added more detail when I reached her in New York: "The DGA could not lead the class action, because they suffered from a conflict of interest, which was a correct ruling, as sad as it was. The DGA too is run by vastly white males who are interested in keeping the lion's share of the jobs. Afterwards, the Original Six didn't have the financial wherewithal to carry it forward."
Still, Hochberg says, even bringing forth the lawsuit caused the number of women directors to rise—until it stalled in 1995—and she maintains that legal action is the only thing the studios understand. This is why she, and the rest of the O6, are so hopeful about Geise's current work with the ACLU investigation. "I think the three percent increase that just happened in the last few months possibly happened because of the ACLU investigation, and that hadn't happened for 25 years," she says. "Our suit was a galvanizing event, just as I think this new investigation will be."
Littman, however, worries about whether a similar lawsuit could even get results in the current Hollywood environment, where the big studios no longer hold all the jobs. "Something cataclysmic that has been happening since our day is that there has been a total upheaval in the film industry itself," she explains. "It is now a fractured industry, which absolutely affects the possibility of an effective lawsuit. In the past, there were five or six studios, today those studios are half the number and a fraction as powerful, and there are 5,000 independent production companies. Lawsuits have to choose a target, and how can they aim at 5,000 companies? The other problem is that when we sued, there was a vocabulary called 'goals and timetables,' which the EOC used to change employment practices. That term got smeared to be called quotas; can't be applied today. I don't mean to be hopeless, because the change in technology which has been as cataclysmic for the industry will hopefully allow women to go out and make films. But the compact nature that the industry used to have is gone."
Geise, for her part, says that the new ACLU investigation is currently underway, and that there will be targets to aim at soon. "I have no doubt that this is going to result in legal action, and that they will subpoena executives."
Where the WSC got heavy support from Michael Franklin and the DGA in 1983, Geise says that she is instead receiving threats from the guild for bringing forth legal action. "The head of the Directors' Guild, Jay Roth, told me, 'If you do this, you are starting a war. You are taking the food off the plates of men,'" she tells me. "But, like the Original Six, I have to be fearless. I’m so fed up. I have given my whole life to this profession, and at some point it became clear to me that it wasn't my failure. This was a systemic failure, This is a matter of silencing and censoring women's voices. This is bigger than me, and the Original Six are the shoulders I stand upon. I don’t think I would have been remotely as credible with the ACLU if I hadn’t relied on Victoria [Hochberg] as a mentor.... Those women are heroes, there is not a single women director working now who doesn't have them to thank for their jobs."
Though the six women have now become folk heroes—at least among the Hollywood circles that still choose to acknowledge their efforts—one thing that Hochberg said during our Skype talk really struck me: They were never fighting to become legends. They were fighting to work. They were fighting to get paid to make movies and TV. They were fighting for jobs. "This has always been, and will always be, an employment issue," she said. "I would rather get 10 jobs than one Oscar. At least you work, you can support yourself. And create a pension fund."
The pension fund is a poignant note, and an issue that is becoming more and more important to the women of the Original Six as they get older—it is what they were fighting for all along. The way the Directors Guild works is that only directors who have earned a certain number of "points" (by working on films) get to earn pensions and crucial health benefits that cover them once they can no longer work. The goal of the union is to provide for its older members by allowing them to become vested when they are young—but they can only become vested if they work. To correct this cycle of inequity, the women had intended to ask for damages in the form of points, had their lawsuit been successful. (The DGA was not contacted for comment.)
"We had a choice to make," Hochberg says. "We could ask for backpay, or points. We all said, we don't need backpay, we need to get the points that will allow us when we are young to take care of ourselves when we are old. Many of the women in the guild don't have the ability to take care of themselves when they are old."
Dobrow adds that, after decades of fighting, she still has to pay out of pocket for her own health care. She notes that another policy at the DGA particularly affects older women like herself, a rule called "Not Working in the Trade." Designed to cull out defunct or grizzled union members from sitting on committees, the rule, which came into effect in the last five years, states that any DGA member who has not worked in the last seven years may no longer run for elected office, even on a diversity committee, and their names are removed from lists of eligible directors that are circulated to studios.
"This is the great irony of the WSC," Dobrow says. "We were founded to represent women who were not working. We were meant to be the voice of a huge group of women who had no jobs, who couldn't get jobs."
"The fact of the matter is, women are twice punished," Littman adds. "We are punished once for being women, and then again for not being able to work because we were women."
Talking to the Original Six, I realized that recognizing the work of these women isn’t just about their symbolic victory; it is recognizing what we have lost. It is about recognizing that, because the system failed an entire generation of women who wanted to work—to put in hard, long hours on film sets—that these women are now struggling. It is important to tell the stories of women like the Original Six, just as it's important to speak for women just starting out—to recognize what this generation sacrificed for the chance to work during a time when it was nearly impossible.
"I don't believe people outgrow their wisdom," Littman says. "The younger generation in Hollywood seems to think that when you reach a certain age you are a dithering, blithering idiot, and they try to phase you out, but I will not take it."
"This is the Original Six's new fight, Rachel," Hochberg jokes. "We are now fighting ageism."
Before the Original Six spoke with me, Littman urged me to watch a series of speeches that she and the other O6 members gave to the DGA in 2014 for the 35th anniversary of the WSC. What she did not say is that the ceremony almost didn't happen. As Geise reported, when the idea came around to commemorate the six women and all they had done, the then-newly appointed co-chair of the WSC, Millicent Shelton, denied that the Original Six had formed an official committee in 1979, and claimed that the true birth of the WSC, instead, was in 1991. Several members of the DGA rushed to the Six's defense, and the 35th anniversary event proceeded—but this confusion served to subtly obscure the significance of the early WSC members, tilting the DGA (at least in the guild's self-reckoning) away from its legacy of having once been involved in radical, collective political action. Even in the organization that helped create a place in history for these women, that history is in peril of being erased.
"Right now the women of the DGA are not really a collective in the advancement of women," Geise says. "They are compromising for the sake of individual advancement, for jobs. And so of course their narrative would be different. I am a good revolutionary, just as the Original Six were. But I am not a good politician. The women who run the WSC now are good politicians."
Nimoy echoes this sentiment: "The women who run the guild right now are good girls and won't take on the establishment. But history is made by women who misbehave."
What Hollywood needs most right now are good revolutionaries because we stand to lose a lot more than just employment if nothing changes. Every year that women don't direct half the films in Hollywood, we lose half of the stories that could seep into our culture in the most immediate and powerful ways. We lose the ability to see stories from all kinds of women projected at a majestic scale in a dark room. Imagine what diverse films we would have if women like the Original Six and those who came after them didn't have to fight every day for the simple right to sit in the rooms where decisions are made—think how much time they'd have to develop and refine their creative ideas. The chance to see these films, and the chance for women filmmakers to live with dignity well into their older years—that's what we are still fighting for.
The Original Six are also still fighting. Nimoy mentors women filmmakers through a program at Sundance. Dobrow went back to graduate school and has become a "consultant for mid-sized arts organizations." Nell Cox is now converting her film ideas into novels.
Both Hochberg and Littman say they still have films they dream of making. Littman says she is "working on a film about two men: Timothy McVeigh and Gore Vidal, who were pen pals in the years when McVeigh was in prison. It scares me to death, because I don't know men as well as I know women."
Hochberg has written a screenplay about two two sisters-in-law "on the homefront during World War II—but I cannot get it financed. Perhaps the recent brouhaha will change things. I want to continue just plain writing, which does not require any 'green light' except my own, and where there are no worries about jealous male crew members, or show-runner/producers/network executives who see us as their mother, sister, step-mother, wife, ex-wife, or new girlfriend, all of whom they appear to be very angry at."
"We are still activists," Littman says. "I don't believe we would have talked with you if we weren't. This isn't a nostalgic episode for any of us! What we're battling now is gender discrimination and ageism. I believe that, while we were never ashamed of being women, we are (deep deep down) ashamed of being old, and that has subverted our current battle. But we'll never run out of passion. That's clear, isn't it?"
*Update — February 26, 2016: This article has been updated to indicate Susan Bay Nimoy's maiden name.
**Update — February 26, 2016: This article has been updated to give a fuller sense of the methods and findings of the study in question.