From cult classics to iconic films, Martha Coolidge has proved wrong those who told her when she set out to make movies that women had no place in the director’s chair. A widely respected director of both films and television, in 2002 she became the first woman elected president of the prestigious Directors Guild of America in its 66-year history. While president, she spoke out against the shortage of females working behind the camera. Throughout her career, she has worked to highlight gender issues in her films and, off-screen, she has been an ardent advocate for increased opportunity and recognition for female directors.
Coolidge was born on August 17, 1946 to two architects in New Haven, Conn., and was exposed to creative expression from a very young age. In fact, in a 2011 interview, she recalled her father acting as director while making 8mm movies of his children playing. After her father’s death, a nine-year-old Coolidge would take over the director’s job, doling out roles to her siblings. She soon began to explore the arts outside her family and began singing in choirs at New Haven coffee houses. In the 1960s she even joined The Blackfriars, a small acting troupe based in Cheshire, Conn. As a high school senior, Coolidge began experimenting with directing in new settings. By the time she went off to the Rhode Island School of Design, she was ready to become the first student to major in filmmaking. She then pursued an MFA from the New York University’s School of Visual Arts and Film and Television, graduating in 1974.
During her time at NYU, Coolidge began creating documentaries. In fact, her first two forays into film were personal documentaries: David: Off and On (1972), which addressed her brother’s experiences as a drug addict; and Not a Pretty Picture (1975), a fictional film based on a personal experience with the trauma of date rape. While in New York, she experienced the difficulties of a woman trying to make it in the film industry and knew the obstacles would be even greater in Hollywood. In 1978, she helped launch the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers and, in 1983, made her Hollywood debut with Valley Girl, a low-budget teen comedy about a growing pop-movement in Southern California. When she signed onto the film, she had a feeling that it might transform her life as she knew it, even though the film’s success was far from certain. Coolidge received only a small stipend for her work on the film and finally resorted to living in a friend’s garage. However, after the film’s release it was clear that her choice was worth it. Valley Girl turned out to be Coolidge’s big break and shortly after its release she was given the opportunity to try her hand at big-budget filmmaking with 1985’s Real Genius, featuring Val Kilmer in his first starring role.
Martha Coolidge’s work has ranged from the comedic to the serious and from the small screen to the big screen. Known as an “actor’s director,” she works to bring out the best in those she casts and the majority of her major films are character-driven, many of them focusing on women’s issues. Regardless of the issues they raise, Coolidge’s films consistently demonstrate her awareness of the implications of gender. One of her most acclaimed films, Rambling Rose (1991), deals with sexual exploitation and gendered stereotyping. In 1994, she directed Geena Davis in Angie, a film about a single young Brooklyn native who finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. It was this film that cemented Coolidge as a major Hollywood director.
Since the mid-1990s, she has directed many feature films including Out to Sea (1997), The Prince and Me (2004), and Material Girls (2006). Coolidge has worked on a number of TV movies as well, including the Emmy-winning Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and An American Girl: Chrissa Stands Strong (2006), an anti-bullying film nominated for the Director’s Guild Award for Outstanding Achievement in a Children’s Program. She has also directed episodes for several television series, including Sex and the City, Weeds, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
During This Time
1966 - Today: Struggle for Justice
Feminism in the late 1960s was aided by President Kennedy, who formed the President’s Commission on the Status of Women in 1961, and his successor, President Johnson, who backed passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting discrimination based on race, sex, national origin, or religion. Difficulties in implementing the law through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) led a group of women in 1966 to create the National Organization for Women (NOW), demanding “action to bring American women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now.”
A younger group called for a more radical approach to social change than simply considering what was possible to achieve politically. “Women’s liberation” demanded freedom without limitation. Some took part in consciousness-raising groups, others demonstrated against the Miss America pageant, and many discussed their expectations of mutual enjoyment of sex. They established rape crisis centers, domestic shelters, and women’s studies programs. Title IX of the federal Education Amendments Act also increased pressure on universities to hire more women faculty and expand the number of female college athletes. Activist protest among gays and lesbians, such as the Stonewall Riot, symbolized this group’s potential to resist oppression.
Under pressure, many states repealed legislation prohibiting abortion. In 1973, the Supreme Court legalized its availability to women in Roe v. Wade. Also in 1973, the Senate and the House of Representatives passed the ERA, and states began its ratification.
Yet, dissension arose in the ranks of the movement, as it had earlier after passage of the 19th amendment. Feminists disagreed as to whether pornography should be banned or protected as a form of free speech, and whether lesbian identities should be kept secret or disclosed. Black women were more concerned with poverty and welfare in their communities than with personal career advancement; for them, sterilization abuse was more important than abortion, and they were deeply insulted by attacks on the African American family as matriarchal and dysfunctional.
A backlash was growing in the 1970s, along with a New Right in politics. The ERA was defeated and opposition to abortion increased. Conflicts between pro-life and pro-choice candidates have impacted every presidential campaign since then.
Still, gains have been made in many areas. From 1960 to 2000, increasing numbers of women sought entry to higher education, and bachelor’s degrees awarded to them increased from forty to sixty percent. Definitions of marriage have changed, as when courts gave full rights and responsibilities and the name of marriage to same-sex civil unions in Connecticut in 2008. The Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991 highlighted concern about sexual harassment on the job, and the number of sexual harassment cases filed with the EEOC have increased, as have judgments in favor of the women. Finally, in 2009, women crossed the fifty percent threshold and became the majority of the American workforce. Once largely confined to repetitive manual jobs, now they are running organizations that once treated them as second-class citizens.
The Women’s Movement has changed women’s lives, influenced the economy, and made debate about their roles, family life, and sexual conventions central to national politics and American history.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.