9 Classic Movies Directed by Women

Alice Guy-Blaché
Alice Guy-Blaché / Apeda Studio New York - Collection Solax, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Quick, name five classic movies. Now go look them up on IMDb to see who directed them. Or don't, because you have other things to do with your day and we can probably guess what matters here anyway: they were all made by men.

When we think about the cinematic canon, it's pretty much all dudes. Is that because men make better movies than women? Stop it. The actual reason is that for most of history, men have written history. So the ladies, sorry to say, have primarily been overlooked. But women have been killing it on screen—and behind the scenes—since the very beginning of cinema.

No kidding: many historians believe the first fiction film was a short called The Cabbage Fairy, created by Alice Guy-Blaché way back in 1896. Here are nine other classic films worth knowing about, for Women's History Month and, you know, the rest of your life.

1. The Consequences of Feminism (1906) // Alice Guy-Blaché

If you haven't watched a silent movie in a while, you might be surprised by how funny and modern this one feels. Alice Guy-Blaché was famous for pushing boundaries, and this Suffragette-era comedy makes its point loud and clear. When men and women switch roles—overworked guys take care of the house and kids, ladies get together to drink and catcall—the husbands are not happy.

2. Salomé (1922) // Alla Nazimova

In 1920, Alla Nazimova was one of the highest-paid and most revered actors in America. She also happened to be a proudly feminist, bisexual immigrant who constantly flouted cultural limitations. Her notoriety intrigued audiences, but she pushed them too far with this adaptation of Oscar Wilde's play, which credits Charles Bryant as its director, though it was widely acknowledged—even at the time of its release—that it was Nazimova behind the camera. Aghast whispers intimated—though never proved—that she hired an all-gay cast in homage to Wilde, and also that she'd had an affair with costume and set designer Natacha Rambova (who was married to Rudolph Valentino). The movie was way ahead of its time, and nearly ruined Nazimova. She would have been delighted to know that it has since been embraced as an early paragon of queer and avant-garde cinema.

3. Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) // Dorothy Arzner

Believe it or not, Dorothy Arzner was the sole mainstream female filmmaker of her era. She didn't take the responsibility lightly, and though her movies were often categorized—and dismissed—as "women's pictures," they all have a notably sharp perspective. Dance, Girl, Dance appears to be a fairly commonplace tale of two competing showgirls (Maureen O'Hara and a nicely brassy Lucille Ball). But Arzner turns it into a thoughtful examination of status, culture, and gender. O'Hara's blazing dress-down to her thoughtlessly ogling audience is a feminist benchmark.

4. Outrage (1950) // Ida Lupino

Though Ida Lupino was originally packaged as a starlet—and soon became famous as a film noir star—she was frustrated by the limited options for an actress in Hollywood. So she turned herself into one of the earliest successful independent directors, making movies well outside the studio system. She was the first woman to make a film noir (1953's The Hitch-Hiker), and many of her movies were not only edgy but downright radical. Case in point: this unsettling, deeply empathetic tale of sexual assault, which was made at a time when the concept itself was barely even acknowledged.

5. Love Letter (1953) // Kinuyo Tanaka

Kinuyo Tanaka was only the second female director in Japanese history (the first was the trailblazing Tazuko Sakane, whose work has, alas, mostly been lost). She was originally known as a beloved actor who collaborated with master artists Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujirō Ozu. But she broke from their formalism for a more intuitive directorial approach, perceptively highlighting the connected emotions and disjointed power structures between men and women in films like this sensitive postwar melodrama.

6. Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) // Agnès Varda

By the time Agnès Varda made this existential tale of a young pop star (Corinne Marchand) grappling with mortality, the French New Wave had already been well-defined by filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut. Varda turned the notion of their gorgeous young gamines upside-down, exploring the destructive implications of feminine beauty and male freedom (or lack thereof).

7. Harlan County U.S.A. (1976) // Barbara Kopple

So far, exactly one woman has won an Oscar for Best Director (that'd be Kathryn Bigelow, for 2008's The Hurt Locker). But female filmmakers have been picking up trophies for nonfiction work for decades. Barbara Kopple worked on this iconic, often-shattering documentary—about a violent coal mining strike in Kentucky—for years before taking home the first of her two Academy Awards (so far).

8. Ishtar (1987) // Elaine May

Wait, what? Isn't Ishtar one of filmdom's all-time flops? Yep, it sure is. But the maddening trajectory of that story—in which Elaine May was punished for taking on a project that was considered too ambitious, at a time when women weren't allowed any missteps—says less about her movie than her industry. Watch it today, and you'll see a slyly acerbic, genuinely funny satire about two inept artists (Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty) whose unvarnished mediocrity and egotism consistently lead them to fail upwards. A metaphor, perhaps, for Hollywood itself?

9. Daughters of the Dust (1991) // Julie Dash

This is the movie that made Julie Dash the first African-American woman to direct a nationally-released feature film. But it took her a full decade to get her groundbreaking work to theaters, because studios couldn't see the commercial potential of a period drama about a matriarchal Gullah family grappling with the legacy of slavery. Meanwhile, if her stunningly poetic visuals look familiar, it may be because so many artists have since claimed the film as a pivotal influence—including Beyoncé, who used it as a touchstone for Lemonade.

Elizabeth Weitzman is the author of the new book Renegade Women in Film & TV.