Blog post

Invisible Labour: Women in the Cutting Room

Emma Pirnay recovers the gendered history of film editing and considers how we can recognise marginalised labour.

26 April 2021

Invisible Labour: Women in the Cutting Room

Anne Bauchens never planned to become an editor. The first woman to win an Oscar for Best Film Editing originally aspired to act for the stage. While in her twenties, she moved to New York and was hired in 1912 to work as a secretary for playwright Willam deMille. Around this time, the “very proper, soft-spoken young woman” was introduced to his brother Cecil B DeMille—an opportunistic newcomer to Hollywood. [1] DeMille knew that the landscape in the small Southern California town was changing; the place that once held a humble agricultural community was now home to a bustling cinematic industry. As films became longer and more complex, the need for mechanised, assembly-line type work increased behind the scenes. Echoing the Industrial Revolution, work in filmmaking became more specialised and importantly, more gendered.   

Working day and night with the DeMille brothers, it was only a matter of time until Bauchens was introduced to the art of filmmaking. On one notable day, she was invited to a screening for Cecil B DeMille’s The Squaw Man (1915), a blockbuster western which was said to have left a significant mark on her. Narrating the experience, she remarked that “I had never been among the literary and more intelligent groups … I just thought it was the most wonderful thing I’d seen.” [2] It seemed as though a new world opened up for her; she swiftly began to assist with screenwriting duties, stayed behind after work to learn all she could about filmmaking and, upon learning about the existence of the cutting room, persisted until she was asked to join Cecil as an assistant editor for his film, We Can’t Have Everything (1918). She would go on to collaborate with DeMille in a partnership spanning forty years. Despite her lengthy career, her name is only a small footnote in film history.

For many women at the time, including Bauchens, the film industry presented itself as a new ground for workplace equality, overlapping with the goals of early feminist movements. Between the 1910s and the mid-1920s, women in the film industry were well-represented in screenwriting, editing and even director roles. Film historian Jane Gaines stated that “more women than men owned independent production companies in 1923”, and that Hollywood expected full parity between men and women by 1925. However, it soon became abundantly clear that women were only allowed in the industry as long as they didn’t threaten male authority. Their seat at the table was rickety—nailed together by conditions that were susceptible to change.

Editing in particular was seen as “women’s work”, which is to say that it required precise and repetitive action, akin to sewing or weaving. In the assembly phase of filmmaking, large rolls of film had to be sifted through, cut and diligently pieced together in cramped editing rooms. The work required little professional training, was “low paying and considered menial”, which is why young women just out of high school were targeted for the job. Initially, they were known as “patchers”, then “cutters”, referring to the singular action they would repeat for hours on end. They primarily worked for independent businesses, which afforded them a little autonomy in their work.

In the 1930s, the perception of editing being “women’s work” shifted. David Meuel notes in Women Film Editors: Unseen Artists of American Cinema that women were gradually pushed out of editing jobs as investors from Wall Street funded all aspects of the film business. This called for a more hierarchical organisation, which benefitted men at the top of the corporate ladder who began to see the film industry in a more serious, profitable light. To gain funding, it followed that roles once adopted by women, such as editing and producing, increasingly required a “masculine sensibility.” Exaggerated performances of masculine confidence were also adopted by directors on set; for example, Cecil B DeMille was regularly photographed wearing jodhpurs and was known to be a stern, difficult man to work with. When sound recording was introduced to cinema, the role of the “cutter” became that of the “editor”, a more prestigious occupation reserved for men.

The first women editors were marginalised as a result of their devalued labour, as well as their gender. According to Lilya Kaganovsky[3], Soviet editors such as Ėsfir’ Shub and Elizaveta Svilova didn’t want to insist on gaining auteur status for their work, which is why it was lost to history. Dziga Vertov, director of Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Svilova’s frequent collaborator, bemoaned her lack of visibility in the public sphere. “Only a serious offense could justify her lack of recognition. Yet Comrade Svilova’s only crime is her modesty!”, he wrote in his 1934 diary. It should be noted that the Soviet understanding of cinema was fundamentally different to that of Western filmmakers. Soviet women editors, for example, rejected the notion that their work could be evaluated based on their gender, as it was a trait representative of Western feminism.

Though Soviet editors denied their artistry, it was undeniably present. The same could be said for editors in the West—their editing contributed to the tone, rhythm and pacing of many classic films in the Silent Era. Behind every picture, there’s the hidden, patient work of someone who pored over hours upon hours of footage. Yet, despite their great contributions, many women were uncredited for their work and held to higher standards than their male counterparts. Anne Bauchens, for example, was nicknamed “Trojan Annie” for regularly working 16-to-18-hour days in her younger years. The nickname referred to her hardworking nature, yet it also hints at how, like a Trojan horse, she had to sneak herself into the industry.  

David Meuel’s book tells the tale of women who “made it'' in American cinema—who escaped through the cracks of patriarchal structure. Meuel credits their success to their work ethic, their efforts made to fit into a male-dominated field and their ability to “hold their own'' in their creative decisions. Conversely, he also points out that the relative invisibility of editors explains why, despite having been “systematically purged” from other roles in filmmaking, a certain group of women were able to keep their editing jobs. He notes that Bauchens, for example, strived for “logical coherence between shots without drawing attention to itself—by effectively being invisible.” Invisibility, then, turned out to be the perfect tool for oppression.

The concept of “invisible work”, coined by researcher AK Daniels, is not a new phenomenon.[4] The term originally referred to women’s unpaid labour, explaining the chronic way in which housework and volunteer work are socially and economically devalued. Since then, the meaning of invisible work has been extended to sex work, as well as various types of care work and employment. It could be argued that the work of cutters, too, fits within the definition of invisible work. Physically, cutters were made invisible as they were shut off into separate rooms from their colleagues. Creatively, they were only granted a certain level of authority—enough to leave their mark, but not enough to entirely rock the boat.

If this narrative sounds familiar, it’s because it ties into a much wider history of the gender-based stratification of work. For centuries, women have been delegated routine work, tasks which were often deemed unimportant and which were later co-opted or ignored by men. In Women’s Work, Men’s Property: The Origins of Gender and Class, writers Stephanie Coontz and Peta Henderson explain how male dominance does not occur by law of nature, but by design.[5] The division of labour is based on gender-essentialist beliefs; rigid assumptions that women are naturally “better” or “worse” at certain tasks than men.

The incoherence in the public recognition of women editors—who were at times considered invaluable, at other times dispensable—reflects how their position depended on their profitability. At a moment’s notice, their perceived “passivity” could be weaponised to remove them from their workplace. For example, Adrienne Fazan, editor of Singin’ in the Rain (1952), was discouraged from working by the head of MGM, who told her that editing was “just too tough for women,” and that women “should go home and cook for their husbands and have babies.” On the other hand, many male directors stated their specific preference for women editors because they knew that their work wouldn’t be contested. 

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of women editors, the value of whose contribution went unseen. The question remains how this invisible work should be made visible, and on what terms. Su Friedrich’s Edited By may be a good point of departure. In 2019, the filmmaker’s mountainous set of archival work was released; a survey documenting two hundred and six women editors who were said to have “invented, developed, fine-tuned and revolutionized the art of film editing.” Scanning through these archives, which celebrate the work of editors both famed and lesser-known across the world, they show that our current conception of film history is skewed and incomplete. There are masses of creative work that has been stolen, inaccurately credited or lost due to a lack of documentation. Undoubtedly, there is feminist potential in these archives; they allow a fuller picture of history when we are bound by the limits of public memory. 

As the Oscars loom around the corner, it is important to acknowledge that not all representation is equal—the film industry remains a painful place for women, as well as for marginalised groups. Accolades from the Academy only present one blueprint for success, and recognition from a historically sexist and racist industry is a futile stamp of approval for many. The temporary assimilation of women in the film industry in the 1920s only allowed for marginal progress, although their work was done with talent and passion. At face value, it may seem like things are improving; after all, the 2021 Oscar nominations just broke records for comprising two women in the Best Director category. However, there is still room for improvement. Having just a few faces for parity’s sake does not beset decades of cinematic history which has been sexist by omission. 

The ideology underpinning the second and third waves of feminism, which fought to include women in the workplace, is ever more pervasive today. It can be found in what is branded as the mainstream, or neoliberal “girl boss” branch of feminism [6]. If anything can be learnt from the history of women editors, it is that our idea of liberation is always bound by the limits of our current imagination. Breaking the “celluloid ceiling” in an industry that demands that women be exceptional at all times is not the answer to oppression. It may be preferable to build an alternative film canon—beyond Hollywood, beyond capitalism, beyond patriarchy and the Western world. The fight for cultural capital is far from over; however, feminist archives such as Edited By show how women’s artistry can be reclaimed simply by being made visible.  

[1] Meuel, David. 2016. Women Film Editors: Unseen Artists of American Cinema. Jefferson, NC.

[2] Eyman, Scott. 2010. Empire of Dreams: The Epic Life of Cecil B. DeMille. Simon & Schuster, NY.

[3] Kaganovsky, Lilya. 2018. Film Editing as Women’s Work: Ėsfir’Shub, Elizaveta Svilova, and the Culture of Soviet Montage. Apparatus. Film, Media and Digital Cultures of Central and Eastern Europe, (6).

[4] Daniels, A.K., 1987. Invisible work. Social problems, 34(5), pp.403-415.

[5] Coontz, Stephanie & Henderson, Petra. 2016. Women's Work, Men's Property: The Origins of Gender and Class. Verso Books. Olufemi, Lola. 2020. Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power. Pluto Press, London.


Emma Pirnay is a freelance writer and psychology graduate based between the UK and Luxembourg. You can find her on Twitter. 

Filed under: film, labour, oscars, women-s-history, work