GFWC at the Movies

That GFWC has been a powerful force in shaping national politics, legislation, and even moral standards is no secret. However, our role in molding popular culture and entertainment also presents a formidable history. From our founding in 1890, GFWC clubwomen have seen themselves as harbingers of the arts and public education. When the first motion pictures debuted in America, in the early 1900s, clubwomen saw the new medium as an opportunity for education, and as a natural fit into their already established platform for artistic standards.

The first motion picture footage was screened in France in 1895 by the Lumiere brothers. However, GFWC’s history with motion pictures is even older. In 1889, Thomas Edison developed the Kinetoscope. Unlike the cinematograph, which was used in France, the Kinetoscope was a device that only allowed one viewer to observe the film through a small peephole. Only two years later, Edison, whose wife was a clubwoman, demonstrated his invention during GFWC’s second annual Convention. By 1905, the new art form had picked up traffic, and the first Nickelodeon was opened in Pittsburgh. Taking off at a rapid pace, feature films became a major form of entertainment for Americans everywhere by the start of WWI.

Despite reservations about the film industry, GFWC clubwomen primarily regarded the advent of film as a major educational force. Attending movies got people out of the saloons and into the theater, and was seen to have positive potential. However, the early film industry was unregulated, and clubwomen had quandaries about inappropriate materials. In 1916, GFWC President Anna Pennybacker proclaimed that “no question has aroused more interest among the homes of our land than that of the motion picture. We realize that this institution has come to stay… we realize that it can be made into a great educational force. We also realize that the average motion picture tends to degrade rather than uplift the moral status of the spectator…”

Acting on their concerns, GFWC joined forced with the National Board of Review (NBR) in 1916. A Motion Picture Survey Committee was created, and women were sent into their local communities to take stock of and rate the motion pictures which were available there. However, after campaigning across the country with the NBR for censorship of the movies, GFWC clubwomen realized they fundamentally disagreed on the means of censorship and proclaimed that the NBR was using the support of women’s clubs as a way to provide “camouflage to the industry’s evils.” In 1918, GFWC clubwomen were rocketed into a debate about the dangers and necessities of censorship. In a 1918 Clubwomen edition women debated their stances on censorship in personal opinion pieces, and even solicited the opinion of famed director D.W. Griffith.

After a unanimous vote to split with the NBR in 1918, clubwomen continued to campaign for federal censorship of movies on both the local and national levels. Despite its split from the influential NBR, GFWC continued to put pressure on the Motion Picture Industry, and pushed towards a cohesive and unified ratings system. Forming committees, clubwomen regularly screened and reviewed movies, and their recommendations were often printed in the magazine Moving Picture Age. In the 1920s, William Hays, founder of the Moving Picture Association of America, commissioned 10 organizations to sit on the Film Board of National Organizations. Members of the Board, GFWC helped to give recommendations for how to incorporate a unified ratings system. The Hays code, the first national ratings system, was developed to ensure that offensive material was not included in movies.

Under the influence of GFWC, the code remained in place until 1968, when it was replaced with the current ratings system, which granted artists and directors more artistic freedoms. GFWC remained active participants in film review, and in advocacy for educational merit through the 1960s, and its impact is felt daily by the millions of movie-going Americans.