WIF grew out of need to level playing field

The ’70s marked the height of the early women’s movement.

In Hollywood, Julia Phillips became one of the first women producers to win an Academy Award, Sue Mengers had risen to superagent and there was an emergence of strong modern women roles — Sally Field in “Norma Rae,” Jane Fonda in “Coming Home,” Meryl Streep in “The Deer Hunter” and Jill Clayburgh in “An Unmarried Woman.” Women were not only becoming stars, but developing their own production companies.

Yet, things weren’t completely equal. One woman who noticed that was Tichi Wilkerson Kassell, then the fledging owner, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Hollywood Reporter.

“When I took over the paper, my attorney and the men handling the paper’s business thought I should go home like a good little girl and they’d take care of everything,” remembers Kassell, who has since landed her own star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. “I was in my 20s and I didn’t fit anyone’s image of a boss and it was a constant struggle. The men would be very condescending. I really needed other women to talk to and I knew there were women who were having similar problems. So I called a few of them together.”

Equality sought

So began Women in Film in 1973 by Kassell and nine other women working in the film industry who felt they weren’t getting the same opportunities as their male counterparts.

“They felt that if they had a mutual support system of women in similar positions and with similar motivations for better job opportunities, banding together would work in everyone’s favor,” says WIF executive director Harriet Silverman. Their mission evolved to its current one of improving the employment, position and depiction of women in film and television.

Their first meetings consisted of brainstorming strategies to promote talented women. One of the first was a job referral service, which involved their calling all over town for job openings and arranging meetings with industry leaders and speaking engagements. Word spread quickly and the operation expanded to larger offices.

“We were battling for women just to get through the door,” says actress Patricia Barry, a 20-year member who now serves as WIF’s president. “All most women could get then were secretarial jobs. Well, you could be a more successful one if you were doing it with your husband. You can’t believe how we were fighting for jobs. We forced ourselves into things through manipulation or whom we knew. During the first Women in Film meetings, we’d have sessions where we’d just stand up and rant about the injustices we faced.”

Despite the militant tone of the early women’s movement, WIF took a more politic road. “Many of the women wanted to picket the studios, but I felt it was essential to avoid a radical position as the best way to achieve more than a token status,” says Kassell, who served as president for the organization’s first three years. “Troublemaking was not the way to accomplish anything — no one would listen to us after awhile if we were gnats.

“The best way to become part of the industry was to work within it,” says Kassell, who published profiles in the Reporter of successful women. (She sold the publication in 1988.) “We had to be smart and elegant, prove we had the drive and technical know-how and become an indespensible part of the industry. But that strategy takes longer and requires more persistence, and we had to not get discouraged.”

The strategy paid off. Networking gatherings grew to include lunches, seminars and workshops. Eighteen years ago, the group instituted the Crystal Awards to honor successful women in the industry. It has grown to attract celebrity participation and may make its tele vision debut on Lifetime next year.

Still, Kassell’s full vision has yet to be realized. “We’ve met many of our expectations in as much as women are ensconced in high-level positions in the industry,” she says. “But women still have to work harder, be smarter, more clear and direct, and are not as easily forgiven as men. With some pictures, if a woman were the director, she’d be out on her you-know-what.”

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