Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Hilary Hallett's "Go West, Young Women!"

Hilary Hallett is Assistant Professor of History at Columbia University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Go West, Young Women!: The Rise of Early Hollywood, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Go West, Young Women!:
A piece on the imminent move of scenarist [screenwriter] Josephine Quirk from New York to Los Angeles resurrected Horace Greeley’s old advice for feminist ends. “When Horace Greeley penned those immortal words, ‘Go West, Young Man,’ he failed to reckon with the feminine contingent. That of course was before the days of feminism,” Louella Parsons excused. “In the good old days when Horace philosophized over the possibilities in the golden west he thought the only interest the fair sex could have in this faraway country was to go as a helpmate to man,” she explained. Parsons then spelled out what such a role entailed: “If her husband, her father or her brother set out to explore the vast unknown—she should accompany him as cook, chief sewer of buttons and to make sure that his home was kept clean.” Banishing the thought of consigning her readers to such an inglorious fate, Parsons declared, “But that was in the good old days. In the present day, if milady goes west she travels not to sew on buttons or do the family washing, she goeth to make her own fortune.” Calling Quirk “one of those up to date young women who is following Greeley’s advice,” Parsons heralded the better prospects faced by these modern adventurers. No possible calamity faced Quirk. Her “future is assured, since she has accepted a position with the Goldwyn Company."

And so the hopeful responded, traveling westward as before. By the time that Parsons encouraged Quirk’s imitators to go west, Los Angeles was known not just as “the Capital of Movie-Land” but as a “picture Eldorado” that particularly attracted ambitious single women. Journalists like Parsons helped to spark women’s westward migration by describing the first movie personalities and the social terrain they occupied as fantastically connecting the two most influential environments that young women moved into in this period: the world of mass culture and the world of work. Their stories described some of the most visible freedoms resulting from women’s work vis-á-vis the new social conventions that mass cultural forms like the movies and the press engendered and publicized. The place that women occupied within this industry as it settled in the West offered tangible evidence that women could succeed in areas, and on terms, previously reserved for men. And yet, in celebrating the glamorous side of feminine power, women celebrities shaped and sold a fan culture that acted as a bridge from the past, in effect promising young women they could have it all.
This page could not be more perfect to represent the book.

Page 99 describes the main theme of the first half of the book. My discovery of Louella Parsons's role in promoting the movie industry as a great new western frontier for ambitious women got me hooked on the topic in general. In seeing the movie industry through the eyes of early journalists like Parsons and her readers, I realized that there was a whole other image surrounding Hollywood's birth which had largely been erased from historical memory.

This page also inspired the title for the book!
Learn more about Go West, Young Women! at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue