The Forgotten Female Action Stars of the 1910s

The Forgotten Female Action Stars of the 1910s »


A city editor orders an armed female
reporter to chase down a con man and “get the story.” A railroad
telegrapher seeks vigilante-style justice against two robbers who
attacked her. An adventure-seeking heiress outruns a giant boulder
Indiana Jones-style … decades before Harrison Ford was ever born.

the current movie landscape, female action heroes tend to be so few and
far between that their mere existence seems like an accomplishment
(think: Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, Rey in Star Wars, or the four stars of the upcoming Ghostbusters
reboot). But more than a century ago, before women had even won the
right to vote in many countries, actresses headed up some of the U.S’s
most popular and successful action movies—even if they performed stunts
in skirts that ended only a few inches above their ankles.

During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s,
men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the
so-called “serial” or “chapter” film genre. These were movies in which
the same character appeared over several installments released on a
regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic. The
story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting
out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling
villains. The film scholar Ben Singer estimates that between 1912 and
1920, about 60 action serials with female protagonists were released,
totaling around 800 episodes.

What’s most striking about the category, Singer says,
is its “extraordinary emphasis on female heroism.” Protagonists
exhibited traditionally “masculine” qualities like “physical strength
and endurance, self-reliance, courage, social authority, and the freedom
to explore novel experiences outside the domestic sphere.” Then, by the
early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called “serial
queens,” disappeared.

Keep reading