Aug 17, 2015 · 10 min read

Does Having a Woman in the Room
Make a Difference?

by Dr. Rosanne Welch

I’m writing an essay for an academic journal answering the question “Does Having a Woman in the room Make a Difference?”. Right now I’m thinking of calling it “Honey, You Know I Can’t Hear You When You Aren’t in the Room: The Importance of the Female Writer in the Writing Room” which is a riff on a collection of one-act plays by Robert Anderson that we did in college called You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running,

While planning this essay — and this segment about the essay — I found it funny/ironic not funny/ha-ha that I should land on a couple of articles that addressed that question in both the worlds of media — and of medicine — which reminds me how much of this idea permeated the dissertation I wrote a few years ago to earn those 3 letters after my name. During my research into married screenwriting couples I read story after story / anecdote after anecdote from famous female writers who were either marginalized in a room full of male writers or studio executives or female writers who felt it was their duty to protect any female characters being discussed for the movie or television show. I thought I’d share some of those stories here, more casually on the podcast then they will appear in the submitted essay.

But first let’s add the ingredient that any good script needs — the stakes, which means starting with medicine story because while not getting your way in a script note meeting is annoying and insulting and frustrating — not getting your way in a discussion about which drugs to approve for distribution can be deadly — and as much as I take writing seriously, I know decisions made on a script are no match for decisions made about our bodies.

The article I saw first this week was the obituary of Dr. Frances Kelsey who was only a month into her job at the Food and Drug Administration when she was asked to sign off on a drug providing relief to morning sickness in pregnant woman. The drug was already in use in countries around the world and the drug company insisted it was safe. But Kelsey believed that not enough research had been done and blocked its sale in the U.S., refusing to give in to hardball corporate pressure.

You guessed it — The drug was thalidomide, later blamed for awful birth defects in thousands of babies. Dr. Frances Kelsey received the President’s Distinguished federal Civilian Service Award in 1962 from President John F. Kennedy. But that was nothing compared to the letters she had received from people all over the world whose mothers had been given the drug. One man in Canada wrote, “She says she was just doing her job,well, we worship her here.” Dr. Kelsey worked for the FDA until she retired in 2005 at 90 — but — and here’s the clincher — Dr. Kelsey and the may have never gotten to do her crucial work at the FDA if not for a mistake about her gender when she was a student at McGill University in Montreal. She was known then by her maiden name, Frances Oldham, and in 1936 wrote the head of a new pharmacology department at the University of Chicago, asking if there was a research assistant position available. To her surprise, she got a return letter offering her the job, but the letter to her began, “Dear Mr. Oldham.” She politely asked a colleague if she should write and explain that Frances with an ‘e’ is female and with an ‘i’ is male but the colleague told her to just accept the job, which she did.

So there is a pretty dramatic example of how having a woman in the room made a HUGE difference in the world. It’s also an example of how, as writers, when you are contemplating a theme you suddenly notice examples of it all around you — as if you are now on some bandwidth where you are in tune with the idea across the universe. Granted, for writers I advise reading the obits as often as possible since people are never given obituaries unless they’ve done some pretty interesting things — so writers can collect a ton of stories that way — and a ton of more 3-dimensional characters to inhabit their stories.

The other article I read this week came from a happier section of a magazine Glamour to be exact — where our beloved Stephen Colbert chimed in on this topic in an essay for in preparation for his debut in David Letterman’s old timeslot. In the essay Colbert cops to the idea that there aren’t a enough female voices in late night television — and I would extend that to prime time television as well, but his expertise is late night. In the midst of all his patented silly sarcasm he makes a promise “I’m going to do my best to create a Late Show that not only appeals to women but also celebrates their voices” so now it’s our job as female viewers to hold him to that — to write complimentary emails when he gets it right and to gently chide him when he doesn’t. Colbert is a perfect example of what I will discuss in my second essay this week — men defined by the women in their lives…

But before we get to that, let’s get back to the question of whether Having a Woman in the Room Make a Difference? While the examples I have about women in writing rooms can never match Dr. Kelsey’s story for stakes, they have their own level of importance since media images deeply affect how we see ourselves and our potential. I’m reminded of an anecdote where a mother related how she had her son listen to the NASA feed when a shuttle mission was taking place — Commander Pamela Melroy, the second female space shuttle commander, delivered the Harmony node to the International Space Station, which was being commanded by another female commander, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson. When the mother listening to their exchange asked her son if he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up he said, “No. Only girls are astronauts.” THAT’s how important media images can be.

An interest in the power of such images lead to the research for my dissertation “Married: With Screenplay” which involved the work of several prominent female screenwriters who worked with their husbands to create classic screenplays — from Anita Loos to Frances Goodrich to Dorothy Parker to Joan Didion. The main focus of my research was what type of marriages they created for the screen, but in all of their interviews I unearthed, each mentioned the importance of (often) being the lone woman in the room during pitches and during the development of a screenplay. Goodrich was quoted as saying, “ I’m always the only woman working on the picture and I hold the fate of the women [characters] in my hand… I’ll fight for what the gal will or will not do, and I can be completely unfeminine about it.” Goodrich’s work on adapting The Thin Man novel into a film with her husband shows how much her presence made Nora Charles the equal to Nick — and therefore an iconic film character — where she could merely have been a sex object, which is closer to what Dashiel Hammett made her in the original novel.

Likewise, Joan Didion told the story of how her writing partner/husband John Gregory Dunne would often feign illness so she would attend script meetings alone after they noticed male executives ignoring her at earlier meetings. Her work on the second remake of A Star is Born (starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson) emphasized the talent of the Esther Blodgett character moreso than previous films had done.

Treva Silverman

While researching the writing staff of my upcoming book on The Monkees I met and interviewed Treva Silverman — the only woman in the room on that show for both seasons. She was one of the first — if not the first — women to write for television comedy alone, without a male partner. After The Monkees she joined the staff of The Mary Tyler Moore Show as the first woman writer hired — and the woman who wrote the most episodes of any female writer over the course of the show. Being the only woman in the room, Silverman could bring that female perspective from her own circle of Mary Richards’ type friends — that perspective said the Lou Grant character (played by Ed Asner) was sexy. None of the male writers saw it that way — but to the credit of show creators Jim Brooks and Allan Burns — they told Silverman to run with that idea and she won an Emmy for the episode where Lou’s wife asks for a divorce, making him an eligible bachelor to all those fans who had felt guilty being interested in another woman’s man.

Having been a woman in quite a few writers rooms — both a writer and earlier as a writer’s assistant — I know when the female perspective can help. I worked for a male writing team once where they had written of a 28 year old female character that “at 28 she was still holding on to her looks.” I walked in and asked how old their young wives were — 28 and 30 were the answers — so I said something snide like it was too bad they had lost all their looks already. They, of course, were shocked to learn I had come to that conclusion based on their cliched character description — and they changed it rather than risk the wrath of their secretary — and their wives.

So taking all this into consideration, my opinion is that in order to render the kind of real world stories that will hold up over time it does help to have a woman — and as many different voices as you can — in a writing room.

If you have any comments or ideas to share, let me know via the comments,
email at Mindfull@3rdpass.media or via Twitter @MindfullMedia and we’ll develop your ideas as we go.

Dr. Rosanne Welch

— This Article was written by — Dr. Rosanne Welch

Mindful(l) Media with Dr Rosanne Welch

Episode 11: A Woman in the Room + Valerie Woods Pt2

Listen as Dr Rosanne Welch helps teach the audience to think critically about the Media we both create and consume as it relates to the portrayal of Gender, Diversity, and Equality.

Mindful(l) Media is Hosted by Dr. Rosanne Welch, ScreenWriter and Film & Gender Studies Professor in Los Angeles

Mindful(l) Media is part of the 3rdPass.media Podcast Network

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