A Brief History of the Gender Parity Movement in Theatre
This piece continues a partnership between HowlRound and the League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW). In 2012, LPTW launched its journal WITOnline, and in 2015, it will become a searchable resource for the field, building a women's history of theatre through in-depth profiles, interviews, and articles. Find all WITOnline-HowlRound content here.
In October 1978, the Feminist Theatre Study Group picketed five shows on London’s West End, handing out leaflets that began with a few questions. To wit,
Did the characters in this play imply that:
- Blondes are dumb?
- Wives nag?
- Feminists are frustrated?
- Whores have hearts of gold?
- Mothers-in-law interfere?
- Lesbians are aggressive?
- Intellectual women are frigid?
- Women who enjoy sex are nymphomaniacs?
- Older women are sexless?
We are a group of theatre workers who are tired of portraying these cardboard cutouts. We want theatre managers, directors, and writers to stop producing plays which insult women.
At that point, the group Action for Women in Theatre had looked at US theatres from 1969 to 1975, releasing a study that found that the number of female playwrights and directors working in regional and off-Broadway theatres was at 7 percent. Women were not merely getting insulted more than men, they were also getting hired a lot less. The two things were perhaps related.
While the numbers have improved since then, the gender imbalance has continued to exist to the present day.
We live in a world dominated by male imagination. Guys write 80 percent of produced plays and commit 80 percent of violent crimes, while the rest of us try to catch up with the former and avoid the latter.
I myself became aware of it gradually and then suddenly. I remember the moment a consultant for a certain theatre suggested I apply for a playwriting fellowship designated for disadvantaged minorities because at that theatre, “women are considered a minority.” More profoundly, I remember a town hall meeting where discussion topics ranged from historical statistics to the public’s received image of a playwright as a “bad boy” or “angry young man.”
We live in a world dominated by male imagination. Guys write 80 percent of produced plays and commit 80 percent of violent crimes, while the rest of us try to catch up with the former and avoid the latter.
In case you missed the theatre industry’s gender parity movement, here’s a recap: women have been writing plays for millennia and landing productions for centuries. Over time they’ve also come to play key roles onstage and backstage. But female theatre artists of all kinds still find themselves bonking their heads on a glass ceiling known as the “glass curtain.”
When conversations about equality heated up in the late 1960s, gender disparities were the norm in most professions. Over time, some occupations closed their gender gap (for instance, pharmacist), but some did not (for instance, dramatist).
Theatre seems like a relatively progressive industry, yet here it lags behind.
While many are working to change that, at times new conversations happen without a sense of precedent. Folks are not always fully aware of what came before them, or what others are doing now. Eight years ago, Cindy Cooper provided a helpful timeline of the movement (1979–2009). Updating it could require graphical software that thinks in three or four dimensions. A full history would fill a volume.
What can be done here? I can offer an overview, via the answering of some Frequently Asked Questions.
Is this even documented?
Widely. It has to be or else no one would believe it! Many of these studies and tallies are available online, beginning with the landmark NYSCA study "Report on the Status of Women: a Limited Engagement?" (2002), by Susan Jonas and Suzanne Bennett, which is full of insights and well worth revisiting today. Here is just a partial listing of studies:
Action for Women in Theatre: A Study on Employment Discrimination Against Women Playwrights and Directors in Non Profit Theatre (1969-1975) released by Action for Women in Theatre (1976), NYSCA’s Report on the Status of Women: A Limited Engagement (2002), The Status of Women in Canadian Theatre (1982), League of Professional Theatre Women’s Directors and Designers Report on Sex Discrimination in the Theatre (1983), What Share of the Cake?: The Employment of Women in the English Theatre (1994), Report on the Status of Women Directors and Playwrights in the New York City Theatre (1998), The Status of Women in Theatre—The Ontario Experience (2004), Sphinx Theatre Survey (London, 2006), Adding It Up (Canada, 2006), Opening the Curtain on Playwright Gender: An Integrated Economic Analysis of Discrimination in American Theatre (Princeton, 2009), Chicago Storefront Summit study (2009), Gender Equity Report (Chicago, 2010), LAFPI’s The Study (Los Angeles, 2011), The Diversity/Inclusion/Gender Parity Task Force Report (2013), Women’s Leadership in Resident Theatres—a gender equity study by the Wellesley Centers for Women in partnership with the American Conservatory Theatre (A.C.T.) (2013-ongoing), Gender Statistics—Theatre in Sydney (2014-ongoing), Writing by the Numbers (2014-ongoing) LPTW’s Women Count: Women Hired Off-Broadway 2010-2015 (2014-ongoing), Not Even: A Gender Analysis of 500 San Francisco/Bay Area Productions from the Counting Actors Project 2011-2014 (2015), Dramatists Guild/Lillys’ The Count (ongoing), DC Theater Demographic Analyses (2012-ongoing), A Gender-Based Analysis of Theatre Awards in Canada (1992 – 2015), Purple Seven Gender and Theater Study (2012–2015), Achieving Equity in Canadian Theatre: A Report with Best Practice Recommendations (2015), The National Voice—Australia Writers Guild Report (2015), Who Designs in LORT Theatres by Gender: Infographic (2015), Who Designs and Directs in LORT Theatres by Gender: Phase Two (2016), StageSource Gender Parity Task Force study (2016).
Has it been discussed?
Frequently. Perhaps most memorably in “Not There Yet,” an essay written for American Theatre Magazine by Marsha Norman in 2009, and in this 2010 speech by Theresa Rebeck. Those are two good places to start if you want to catch up on reading.
There have also been scads of conferences and panels, including:
Women and Theatre Program Conference (annual pre-ATHE conference since 1980), The Standing Conference of Women Theatre Directors and Administrators (London) (1980, ongoing), “Plays by Women: What’s the Difference?” Dramatists Guild Committee for Women (1985), “Women on Broadway: Do They Make a Difference?” Outer Critics Circle (1986), “Women In Theatre: Mapping the Sources of Power“ Women’s Project and Productions (WPP) (1997), NYSCA/Women in Theatre Panels and Roundtables series (1999-2001)—“Pointed View”: a three-part symposium on gender and theatre (1999), “Why Do Numbers Matter? The Thorny Question of Underrepresentation” LPTW & WPP (2003), “Re-Opening the Rina Fraticelli Report” (Toronto) (2003), Town Meeting with Artistic Directors: Proposals to Reach Gender Parity on New York Stages (2008), 50/50 in 2020 series of Town Hall Meetings, New York (2009), Association for Theatre in Higher Education/American Alliance for Theatre Education “The Glass Proscenium,” New York (2009), “Women in Theatre: Issues for the 21st Century” Conference, Princeton (2009), Working Groups (2009), Women’s Initiative Symposium —“Women in Theatre: Achieving Gender Parity” (2009), Vamps, Vixens, and Feminists Conference (London, 2009), Women Playwrights International Conference (Sweden, 2012) Gender Parity, Playwriting, and Production (2013), The Summit, Washington DC (2014), “The Glass Curtain,” Washington DC (2015), Neo-Political Cowgirls’ Women of the Theatre Panel, New York (2015), Necessary Exposure Parity Panels, New York (2015–6), Good to Go Parity Summit, New York (2016), Women in the Arts and Media Coalition’s Percolating Gender Parity in Theatre—A Forum (2015), Statera Foundation annual Conference on Gender Parity in Theater (2015, 2016), Women in Theatre Conference: Challenge and Connection (2016), “Onward and Upward: a Public Forum for Women in Theatre,” Chicago (2017), Unconscious Bias: Achieving Gender Equity (upcoming, 2017).
So where did these discussions lead?
At times, they led to the forming of organizations or the launching of initiatives. The idea of the League of Professional Theatre Women, for instance, was born at an American Theatre Association Conference.
Having panel discussions about parity was important, but could only go so far. Susan Jonas says, “I was contacted to speak on my millionth panel and I balked and said we have to stop talking about it—showing stats—as that was not provoking change… and demand very specific change.” And she suggested trying to get to 50/50 by 2020, leading to the founding of that organization.
Soon more panels would beget more specific actions. At times panel participants would raise subjects such as examining bias in awards, reexamining the canon, and supporting women artists by buying tickets to their productions—and then would be inspired to found other groups that addressed those issues directly, adding to a growing list of organizations and groups including:
Melbourne Women’s Theatre Group (1974–77), Women’s Committee of the Dramatists Guild (1979–89), Women in Entertainment (London, 1980), League of Professional Theatre Women (1981), International Centre for Women Playwrights (1988), Women Arts (originally The Fund for Women Artists) (1994), Women Count (2003), Equity in Canadian Theatre: The Women’s Initiative (2004), Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Project (2007), 50/50 in 2020: Parity for Women Theatre Artists (2009), Works by Women (2009), 17percent (London, 2009), Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative (2009), History Matters/Back to the Future (2009), Dramatists Guild Women’s Initiative (2009) Lilly Awards Foundation (2010), Tonic Theatre (2011), The Kilroys (2014), The Bridge Initiative (Arizona, 2014), Equity in Theatre (2014), #WakingtheFeminists (Ireland, 2015), Statera Foundation for Women in Theatre (2015)
What about theatres?
Yes. Soon it started happening. Reviving “lost” women playwrights who had been erased from the canon, discovering new ones and publishing them in anthologies. Meanwhile, a number of theatres and theatre festivals started cropping up to fill the gender gap for female theatre artists, performers, and even characters, for example:
New Feminist Repertory (1969), Women’s Interart Center (1969), Interart Theatre (1972), Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective (New York, 1971–1975), Women’s Theatre Cooperative (Vancouver, 1973–1974), Circle of the Witch Feminist Theatre (US Midwest, 1974–1980), Redlight Theatre (Toronto, 1974), Spiderwoman (1975), Monstrous Regiment Theatre Company (London, 1975–1993), Nellie McClung Theatre (Winnipeg, 1976–1980), Split Britches (1981), Works by Women (1976–1983), The Women’s Project (1978), Nightwood Theatre (Toronto, 1979), Mrs. Worthington’s Daughters (London, 1978–1982), WOW Café Theatre (originally an international women’s theatre festival, 1980), Scarlet Theatre (formerly Scarlet Harlets, London,1981), Vitalstatistix (Australia, 1984), International Women in Experimental Theatre Conference (Cardiff, 1986), Character Ladies (London, 1986–1991), Brava! Theater Center (San Francisco, 1986), Nora Theatre Company (1987), Five Lesbian Brothers (1989), Voice & Vision (1989), The Company of Women (1990), Six Figures (1990), New Perspectives Theatre (1991), New Georges (1992), Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company (1993), Renaissance Theatreworks (Milwaukee, 1993), Looking Glass Theater (1993), Women’s Theater Company (1993), Journey Company (1995), Judith Shakespeare Company (1995), Dusky Divas (1998), Echo Theatre (Dallas, 1998), Hourglass Group (1998), Women of Color Productions (1998), Women’s Shakespeare Company (1998), Estro Tribe (1999), Stockyards Theatre Company (Chicago, 1999), Theatre Unbound (Minneapolis-St. Paul, 1999), VH Theatrical Development Foundation (1999), Women’s Expressive Theatre (W.E.T.) (1999), Airmid Theatre Company (2000), Estrogenius Festival (2000), Lady Cavaliers (2000), The Queen’s Company (2000), Venus Theatre (Maryland, 2001), The Women’s Theatre Project (TWTP) (Florida, 2001), 20% Theatre (Chicago, 2002), Tennessee Women’s Theater Project (2002), Arizona Women’s Theatre Company (2003), 3Graces (2004), Potluck Productions (Missouri, 2005), Rosalind Productions (2005), And Toto too Theatre Company (2005), Live Girls! Theatre Company (Seattle, 2005), Moxie Theatre (2005), 20% Theatre (Twin Cities, 2006), Nora’s Playhouse (Boston, 2009), WAM Theatre (2010), F.A.B. (“For, About, and By”) WOMEN (2010), Artemisia, A Chicago Theatre (2011), Infinite Variety Productions (2011), The Habitat (2013), 365 Women a Year: A Playwriting Project (2014), Women’s Voices Theatre Festival (Washington DC, 2015), Parity Productions (2016), North Carolina Women’s Theatre Festival (2016).
Were legal avenues explored?
Yes. There have been proposals for connecting public funding to equal opportunity efforts. They have not caught on.
Have there been protests?
Sure! At one point it was proposed to hold a Women in Theatre “Day of Absence” to draw attention to the problem of disparity in hiring women. Women Stage the World, an arm of LPTW, holds an annual costume parade in Times Square featuring historical women to raise awareness of the problem. Guerilla Girls have staged “Girlcotts” where you boycott, or rather girlcott, theatres that don’t hire girls.
Has there been positive advocacy, too?
Yeah, that’s one thing that gets discussed in the discussions—the need not only to protest and complain and girlcott but to support women in a positive way. When a fellow on one panel during The Summit in DC suggested there were no plays by women “in the pipeline,” the Kilroys began putting out an annual list of new plays by women recommended by literary managers and directors. The web page “We Exist,” an open-source listing of female and female-identified playwrights, also came into being in response to conversations at The Summit. A database of theatre artists including directors and designers is now being built by Parity Productions.
There have been many examples of positive advocacy; here are just a few:
Jane Chambers Award (1974), Susan Smith Blackburn Prize (1978), Women in Entertainment publication of a Writers’ Directory (London) (1981), LPTW Awards (1998), Vibe Theater Experience (2002), The First 100 Years: The Professional Female Playwright 2002), TV Series Women in Theatre: Dialogues with Notable Women in American Theatre, produced by LPTW, aired on CUNY TV (2005), Wasserstein Prize (2007), Girl Be Heard (originally Project Girl Performance Collective, 2008), Leah Ryan’s Fund For Emerging Women Writers (2008), Dramatists Guild First National Conference keynote address on gender parity on American stages by Julia Jordan (2011), ICWP 50/50 Applause Awards (2012), Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE)’s Women and Theatre Program’s WTP Achievement Awards (2010), Lilly’s: Annual Awards (2010), Gilder/Coigney International Theatre Award (2011), On her Shoulders (2012), Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History (2013), The Drama League’s Beatrice Terry Artist in Residency (2014), The Interval (2014), Shakespeare’s Sister Playwriting Fellowship (2014), Lilly Awards Foundation Family-Friendly Writers’ Colonies Initiative (2015), Statement on Harassment (2015), LPTW Seal of Approval (2015) Women in Theatre, Kilroys List (2014), Parity Party (2015), HowlRound series “Gender Parity in Theatre: An Exploration of How Change Happens and Where We Go From Here” (2015), Heidi Thomas Initiative Grant (2016), NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment gender initiative fund (announced 2016), Women and Transgender Artist Database (formed 2016, currently in beta).
But isn’t it marginalizing to give women their own awards, publications, festivals, and theatres? What about increasing the numbers of women working at existing institutions?
Indeed. At a 2009 panel sponsored by LPTW and New Perspectives Theatre Company, the artistic director of the Women’s Project said nothing would make her happier than to have the mission of the Women’s Project become obsolete. It hasn’t.
All these different organizations—with sometimes overlapping or possibly redundant projects—do they ever get together and try to coordinate all this work?
Yes. For instance, the Women in Arts and Media Coalition, founded in 1989, functions as an umbrella group. But even as coalitions form, it’s easy for people not to be aware of groups in other places or from other time periods.
What about working from within?
There’s been some of that, especially in the UK. An organization called Tonic Theatre has engineered behind-the-scenes conversations.
Was it always like this?
No. In London from 1695–1706, of all things, it is estimated that women wrote between 33 percent and 50 percent of all produced plays.
But shouldn’t we just forget about gender, and focus on who’s writing the best play? Of course! But there are a few issues to consider.
1. Studies have shown that a script submitted with a male author’s name will get better recommendations from literary departments than the same script submitted with a female author’s name. So the quality of the script gets overshadowed by gender bias.
2. There are some people in this conversation who believe that women are writing different plays than men are—that there are female aesthetics that are underappreciated. Of course not everyone believes this, and (see 1) even where we share the same exact aesthetic or are even the same person writing the same play a bias can prevail. But there may be some room to explore our definition of “best” play since aesthetics are culturally determined.
3. We are not always seeing quality plays anyway. A female stage manager who was surprised to learn that theatres are still not hiring women and men in equal numbers pointed out that members of both genders write both good and bad plays, and bad plays by men still get staged in greater numbers, concluding, “men have terrible plays produced, why can’t we?” While this sounds like a glib provocation, it also speaks to the underlying economics of the problem. Plays that get a first production often go on to greater opportunities, even when those plays are not the greatest, and female playwrights seemingly have fewer of those opportunities.
But even bringing up this issue is so impractical! Don’t commercial producers just want to choose the play that will earn the most money?
One study that looked at Broadway numbers showed that plays by women sell an average of 3,538 more seats per week than plays by men. Over the next couple of years, the representation of female dramatists did not change. Indeed, it had not changed in a century.
It should be noted that in musical theatre, women are even less represented. Some female musical theatre writers talk about that experience here.
Given the state of unconscious bias, it helps when theatres read scripts “blind”—without names. Conversely, it helps when ticket buyers educate themselves and see work generated by artists of more than one gender. Women buy over seventy percent of theatre tickets and might purchase differently if they knew about the ghettoization of female playwrights.
But ideally we want to get to a better place, where it’s blind reading rather than awareness of gender that leads to equal numbers—and to an even better future place where we can just refer to “women playwrights” as “playwrights.” Of course blind reading has its limits, as it really only works at the entry level, and won’t help with known plays or second productions.
Certain Canadians have made a helpful list of best practices.
After seeing those, your questions might change.
What’s the conclusion? There’s a bias against women?
I would argue the bias runs even deeper. It’s not just against women, it’s even against women’s stories and viewpoints. I know a man who never had trouble getting his plays produced until he wrote a play about two women! On the flip side, women are expected to write about women—so paradoxically it becomes harder to place a play written by a woman about a man. This problem is affecting not only female writers, but stories by and about authors of both genders.
Why does it happen?
There are heaps of reasons. It’s been said that we can’t fix it until we fix education and un-erase the many women erased from the canon, changing our image of what a dramatist is. It’s been said we can’t fix it without changing economics, awards, and unconscious bias—though the Boston Symphony Orchestra changed almost overnight just by putting a curtain up during auditions. Some think it runs deeper, into the nature of who we want characters to be. We accept flawed male characters but not women who are as flawed. There are biases in our very language, where the best thing you can say about a play is that it’s “masterful.” But “mistressful” wouldn’t be as much of a compliment.
What can we do? Engage in in-depth problem solving and complex discourse about this complicated issue. Then simplify the conversation for the outside world, so the audience will get it.
Can critics help?
Yes, but critics also have biases. A study of 6,000 plays in the UK concluded that reviewers tend to prefer plays with casts that have majority of characters of their own gender. And of course female critics are underrepresented, too.
What can we do?
Engage in in-depth problem solving and complex discourse about this complicated issue. Then simplify the conversation for the outside world, so the audience will get it.
What’s the big deal?
Four decades after those early industry reports and picketers, many female characters are less like “cardboard cutouts,” but some of the stereotypes linger. And so does the disparity. Women still get objectified, consigned to secondary roles onstage and backstage, offstage and in life. So many voices are still not represented.
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf imagines the difficulties a female dramatist might have had in Elizabethan times, suggesting that a sister of Shakespeare’s with similar genius would have faced impossible obstacles trying to write for the stage. But Woolf invites us to imagine the work that could be done by such a woman if the obstacles did not exist. In the spirit of that vision, actor and author Ellen McLaughlin created a fellowship program for female playwrights, the Shakespeare’s Sister Fellowship, which she has called “our way of defying attempts to silence the equality of voice that makes for civilization.” Looked at in that way, nothing less than civilization itself is at stake here.
Um, civilization? But aren’t you just talking about putting on plays?
Theatre is a generative medium. Ideas that begin there reverberate beyond to other stages, and to other media such as film and TV. They can travel great distances. Hearing different perspectives there could only enhance our capacity for empathy, especially if they’re the perspectives of those who commit the fewest violent crimes.
Not only women, but all marginalized groups could bring a lot to the table—if they just had a seat at the table, instead of a seat in the audience looking at the table.
And when all viewpoints can be heard onstage, that will change what gets heard in the world.