When I first started working in film production, I remember being told — by both colleagues and Variety's special "Women in Hollywood" issues — that women did not participate in much of film history except as actors or, more rarely, as screenwriters. According to this apocryphal mythology, women were pushed out from behind the camera in the 1920s — when movies became big business and studio managers adopted hiring practices of major industries such as banking, where powerful women were not the norm — until equal-rights activism brought them back in the 1970s. I wrote my book, Never Done: A History of Women's Work in Media Production, to show that, far from being absent from production, most women simply weren't documented as part of it because they did "women's work," which was — by definition — insignificant, tedious, low status, and noncreative.
In the golden age of Hollywood, as "script girls," negative cutters, researchers, inkers, painters, seamstresses, secretaries, and so on, women could be found in nearly every department of every studio, minding the details that might otherwise get in the way of more important, prestigious, or creative work (a.k.a. men's work). Though their names might not have appeared in the credits, individually and collectively, they made vast contributions to film history, from the only roles open to them at studios built on their low-cost backs and scaled through their brushes and keystrokes.
Ida Koverman was such a woman. As executive secretary to MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer from 1928 to 1951, she was one of thousands of women who administered the offices of studios' major personnel, looked after their personal lives and emotional needs, and contributed to production as their lieutenants. As one executive put it, Koverman "damn near ran the studio" in her role as gatekeeper, delegator, and shaper of administrative solutions.
Koverman had been executive secretary to the Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover presidential campaigns, and so in politics she outranked even Mayer, acting as lobbyist and expediter in securing his access to the innermost GOP circles and even the Oval Office (during Republican presidencies, no Hollywood figure visited the White House more frequently than Ida Koverman). Yet like all women at that time, she was held back by the bounds of acceptable femininity, which dictated women's dress, behavior, and the type of work they were assigned. These gender norms underwrote employers' implicit expectations that the women they hired use "natural" feminine skills in ways beneficial to management, such as by absorbing unwanted emotions, charming clients (while charmingly fending off their sexual advances), and cheering male colleagues on while minimizing their own contributions. Of course, playing this feminine role didn't come naturally or effortlessly to women at all. It was work, and the price of entry to a workplace men regarded (and often still do) as theirs.
For Ida, in her 40s when she came to MGM, this meant playing the mother to what L.B. liked to call his MGM "family," a comfort to homesick stars and a stern-yet-caring enforcer of the boss's policies. Privately, Mayer depended on her for the same firm, matriarchal guidance. It was to Ida that L.B. turned with questions about which glass to raise or how to address visiting dignitaries. She drew upon her experience with Hoover to give Mayer much of the refinement he developed over the years, even persuading him to quit his habit of digressing during his speeches. She accomplished these feats by managing her own status relative to Mayer's — advising him in politics, offering constructive criticism of his mode of address without challenging his importance as a spokesman, and exercising her power without showing interest in its outward trappings. When asked by GOP members to run for Congress, Ida refused.
Koverman often used her influence in service of stars she persuaded Mayer and his executives to sign. In the notable case of Judy Garland, rather than addressing the actress's future head-on with Mayer as a male executive might have, she was limited to subtler means, choreographing his emotions to achieve her own creative ends. According to screenwriter Frances Marion in her autobiography, Off With Their Heads, Ida came to her in despair one day. "'The Boss has lost interest in Judy. Whenever I suggest her name for a small part in a musical, all he says is, 'Stop bleating! I'm running this studio, not you!' Her lips were tight-pressed for a moment. 'But I'm not giving up! I'll never give up! Somehow I'll manage to get his interest back to Judy again.'" Ida, knowing L.B. for a sentimentalist, had Garland learn his favorite sad song and sing it for him one afternoon when he was alone and depressed. "'You'll never leave our studio,' said Mayer when she finished, the sob in his voice matching Judy's." (Sadly, according to Marion, Mayer then ordered Garland — an insomniac — be given sleeping pills and "that stuff they use to pep you up in the morning," as Ida's face paled with anxiety.)
Ida also championed Clark Gable, whose screen test was deemed disastrous by executives. She refused to accept defeat, reportedly exclaiming, "That's the trouble with this business. It's the men who pick the stars and the women who react to them." She ran the same test for female employees, and their landslide vote in Gable's favor won him a contract. Gradually, Ida became known as "the woman to see" to influence casting assignments. After Mayer's ouster in 1951, she was made director of publicity, a position she held until her death in 1954. She was reportedly the only woman executive whose advice male stars respected. Her colleagues called her one of the greatest women of the industry. Yet today she is all but forgotten.
Women's success in feminized fields had little to do with innate characteristics of their gender and everything to do with their individual talents and collective determination to succeed in any job they could get. They would have been equally accomplished in directing, producing, and cinematography, given the chance. When I hear dismissive explanations for women's stifled progress in integrating male-dominated production fields today, I recognize subtle reworkings of the same timeworn logic about women's natural, inborn skills that dictated the "proper place" of Ida Koverman and her peers, women like assistant story editor Kate Corbaley, the only person whose taste in scripts and books MGM trusted, and Alfred Hitchcock's assistant Peggy Robertson, who did everything for the director from finding projects to supervising scripts. If history has taught me anything, it's that women's proper place in a business they helped build is anywhere they damn please.
Erin Hill is a professor of media studies. She teaches film history and contemporary Hollywood courses at UCLA and Santa Monica College.