Date of Award

Spring 5-2019

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Thomas Slater

Second Advisor

Michael Williamson

Third Advisor

Chauna Craig


This project studies how women in silent film experimented with new identity roles from 1915-28. To accomplish this, I will consider the lives, work activities, and performances of three significant actresses of the era through their biographies, press coverage of them, archival documents, and performances. These three are Alla Nazimova (1915-26), Gloria Swanson (1915-28), and Clara Bow (1921-28). Each became a major “star” for a short period during a time in which popular conceptions of women’s sexuality, the nature of marriage, and women’s presence in the public realm was changing in major ways. In other words, millions of women were going through these changes, so the depictions of coping with the world that these actresses presented had major impact that has yet to be adequately considered. One reason is that while each one came from very troubled backgrounds, they succeeded by creating on-screen characters who had a tremendous appeal. Therefore, the questions of how their personal histories influenced their performances, which influenced others, and in turn changed their identities, are fascinating questions. Specifically, my interest is in how they enacted romantic and marital relationships as a basis for discussing their work, their personal lives, and their popularity.

The creation of the "new woman" enforced many difficult choices for relationships, especially marriage. Sexuality and sensuality became instrumental toward power contradictions in ways of the past. Many of the roles these actresses play are defined by their sexual power. This change in approach to love affairs and self-identity created new situations for relationships to be explored, especially in silent film. I will draw on historical information to analyze the ways in which the roles these actresses play and the situations presented in their films as a challenge to the old traditions of marriage and relationships by changing morality and personal pleasure to reflect the needs of the new culture in America. I will also include the historical analysis of the roles of women in Hollywood during the silent era in connection to the real women and their product using Wendy Holliday’s analysis of Hollywood during the silent era.