Phylis Geller

“Helping to get a woman’s vision shared, that to me was extremely important as a foundational element in the advancement of women.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, January 2022

PG:  My name is Phylis Geller. I was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1946.

JW:  Can you tell us a little about your childhood and what led you in the career and the interests and the women’s issues that you became involved in?

PG:  Sure. I sometimes think it all started in kindergarten because one very cold day, my mother sent me to school in snow pants.  And the teacher pulled me aside and scolded me and said, “You go home and tell your mother that little girls don’t wear pants. They wear skirts.”  And I thought, well, that doesn’t sound quite right. It’s cold out there. It’s really cold. Why do the boys get to keep warm?

In later years I was surrounded by women. I went to a girl’s camp. I went to a women’s college. And at the time, there were controversies about women’s college, single sex education, whether it was productive or counterproductive. I thought of transferring, but I stuck with it. I realized that we were in an environment where we could be who we were, and there was no one to talk louder than us in class. And there was just never a question of competing. Some said that protected us too much and didn’t prepare us for the real life in the big bad outside world.

On the other hand, it gave you the sense that you could do whatever you wanted. I think there was a value in that. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem had both gone to my college, so there was definitely feminism in the air. I was there from ’64 to ’68. With the anti-war movement, the feminist movement, there was a lot going on, and I was busy demonstrating against the war, demonstrating against nuclear power. Any (formal) activity on the women’s issues would wait.

I was majoring in theater, and by senior year, I was not wearing a bra, following right along. And it led to some very interesting and awkward moments in acting class with the boys. But it was fun. It was a girls’ school, but there were boys. We brought in boys because you kind of had to have them to put on a play. And then braless acting out a dramatic scene was kind of fun.

Then I went to New York. I should also add, growing up, none of my friends’ mothers worked, but my mother always worked. I never sensed that she was ambitious or that she had dreams to accomplish. She worked because she had to. And often I think she resented it. Her office was at the community center where all us kids hung out all the time. My girlfriends and I would love to go see my mother in her office. And I loved it because she was in charge and she seemed more confident, more gratified, more herself than she did at home. And I thought, well, that looks good. So, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t work.

JW:  When did you get involved in the actual what we call second wave of the women’s movement?

PG:  I went to New York after college, and I started working in television, and I was very fortunate. I was in public television. I was surrounded by very smart, accomplished people, a very liberal group of people, and everybody was into everything. Where I worked, I was a secretary. I started as a secretary, which is what you did regardless of education. I was on secretaries’ row outside the men’s offices with a whole string of over educated, overqualified women sitting at those desks, all desperate to get promoted and move up and do something interesting.

What happened was when a position would open up, a higher position in production or something, they would always hire somebody from the outside. And people outside had experience that the secretaries could never have. So you were in this terrible “Catch 22” loop, which I think was fairly common for women at that time. So we organized. That was my first experience organizing for women. We wanted a policy that allowed current employees like us to interview for positions before outsiders.

It was summer in New York, and the fashion of the time was hot pants and halter tops. We actually wore that to work, just astonishing. And you had to wear the hot pants because if you wore a really short skirt and then you had to bend over for the file cabinet, then you were in trouble. So the hot pants were practical. Anyway, this poor vice president, this man who was vice president, walked into his office one day to find all these barely clad women on the floor of his office in a sit-in waving lists of demand.

And it actually worked. They changed the policy, and some of us got to move up. I did. So that was gratifying and take a little success, a little victory. It inspired me and I joined an organization outside my company called Media Women. It was journalists, mostly print, because there weren’t that many working in television or radio at that time. And it was some high-powered people. Susan Brownmiller, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Sally Kempton were in it at the time. And we did various things.

One in particular that I remember was following Ti-Grace Atkinson into the Ladies Home Journal. We stormed the Ladies Home Journal because they had not had a female editor, the Ladies Home Journal. I remember the secretaries who worked there looked at us like we were from Mars. So the gap really between the women who were working there in low level positions and those of us who were storming the barricades was sad, but also instructive.

Back to Ti-Grace Atkinson. You may recall, she had been involved with NOW initially with Betty Friedan in the early days, but then she was pushing for things that NOW was not prepared to start working on. Abortion rights and other things. She was too radical for them. I had my own experience with feminists’ groups and the spectrum of radicalism. I joined a consciousness raising group, of course, which called itself COW, which stood for Community of Women.

Of course, it was a word that they were co-opting, a word that was used to demean women. And language was very important in those days. The term Ms. was just coming in. We understood how important language was. So I really liked this. I liked that idea of COW using it as a positive. I went to a bunch of meetings. It was very interesting. It was essentially run by these two women who were a couple and bringing up a child in their apartment – Liza Cowan and Alix Dobkin.

After several meetings, it evolved, or it became more apparent that this group was committed to a universe of women in a way that was not my position. In other words, they would say we have no need for men and really all women are basically lesbians, but they just don’t know it. So that was a bridge too far for me. I said respectfully, I resigned from that group. Then I would have to say my activities for women ultimately focused on women in my business. It’s where I was and it’s what I knew.

I moved to Los Angeles, and I was in charge of production out there at the station, at KCET, the PBS station. When I first got to KCET and I was reading the employee manual and I saw this policy that said, “whenever there’s an open position, any current employee station has to be interviewed before outside candidates”. And I thought, wow, that other little success back there on the east coast had actually spread through the system. So it was another little victory.

But in the late seventies, when I got out there, I joined an organization called Women in Film. Women in Film is a pretty big, respected organization in LA, which had been started for the obvious reasons, being unable to reach any kind of significant position in networks or studios and also getting a chance to write or produce or certainly direct. So the mission of Women in Film was to enhance the opportunities and promote the status of women in the entertainment industry. And I got on the board of that organization. I started running committees.

I did a lot of programs about issues that I cared about. And one program that we did was a panel on violence toward women in the movies. And we had a real, not really porno producer, but just this side, really kind of tacky producer and a couple of more decent producers and a professor from UCLA who was studying the issue of the impact of violent images on behavior. And his study had shown that men who were plopped down in front of the screen and watched some violence towards women, drama with violence towards women were more likely to act on it, to act it out than those who had seen a different story.

Now, none of this was surprising to us, of course, but it hadn’t really been codified in that way for that time. So that was very gratifying. During this time, I was also involved with a project that Betty Friedan had set up at USC called Women, Men and Media, also doing studies, getting statistics. People respond to numbers if they’re going to respond at all. I was in charge of production there at KCET, so I was able from my position to support women filmmakers, writers and producers and to sponsor or support films by women about women.

And I worked with a fascinating feminist artist named Suzanne Lacy, who was part of the Judy Chicago crowd also happening at the time. And Suzanne did public art, still does, where she would create pieces with local women, not professional performers, or anything. And I worked with her, made a couple of films of her pieces, including one that we did at Hull House some years later. Jane Adams, when she ran Hull House in Chicago, had dinners. She used to have dinners where she invited prominent women from all over the world to come and have these Hull House dinners.

And so what Suzanne did was she recreated a dinner at Hull House and invited an extraordinary group of women. Gloria Steinem was there, of course, Wilma Mankiller, Dolores Huerta, a lot of the women who were extremely prominent and active in causes at the time. I then became President of Women in Film in 1982. As a nonprofit, we were not allowed to do political activity. But I had really terrific women on the board, attorneys, and we managed to navigate what we could do, the path that we could take, not to get in the weeds, but there were things in front of Congress, some legislative things that were going to be disadvantageous to women since they weren’t getting hired at a high level in networks or studios.

They were making their way as independent producers. They would have their own company. They’d have to create projects, pitch the project, get commissioned to do a project. You didn’t make money that way. You made money if your project later went into syndication, that’s where the money was – five years later, if you go into syndication. At the time, the networks were not allowed to produce on their own. They had to use outside people. The rule was about to change, whereby the network could set up its own production center and produce, which would just really wipe out [the independent producers], so we were able to send people to give comments to testify in Congress about these issues that only we realized were going to have such an impact on women.

JW:  And did you win that one?

PG:  Yes, actually, to a degree. What else is new? I think that it was limited, the number of hours they could own at that time. I then joined the Women in Film Foundation board. The foundation had been set up as an adjunct to Women in Film to provide grants to women, scholarships, other ways that women needed to be helped to establish themselves in the industry. And for me, since my world was public television, I dealt with a lot of women who were trying to get their films funded, and I knew how impossible it was. Very difficult, particularly as directors, that’s what women wanted to do, along with writing and producing. But directing was really the Mount Everest.

And I proposed and I started a program called the Film Finishing Fund, the Women in Film Foundation Film Finishing Fund, if you can believe a lot of F’s. The idea was that we would provide the last money. So they were a ways along, but they needed something to finish. And the point was that there was a saying in the industry at the time that in order to be hired as a director, you needed something to show. That is, you had to have directed something. So back to the loop again, the closed circle, since they never could get hired to direct anything, they didn’t have anything to show. And that’s what this project was aimed at. Just let them finish something. And that worked very well. We started it in ’86. I’m really proud to say it’s still going.

JW:  That’s what I’m getting – that you continue to do work on behalf of women.

PG:  Exactly. I just continued. But again, my focus was women in media, in film and television, because that’s where I was and that’s where I had some agency, and that’s what I knew. But it also was a fundamental principle about women’s voices being heard. So to the extent that we could support women getting their work done and getting their vision shared, that to me was extremely important as a foundational element in the advancement of women.

A very good friend of mine named Mollie Gregory wrote a book called Women Who Run the Show: How a Brilliant and Creative Generation of Women Stormed Hollywood. It was published in the late 90s. She interviewed hundreds of women who were active in the business in the 70s, 80s and 90s. It’s a fascinating book because when I got to LA in the 70s, it was a wasteland for women.

It got better and it got better. And now it’s amazing. You read a masthead or credits on the air and see women’s names everywhere as studio heads, network heads. It’s just absolutely transformed. But when Mollie did the book, she was looking at what happened in those decades and how the doors were being battered and battered and battered. And she had asked me to read the galleys before it was published. And I did. And I remember I said to her, “This isn’t history. This is our lives.” I guess in a sense that speaks to the project that you’re doing. I mean, how is it history when we lived it, but yes, here we are.

JW:  So what are you currently involved in now?

PG:  I now live in DC. There’s also a Women in Film and Video chapter here. So I was immediately adopted as an advisor, and I still participate in that advisory capacity to that group. But otherwise I’m retired and I paint and I sing.

JW:  How would you say your involvement and all that women’s stuff affected you throughout your life? Maybe personally and well, I got the professional part, but for you, professionally and also personally.

PG:  It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be involved with women’s issues. I think it’s in the DNA. I remembered an exercise once, from some executive retreat, and they wanted you to put up on the board the words that best described the group you identify with. I was torn in a sense, because some people said American, some people said Catholic, etc. And I was torn between Jewish and woman. Which one came first, in a sense? And I don’t know that I ever really solved it, but I remember thinking a woman shouldn’t have to choose. Well, no one should have to choose that, really. But the dilemma of it. Did I identify as a woman before anything else? I think I always did.

JW:  Would you like to add anything before we close?

PG:  One other thing that I’m sort of proud of. In the late 70s, between New York and LA, I was independent. Someone hired me to make a film about Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. A particular part of their story when they went to Kansas to support women’s suffrage in Kansas, when the suffrage for the Negro was also on the ballot and those two forces were colliding. It was an interesting story.

And years and years and years and years later (I never liked the film, by the way; there was no money, it wasn’t very good.), but years later I was at another event with some women’s studies professors, and this came up and one of them said, “Oh, my God, you made that film!” I said, “Yeah, it wasn’t very good.” And she said, “Oh, you mustn’t say that.”  For two decades that was the only film that had been done about those two women, amazingly. I realized that it’s a matter of perspective. Nobody cared that it wasn’t very good. What they cared was that the subject matter was out there and they all used it in their classes.

JW:  That is a very interesting story. I think some things have changed and of course, we still have a ways to go.