24 most successful, celebrated women movie directors

For the first time in Academy history in 2021, two women (Chloe Zhao and Emerald Fennell) were nominated for Best Director. For the 2022 Oscars, a female director (Jane Campion) received a second nomination in the same category for the first time. Although women have often been overlooked in the Best Director category, there is a rich history of filmmaking from women throughout the history of the industry, with many taking charge of their production by multitasking in various areas of the filmmaking process.

To celebrate March as Women’s History Month, let’s look back at some of the contributions of female filmmakers, and the recognition their films have received from the Academy.

One of the first directors in history was a French woman named Alice Guy-Blache, who directed over 400 shorts beginning in 1896. In 1911, Lois Weber became the first prominent American female director, and was one of the most successful filmmakers – of either gender – of her time. As the Hollywood studio system came into prominence, it became harder for a woman to establish herself as a director, with one exception — Dorothy Arzner. She was the first woman to direct a “talkie,” during which she is credited with inventing the boom microphone. During her successful career, she directed Clara Bow, Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball, and was the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America.

Perhaps the best-remembered pioneering female director is Ida Lupino, who enjoyed a stellar career as an actress, director, writer and producer during Hollywood’s Golden Era, making low-budget groundbreaking films. However, it would be years before the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences recognized a female director.

In 1977, at the 49th ceremony, Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller became the first woman to receive a nomination for Best Director, for “Seven Beauties.” Only six more women have received this honor, only one (Campion) has received it twice and only two have won (Kathryn Bigelow in 2010 and Zhao in 2021). Except for Bigelow, these women also received nominations for writing the screenplays to their films.

Interestingly, many female directors serve multiple roles in their films, including producing, writing and even acting. In fact, Campion (“The Power of the Dog”), Sian Heder (“CODA”) and Maggie Gyllenhaal (“The Lost Daughter”) received Best Adapted Screenplay bids in 2022. Three times that a woman has been nominated for director, she’s lost that award but won for writing: Campion (“The Piano,” 1994), Sofia Coppola (“Lost in Translation,” 2003) and Fennell (“Promising Young Woman,” 2021).

Tour our photo gallery featuring 24 of the most successful and celebrated female directors of all time, in chronological order (starting with the most recent and going back in time). Many have films which have been chosen by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry, recognized for their cultural and historical significance. There are many others who have paved the way for the generation of female directors today; we have chosen some of the most decorated, influential, and recognizable in the history of film, as well as some of the current ones making history today.