As a young girl in Ohio, Rosanne Welch was a regular at her local library, pouring over autobiographies and memoirs of screenwriters from Hollywood’s early years. By the age of 10, she knew that she wanted to have a career in television or film.
Welch, lecturer in screenwriting at Cal State Fullerton, did make it to Hollywood, where she wrote for television shows “Beverly Hills 90210,” “Picket Fences,” ABC’s “Nightline” and “Touched by an Angel.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to the studio … as Welch prepared for her career, she was surprised to find that the female screenwriters she had read about as a child weren’t mentioned in her screenwriting courses.
This piqued her curiosity. Upon researching the matter, she found several reasons why these women had been sidelined in history.
Some of it was the ongoing tension between crediting male directors versus female screenwriters. Other times, accomplished men downplayed the role these women had played in their success. Eve Unsell, a producer for Paramount and the first woman with a film production company, trained the famed director Alfred Hitchcock. Yet in his memoirs, Hitchcock declined to name Unsell, instead dismissively saying that he learned everything he knew from “some middle-aged American woman.”
The establishment of the studio system in Hollywood was another factor. When that took hold, women were demoted to lesser roles — despite their previous accomplishments — and their work was left uncredited. Lacking appreciation and recognition for their talent, many fled the business and wrote books instead.
Welch also found herself moving from writing screenplays to books, albeit for different reasons. She is a prolific writer, covering an unusually wide array of topics — from the impact of The Monkees on television and pop culture to advice on how to balance marriage, work and family.
One underlying premise among several of her works, however, is giving voice to women who have been silenced or had their legacies downplayed or erased. She is passionate about unearthing the stories of those women.
Welch’s book, “Encyclopedia of Women in Aviation and Space” offers biographies of little-known women pilots and astronauts. Her four-volume set, “Women in American History: A Social, Political, and Cultural Encyclopedia and Document Collection” delineates the contributions of a diverse range of women to American history. The comprehensive collection was recently named to the 2018 list of best historical materials by the Reference and User Services Association, a division of the American Library Association.
The stories of forgotten female screenwriters from the Golden Age of Hollywood are detailed in her latest book, “When Women Wrote Hollywood.” At her March 5 “Faculty Noon Time Talk” presentation at Pollak Library, Welch shared interesting facts about these women and noted that the problem runs even deeper among female screenwriters of color; in many of those cases, both their names and their works have been lost.
Welch is somewhat encouraged by greater diversity in Oscar selections and recent calls for more female directors, although she asserts that it’s equally important to have more female screenwriters.
She emphasizes the importance of telling one’s own story in order to not be sidelined. She implores her CSUF students to — as she puts it — “become their own celebrity” so people remember them. She cites performers like Mae West and Madonna who have done so; they’ve fought to control their narrative, own their brand, and proudly promote their accomplishments and impact.
“It’s like the ‘Hamilton’ lyrics,” says Welch. “‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’? That tells people whether or not you will be remembered.”