In the last week, as the Hollywood Hills began ringing with furious
cries of “me, too,” my son Oly, a manager whose clients include many
talented women, called me in dismay. Every day brought devastating
stories of movie stars and models who said that they’d been molested by
Harvey Weinstein—even raped. Allegations about other men percolated
online and went mainstream within minutes. “I am reading this and
imagining how horrible it must have been for you when you first
started,” my son said. I was quite taken by his sudden burst of empathy,
but I told him that his worries were misplaced. “Men like Harvey didn’t
hit on me,” I told him, even before I had really made it as a producer.
“I didn’t seem powerless, even if I was. I had a husband and came from a
newspaper background. I definitely seemed like I could or would tell
someone. I was off limits—and, I suspect, just not their type.”

I left journalism and came to Hollywood in 1979, and began my movie
career developing “Flashdance” with a woman who became my best friend,
Dawn Steel, then at Paramount. I was one of many young women in
development—“D-Girls,” they called us—and Dawn was a star up from the
marketing department. (We knew a girl’s-empowerment hit when we saw
one.) We became part of a generation of women who started as competitors
and ended as a girls’ club. And though Dawn was a doyenne of this club,
among her greatest joys was crashing anything that reeked of “boys
only”—rafting trips, men’s bathrooms, boardrooms. Her ambition and
aplomb blew my mind. Dawn ran two studios in her brief lifetime, and
died, of brain cancer, in 1997, with the girls’ club as her pallbearers,
but not before making my first producing deal at a studio, partnering me
with Debra Hill, who had co-written and -produced the “Halloween”
movies.

Among Dawn Steel’s greatest joys was crashing anything that reeked of “boys
only.”

Photograph by The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

We women roaming the plains of the dinosaur era had never heard the term
“sexual harassment,” but we were frequently moving errant hands on our
thighs back where they belonged, with a small swat or otherwise. H.R.
was not a concept we’d even dreamt of; screaming bosses and aggressive
flirting were part of the fabric of everyday life. Men cheated with
their assistants, and often married them. And, truthfully, much of the
daytime and after-hours philandering wasn’t incredibly different from
what I’d seen in the newspaper business. But there were outliers.

I had a boss who would hole up with hookers and dealers in his office
for hours, and when he emerged he’d regale me with tales about how he
was responsible for every hit movie of the past decade. Dawn and I were
invited to an after-hours party by her boss; he and his gang went to the
basement of someone’s home, where there was a disco ball and “pros”
entertained them while trying to figure out what to make of us, the
women tagalongs. Dawn and I were each thrilled and mortified to be “one
of the guys.” Whenever our eyes locked they widened in disbelief. But we
would never give ourselves away, for fear that the guys wouldn’t let us
back into the inner sanctum.

Thus was life trying to penetrate the locker room. Once, in a studio
chief’s office, deciding on a leading lady with a director, the studio
chief dismissed the award-winning actress we wanted to hire by saying,
“I wouldn’t fuck her.” I almost fell off my chair. But if I had, that
would have been my last meeting in his office. So the director and I
just kept talking about her “chops.” If you wanted in on the
decision-making you had to block out the vile language and the insulting
sexism and just keep talking about the part. “Don’t get kicked out of
the room” was the rule. And, in the end, we cast the woman we wanted.

As the small warm-blooded mammals among the dinosaurs, we learned to
huddle together to be nurtured. There were men we called “pigs and
drunks,” and we warned each other about them whenever we could, with a
code word or an eye roll. (The worst offenders, some of whom are being
outed now, were in the center of the Venn diagram “Pig/Drunks.”) As I
rose, so did my female peers; eventually, enough women succeeded for me
to frequently choose a woman for a studio head as my company moved.

For some reason, when women got these jobs, no matter how immensely
successful they were—I’m thinking not only of Dawn but also of the late,
great Laura Ziskin, the Queen of Hollywood Sherry Lansing, even the
late, eccentric, and fabulous Sue Mengers—they never read from the old
guys’ playbook. There were perks—drivers, or beloved jets—but no sense
of the abuse of power that seemed, to many men, to come with the job
like in a Fitzgerald novella. We all felt so lucky just to have the
jobs. And if darting and dodging unwanted passes was part of it, well,
that was life, and we built an arsenal of tools to deal with it.

Debra, my producing partner, died, of cancer, in 2005. When she and I
first got together, many agents set up general meetings for us with
their actresses. Now I look back on those meetings and remember how
exhilarated the actresses were. They would always remark about how
different the meetings felt than any they had been in before—the first
with women only, something now almost commonplace. In the course of
working on twenty movies and TV shows, I have never been alone with an
actor who was up for a part—the audition process does not require it,
ever. On set, women producers would go into wardrobe trailers genuinely
to discuss wardrobe—an astonishing relief, it turned out, for costume
designers, wardrobe assistants, actors, and set P.A.s who were used to
protecting trailer doors from Trump-at-Miss-Universe-type invasions made
by peering male producers. It was a whole other ballgame; people felt
safe. Female stars were immediately attracted to the idea of female
producers, and, as they watched us, they began producing themselves,
wrapping themselves in their own leverage, which, before, had always
been used by others. This was a sea change.