We’re in a new golden age of female ass-kicking. When Gal Gadot takes up the mantle of Wonder Woman in the next Man Of Steel film, she will join popular headbusters like Katniss Everdeen, Black Widow, and Hit-Girl. These cinematic heroines, however, belong to a lineage that stretches back a hundred years—past Buffy, past Sarah Connor, past Ripley, past Foxy Brown—to the earliest days of motion pictures. Today’s female action heroes owe a lot to the serial queens of silent cinema.
In the 1910s—years before the passage of the 19th Amendment granting universal suffrage—moviegoers flocked to see weekly action serials, and during this period, the biggest stars of action films were women. Week in and week out, these heroines found themselves in ever-escalating trouble.