As members of a postfeminist generation, my students seem bored when told that women were once excluded from many professions that they dominate today. The trick for educators is to explain why those mechanisms of exclusion are still worth considering. How do we talk about what seem like ancient barriers to twenty-year-olds who dismiss sexism as so twentieth century?
Films can encourage students to identify with the struggles and the triumphs of the first women who broke into male-dominated terrain. The documentary films reviewed here all do that by exploring the personal histories of three successful women pioneers: Maripaz Vega, Spain’s only active woman bullfighter; Marija Gimbutas (1921-1994), an archaeologist famous for her studies of goddess culture in prehistoric societies; and Eileen Gray (1878-1976), an innovative furniture and home designer whose work ushered in the modern movement in architecture.
Ella Es el Matador (She Is the Matador) actually follows the careers of two women: the renowned bullfighter Maripaz Vega, and the apprentice Eva Florencia, who is struggling to gain the official title, “matador.” The film explains that women have been matadors since the thirteenth century—even cloistered nuns fought bulls—but in the twentieth century women were banned from the ring. Spanish dictators ruled that it was indecent for women to be matadors, in part because the costume they wear is too revealing.
Vega is in the ring thanks to a lawsuit filed in the 1970s by a former bullfighter, Angela Hernandez, who successfully invoked women’s rights to overturn the law that banned women from the sport. Vega is also there, according to the film, because she enjoys the full support of her father and brothers who themselves tried but failed to become professional bullfighters. Similarly, Florencia’s story revolves around her once-resistant family who now rallies around her as she pursues her dream to fight bulls.
But Florencia never makes it, and although Vega is world famous, she still struggles for good bookings in Spain. The film suggests that men who control the sport, including agents and fellow matadors, do not want to share top billings with Vega because she is a women. Vega is occasionally forced to accept engagements in small towns; these are the only opportunities for Florencia. At one of these gigs, the film shows the crowd behaving cruelly toward a woman apprentice. It takes strong will and determination to fight that abuse—not to mention the bull.
In contrast to the other films that I reviewed, Ella Es el Matador is not intentionally pedagogical. Nevertheless, it could inspire interesting classroom discussion about why some women are motivated to cross gender barriers and about the social support necessary for them to succeed. While bullfighting might strike some students as exotic, it can be compared to more familiar spectacles like football, and it can inspire more general discussion of ritual, human/animal interaction, and nationalism—all core concepts with relevance to gender.
Signs out of Time is a documentary about the life and work of Marija Gimbutas, a Lithuanian-born archeologist who is credited with the discovery of “old Europe,” a civilization that flourished 8,000 years ago in what is now Greece and Italy, and in the former Yugoslavia. For this discovery, Gimbutas received numerous professional accolades and a tenured appointment at UCLA. However, of greatest interest to filmmakers Donna Read and Starhawk are Gimbutas’s theories of goddess worship, ideas that made her a controversial figure in archeology but that gained her legions of feminist spiritual devotees in the 1970s.
Gimbutas excavated and analyzed thousands of artifacts from old Europe (many are shown in the film). She also went on ethnographic expeditions to collect folk tales and songs from her native Lithuania and surrounding areas. Merging her interests in material and folk cultures, Gimbutas created the field of “archeomythology,” which attempts to decipher the meanings of the figures unearthed in the dig sites. Gimbutas believed that the figurines she discovered and cataloged constitute an interpretable language of symbols and signs and that their meanings are consistent with folklore and folkways still practiced today.
This work is controversial for two reasons: first, many archeologists argue that there is no way to know what the objects meant to the ancient peoples that used them, so Gimbutas’ work is dismissed by some as hopelessly speculative and “intuitive.” Second, her work is controversial because of its claims about goddess worship. To Gimbutas, the figurines tell of a Stone Age civilization that venerated and was controlled by women. This was a society without war, violence, or inequality, and where nature and culture were in perfect balance. Thus, her vision of prehistory does not fit the classic theories of civilization that stress the inevitability of war and male dominance. Not surprisingly, according to the commentators on the film, her theories were threatening to the male-dominated archeological establishment.
This film would be suited for discussions of feminist research methodology and second-wave feminism.1 Although the film speaks from the position of spiritual advocacy, the commentators include some detractors (in addition to supporters) who are professional archeologists.
Finally, the film Eileen Gray: Designer and Architect documents the life and work of a pivotal but largely forgotten innovator of furniture and housing design. Eileen Gray was born to a family of Irish aristocrats and travelled widely. Living and working mostly in France where she led a bohemian lifestyle, she rejected marriage and had many male and female lovers. She learned lacquer work from Seizo Sugawara and established a furniture gallery in Paris. Her social circle included Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, and Le Corbusier. Also in France she designed her most famous creation, E. 1027, the enigmatic name she gave to a seaside house she built there in 1926. The house is now dilapidated, but the French government recently designated it a national treasure and is working to restore it. Similarly, the film seems intended to restore the historical importance of its subject. Through a chronological retelling of the events of Gray’s life, the filmmakers describe her creative vision and the artistic context that shaped and nurtured it.
I was happy to learn about Gray’s work; her creations are beautiful and several have become icons of modern design. However, I am uncertain as to how I would incorporate the film into the feminist classroom. Compared to the other films I reviewed, this film does not explore Gray’s challenges to becoming an architect but rather her considerable ease at obtaining education, mentors, and patrons. Gray seemed to face no barriers to her success, thanks to her considerable talent and family fortune. I am glad that she has been saved from potential obscurity, but I am none the wiser about why this could have been her fate.
Christine L. Williams is professor and chair of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches courses in gender, sexuality, and work. She is the former editor of Gender & Society, and the past chair of the Sex and Gender section, and the Organizations, Occupations, and Work section of the American Sociological Association. Her most recent books are Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), and Gender and Sexuality in the Workplace, edited with Kirsten Dellinger (Bingley, United Kingdom: Emerald, 2010). She is currently studying women geoscientists in the petroleum industry.
1One work with which the film could be put into conversation is Evelyn Fox Keller’s Reflections on Gender and Science (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985), which explores the role of gender in scientific research.