Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation. Directed by Jennifer Hall Lee. New York: Women Make Movies, 2013. 64 minutes.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. Directed by Mary Dore. New York: Cinema Guild, 2014. 92 minutes.
Lesbiana: A Parallel Revolution. Directed by Myriam Fougère. New York: Women Make Movies, 2012. 63 minutes.
With varying success, the three films reviewed here present multifaceted accounts of the post-World War II women’s movement in North America and the ideas, people, organizations, and activities that contributed to it. Using interviews with activists and resurrecting historical film footage, each makes vivid the excitement and emotions that inspired feminism and helped bring about vast social transformations. But the films do more than document feminists’ accomplishments. They also suggest the ongoing relevance of this activism and seek to challenge negative stereotypes that continue to denigrate the movement and dismiss the advances resulting from 1960s and 1970s struggles.
Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation offers the broadest narrative of the modern feminist movement, covering the period from World War II to 1970. Speaking directly to viewers, director Jennifer Hall Lee tries to rehabilitate the concept of feminism by giving it a history. “When we whisper the word feminist,” she argues, “we reject the great women’s liberation movement. Rejecting it helps us to forget it.” The film effectively counters this amnesia by detailing how rampant workplace discrimination, including sex-segregated help wanted ads and the denial of child care, combined with a postwar consumer culture severely limited women’s roles in the workforce and public life. The President’s Commission on the Status of Women that formed in 1961, the 1963 publication of The Feminine Mystique, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) provided avenues to fight these and other sex-based inequities. As it portrays the movement’s growth, the film’s narrative follows a familiar path, highlighting pivotal moments and recognized leaders. The National Organization for Women (NOW), formed in 1966, plays a prominent role in the struggle to equalize women’s treatment under the law, and many of its leaders along with other nationally prominent figures appear (e.g., Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Eleanor Holmes Norton, etc.). The film also shows how the scope of feminism grew on the local level, especially drawing in women with experience as organizers against the Vietnam War and in civil rights movements. Some of the most interesting segments recount the creative tactics embraced by younger activists—including guerrilla theater by WITCH (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) and actions that were part of the 1968 Miss America Pageant protest—small-group consciousness raising, and public speak-outs around abortion. In addition to making feminist demands visible to a large public, these tactics led women to raise their own consciousness, an outcome that Lee considers an important cultural change. The film ends with the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality, inspired by Betty Friedan. When tens of thousands of women marched in cities across the United States, the strike demonstrated how feminism spoke to many people and many concerns.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry shares some content with Feminist, including interviews with many of the same people and discussion of similar moments. But this film differentiates the branches within feminism and focuses more narrowly on the activities of the women’s liberation movement, in which activists espoused revolution not reform. To paraphrase one activist quoted in the movie, NOW sought to get women a piece of the pie; in contrast, women’s liberation wanted a new pie. Focusing on the years 1966-71, the film demonstrates the ways that women’s anger fueled their awareness of sexism and led them to act to claim reproductive rights, define their sexuality, understand their bodies, and protect themselves from sexual violence. It also illustrates the movement’s diversity and vitality by profiling specific organizations and initiatives, including feminist poetry and publishing in San Francisco, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union and its rock band, the Jane Collective (a group of women providing abortions), the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective and their widely circulating publication Our Bodies, Ourselves, the Lavender Menace protest by lesbians in New York NOW, and many other groups. Despite its relatively narrow focus, the film captures the spirit of passion and outrage that infused participants. And it makes a compelling case for the relevance of feminism to contemporary issues. Opening and ending with scenes of recent efforts to fight restrictions on reproductive rights, She’s Beautiful stresses that gains made by women’s liberation are both incomplete and fragile and suggests the necessity of continued vigilance and struggle.
Lesbiana examines a “parallel revolution” to feminism, the emergence of lesbian culture and community throughout North America in the 1980s. Looking at the United States and Canada, it showcases the back-to-the-land movement, women’s music festivals and publishing endeavors, artistic expression, and other structures that knitted together lesbian communities. This culture built on the struggles of earlier generations, including youth in the 1950s for whom no sense of a lesbian community or identity existed. The relationship to the feminist movement of the 1970s is more prickly, and activists describe some points of conflict, especially related to separatism and the priorities of women’s liberation more generally. If, for instance, “to be a lesbian is to be political,” should those politics result in spaces removed from patriarchy where they could create alterative visions? To what extent should lesbians dedicate themselves to fights for abortion rights and reproductive rights or against male sexual violence? Lesbiana acknowledges these debates and their continued impact. But mostly the film shows how much things have changed. Lesbianism has become part of the world rather than apart from it, entering a “dispersed phase” that differs from the earlier separatist communities.
Together, the films introduce a large cast of characters and convey the breadth of issues and strategies feminist activists employed. Today’s students may appreciate additional materials to make connections between these earlier generations of activism and feminism as they know it today.
For example, the films only superficially lay the groundwork for understanding the notion of intersectionality. Like the movements themselves, the filmmakers struggle especially to analyze the role of class and race as divisive forces that have shaped women’s lives and social change movements. All feature African American women as participants in the movement (and She’s Beautiful also includes Puerto Rican members of the Young Lords Party), recognizing that women of color and white women understood inequality in different ways. But these films generally didn’t depict the extent of struggles within feminism around the limits of sisterhood or indicate the necessity to move beyond generalizations that normalized and centralized the perspectives of white, middle-class, and heterosexual women. For this, students might turn to groundbreaking anthologies including This Bridge Called My Back and The Black Woman.1 In addition, scholarship by Kimberly Springer and Benita Roth and numerous case studies highlight how contemporaneous movements intersected and collided when activists sought to address a constellation of cultural and structural forces that perpetuated inequality.2 Neither do the films bridge the distance between this earlier activism and more recent struggles around same-sex marriage and parental rights or today’s more complex and fluid conceptualization of gender and sexual identities. Luckily, a number of digital archives can supplement these films and give students the chance to dig more deeply into publications and ideas that both troubled and bolstered the movements presented here.3 Such an examination would allow them to determine for themselves how well the stereotypes that continue to circulate relate to the ideas and actions of prior activists and how those ideas might help activists confront today’s challenges.
1 Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds., This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Albany: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1981); Toni Cade Bambara, ed., The Black Woman: An Anthology (New York: New American Library, 1970).
2 Kimberly Springer, Living for the Revolution: Black Feminist Organizations, 1968-1980 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005) and Benita Roth, Separate Roads to Feminism: Black, Chicana, and White Feminist Movements in America’s Second Wave (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Numerous case studies examine specific organizations and place-based communities, including Premilla Nadasen’s study of the National Welfare Rights Organization, Welfare Warriors: The Welfare Rights Movement in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2005); Tamar W. Carroll, Mobilizing New York: AIDS, Antipoverty, and Feminist Activism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Nancy A. Hewitt, ed., No Permanent Waves: Recasting Histories of U.S. Feminism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010).
3 For example, see the Redstockings archive, Duke University’s Women’s Liberation Movement Print Culture archive, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union Herstory Project, and the Canadian-based Rise Up! A Digital Archive of Feminist Activism.