Commentary Media

‘No Victories Are Permanent,’ Recalls Film About Feminism’s Beginnings

Eleanor J. Bader

She's Beautiful When She's Angry, Mary Dore's new film about the birth of contemporary feminism, is an insightful, inspiring look at the struggles and triumphs of our foremothers.

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry will open at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in Manhattan on December 5, and in West Los Angeles’ Landmark Nuart Cinema on December 12.

It took award-winning documentary filmmaker Mary Dore—director of numerous films for PBS, New York Times TV, A&E, and The Discovery Channel—more than 20 years to raise the money to make She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. But Dore’s efforts paid off: The film is an insightful, inspiring, and gripping look at the historical underpinnings of contemporary feminism.

From 1966 to 1971, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry recounts, the notion that women deserved power and equality brought everyone—from seamstresses to secretaries, nurses to teachers—into the streets. They went into consciousness-raising groups, too, where they could discuss previously verboten topics such as heteronormativity and orgasms.

The headiness of the era is palpable. And while the film does not shy away from acknowledging today’s right-wing backlash against abortion, contraception, and female leadership, it makes it clear that the last 50 years have wrought big changes in the ways Americans view gender.

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For one, domestic violence is now considered a crime. In addition, sexual harassment is widely denounced by a wide array of private and public employers; countless women work in occupations once thought of as exclusively male; it is no longer unusual for women to attend college or graduate school; and many men actively participate in childrearing.

These shifts, of course, did not just “happen”; they were the result of concerted organizing throughout the United States. What’s more, as Bay Area activist Fran Beal points out in the film, for many American women, feminist consciousness was a direct outgrowth of frustration with the limited roles they were allowed to play in the anti-war, civil rights, and student movement—affronts that opened their eyes to the necessity of agitating for their own liberation.

Several of the movie’s talking heads—who include Rita Mae Brown, Heather Booth, Linda Burnham, Jacqueline Ceballos, Jo Freeman, Susan Griffin, Karla Jay, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Marlene Sanders, Alix Kates Shulman, and Ellen Willis—recount being belittled and disrespected by seemingly progressive male “comrades.” Retired professor Marilyn Webb, for example, reports attempting to speak at an anti-war demonstration over catcalls and whistling. Worse, she recalls being interrupted by a man who yelled that he’d “like to drag her off the stage and fuck her.” Another interviewee remembers being told to “sit down and shut up” at Students for a Democratic Society meetings.

Similarly, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz tells the filmmakers about a grad school professor who threatened her: If she did not “put out,” she’d have no future in academia, he said.

Small wonder, then, that rage spread among women who felt constrained by society and disrespected by their peers. And this fury wasn’t limited to existing social movements or higher education; Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, a send-down of homemaking among middle-class housewives, hit a further nerve among American women. According to the film, they began to bristle at convention, challenging the norms that gave them little choice but to marry men, have children, and find domestic fulfillment in the pages of Betty Crocker cookbooks or Good Housekeeping magazines. What’s more, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry notes, they began to talk to each other about how hard it was to access contraception and abortion, critiquing their limited employment options and the overt sexism they encountered at every turn.

At the same time, the film points out that women had no roadmaps for channeling that anger—and as they formed groups to meet those needs, they often felt as if they were starting from scratch.

Many women opted to work with the newly formed National Organization for Women, while some chose to align with more radical groups like the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, or Redstockings. Still others, newly attuned to how little they knew about women’s history, joined burgeoning efforts to unearth concrete facts about our foremothers. Publications, such as No More Fun and Games and It Ain’t Me Babe, and presses, such as Shameless Hussy, flourished as outlets for feminist creativity, theories of being, and personal narratives.

It wasn’t always easy—but the film’s many sources also speak of the fun they had organizing events, connecting with other individuals, and challenging assumptions about women’s place in society.

Still, conflicts arose. One of the key strengths of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, in fact, is that it does not shy away from the disagreements that erupted within the movement over the interplay of race, class, and gender; over the acceptability of lesbianism; and over the emergence of spokeswomen and leaders within grassroots feminist organizations—issues that continue to arise today. These inevitable clashes, in concert with FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s surveillance of women’s liberation activists and groups, caused rifts and tensions. Some organizations fractured; others folded. However, the film focuses less on these splits and more on issues, such the need for legal abortion, that unified the majority of activists.

Toward that end, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry heralds the amazing work of Chicago’s Jane Collective, a well-trained group of laywomen who performed approximately 11,000 abortions between 1969 and 1973; the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, which first published Our Bodies, Ourselves as a newsprint pamphlet in 1971; and the intrepid organizing that pushed the Supreme Court to issue its Roe v. Wade decision in 1973.

Throughout, there is footage of demonstrations and rallies—including the 1968 protest at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the 1970 march down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in honor of the 50th anniversary of women’s suffrage. It’s exciting to see the press coverage of these events alongside film of speak-outs and public hearings, all geared toward ending sexism and giving women and men equal billing.

“It felt like we had triumphed,” says the writer, activist, and artist Kate Millett. “Like we were changing the world.” Indeed, the feminists of the mid-1960s and early 1970s boldly and proudly declared that “women’s lives matter.”

Despite the progress they made, though, their issues—access to safe, legal abortion and birth control; affordable child care; an end to sterilization abuse; social and political equality for lesbians; winning economic parity with men; and recognition of domestic violence and rape as criminal acts—are now our issues.

But we should not despair: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry underscores the fact that just because these subjects remain front and center today does not mean that our foremothers failed. As poet and writer Judith Arcana told the filmmakers: “No victories are permanent. They are only as good as our vigilance.” Needless to say, that vigilance now falls to us.

CORRECTION: The spelling of Fran Beal’s name has been corrected. We regret the error.

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