There’s a new documentary out about the U.S. feminist movement of the late 1960s, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. I went to see it last week in Berkeley, California – one of the places depicted in the movie.
Here’s the best recommendation I can give for it: The audience broke out in spontaneous applause several times during the movie, as well as at the end. I teared up a couple of times myself.
Director Mary Dore, along with a core group, has made a powerful film that gets feminist history right. It doesn’t shrink from covering the conflicts and the touchy issues even though it also inspires.
And from what I remember and have studied about from the time, it gets things right. It’s the perfect movie for those who want to feel what that period was like as well as for those who want to know the facts.
I came away from it with several conclusions.
First, all those demonstrations, the bits of street theater, the protests at Congressional hearings – not to mention the consciousness raising groups – they worked! It’s easy to look at a small demonstration these days and wonder why it matters. I’ve felt that way myself.
But the truth is, all that activism back in the late 60s laid the groundwork for the real progress women have made in this country. There may still be a lot of sexism in hiring, for example, but at least no one is being told “no women need apply.”
Yes, the laws changed. But it was activism that made those laws change and more activism that made the changes work.
Secondly, some of the conflicts that came up – the ones people feared would destroy the movement – actually moved it forward. I was particularly struck by the movie’s coverage of lesbian activists within the movement.
As women got more honest in consciousness-raising groups, many lesbians got very tired of being kept in the closet. But some of the leadership – particularly Betty Friedan – were afraid that recognizing the lesbians within the movement would bring it down. After all, the “d” word was the first term critics threw at feminists. Fortunately, it was a time of upheaval and the worst thing you could do if you wanted people to keep quiet was to tell them it wasn’t time for their issue yet.
I say fortunately, because I think lesbian activism within feminism was very good for the movement at that point (and still is today). For one thing, the lesbians – or at least, the ones of my acquaintance – were better at dealing with men in a straightforward manner than most of the straight women I knew.
And thirdly, the movie mentioned one of the big failures that occurred: Nixon’s veto of a universal daycare program passed by Congress in 1972. Think about that for a minute. Can you imagine how different things would have been for women over the past 40-odd years if that bill had become law? So many of the debates we’ve had about stay-at-home mothers vs. employed-outside-the-home mothers would be irrelevant. Women would not have to factor the cost of day care into decisions about jobs. And those making low wages wouldn’t have to cobble together a fragile network of family and friends to get enough money to get by on.
These days there is a strong movement against sexual assault going on among younger women. And, unfortunately, we’re still fighting for reproductive rights, since many right wing politicians are making anti-abortion and anti-woman stands their primary platform. And good child care continues to be a major problem. There are lots of things we need to work on.
So go see this movie, whether you’re someone who remembers the history or whether you’re a young woman just setting out. It will inspire you to take the next step in making sure that women get to be full players in the world today.