As part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival, Mary Dore’s women’s lib documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry was screened before a cinema full of eager feminists last Wednesday. The film was shot, edited and produced exclusively by women, and funded with a KickStarter campaign endowed by over a thousand people. It has been well received on the international film circuit, and favourably reviewed almost everywhere.
It is the sort of film second wave feminists and old ‘libbers’ hanker for. At long last, Dore believes, the ‘buried history’ of the women’s movement in America has been resurrected. Her film is a sharply edited survey of the pains taken, and gains made, by American feminists between 1966 and 1971. Though the trajectory of the women’s rights movement has hardly been smooth or skyward since, the unapologetic sexism of the 1960s period—recalled in present day interviews with veteran women’s lib activists—is a reminder of how far ‘we’ve’ come.
The first half of the film describes, through archival footage and present day interviews with early libbers, how the women’s movement was formed largely in response to the sexist dynamics of other movements – including the Civil Rights movement and the anti-war movement. Footage from a counter-Inauguration rally held after the election of President Nixon shows a young Marilyn Webb, an anti-war activist of the New Left, speaking before a hostile crowd of movement men, who yell ‘Find an alley to drag her down!’ and ‘Take her off the stage and fuck her!’.
Fed up with patriarchal oppression, and not content with the ‘envelope licking’ jobs they were delegated in the movements, women sought to form new organisations with which they could represent themselves. Despite obvious attempts to integrate and be non-hierarchical, the mainstream movement was deeply fractured. Many socialist feminists influenced by Marxism felt that emphasising their common struggles as ‘sisters’ was important for the success of the movement. In practice, this alienated women of colour and queer women.
She’s Beautiful does acknowledge these fractures. In an interview, activist and academic Linda Burnham remembers how ‘the voice of one (was) used for the voice of all’. After failing to find comfort within the radical feminist movement, many women of colour staked out autonomous spaces of their own, like Black Sisters United, The Combahee River Collective, Third World Women’s Alliance and the SNCC Black Women’s Liberation Committee. Others committed to challenging the masculine culture of groups from within. The Mothers and Others (M.A.O.) group formed within the Young Lords and urged them to move away from their ‘revolutionary machismo’ culture, and women within the Black Panther party successfully urged the group to embrace womanist ideology.
Perhaps because Dore is keen to keep the tone celebratory, She’s Beautiful is inconsistent in its criticism of the movement’s shortcomings. At times, it almost reifies the same erasure that the women of colour interviewed for the film point out. Although it notes how women’s liberation piggybacked off the Black Power movement, drawing upon its rhetoric and organising strategies, there is no mention of how this eclipsed the Black rights struggle – Lennon and Ono’s ‘Woman is the N*gger of the World’, which received an award in 1972 by the National Organization of Women for it’s ‘strong pro-feminist’ sentiment, comes to mind.
The film celebrates the suffragettes, but perpetuates the myth that they secured full voting rights for all women in 1920 (more accurately, the 19th Amendment disallowed all states from prohibiting voting on gendered grounds; Indigenous people were prohibited until 1924, and most Black people were not able to vote until decades later).
And disappointingly, but perhaps predictably for a film about radical feminists, the struggle of transgender women to find a place within a movement which continually denied their identities did not rate a mention. The panel discussion held after the film with a trans woman, an Aboriginal woman and a sex worker drew the audience’s attention to these gaps in the film’s representation and the continuing struggles of these groups to gain representation in the feminist movement.
Speaking to members of the USyd Wom*n’s Collective, it is evident that some of the internal conflict of the early movement persists today. Members felt that the idea of the ‘good feminist’ often suppresses a diversity of opinions in feminist spaces, and although most student collectives now attempt to adopt intersectional modes of organising, problems of leadership and inclusivity continue to plague feminist groups.
No doubt, She’s Beautiful records an important period in activist history. It reincarnates the funny, intelligent, stoic spirit of women’s libbers. From the Jane Collective, who assisted with over 10, 000 illegal abortions, to the Young Lords’ protest of the forced sterilisation of Puerto Rican women enforced by the US government, there is much to be roused by. But in its portrayal of a movement which ultimately failed to practice intersectional politics, there is plenty to learn from.