“Feminism has been a dirty word for a long time” - the untold story of women’s liberation in the US

Witches in Washington, illegal abortion networks and reproductive rights: the history of late 20th-century feminism is filled with fascinating stories, says film-maker Mary Dore

It's all here: the publication of ground-breaking lady-parts manual Our Bodies, Ourselves and Ntozake Shange's choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. The emergence of Chicago's illegal abortion network, the Jane Collective. Witches marching on Washington.

She's Beautiful When She's Angry is a new documentary that explores the women's movement in the United States during its most exciting years, from 1966 to 1971. The film, which blends contemporary testimonies and archival footage, is not short on passion and incident. But it does rather beg the question: why hasn't anybody made this movie before? And why did it take film-maker Mary Dore more than a decade to get the project up and running?

“Basically, it’s the ‘f’ word,” laughs the veteran documentary producer. “In the States in particular, feminism has been a dirty word for a really long time. It was really hard to get funding because nobody thought it was an important issue. The women’s movement is largely seen as a lot of negative stereotypes. Even now, there are people I admire who shy away, saying things like ‘I’m really more of a humanist.’ By the time I came to make this film, the term feminazi had become more prominent than the term feminist.”

Loose alliances

The women's movement, as chronicled in She's Beautiful When She's Angry, might more accurately be described as a plural. The viewer is introduced to "in-house" conflicts, notably second wave feminist Betty Friedan's stand-off with the "Lavender Menace" of lesbian activist Rita Mae Brown. Mostly, however, the women co-exist peaceably, despite the absence of a conventional leadership. They're impressively monolithic as loose, occasionally fractured alliances go.

"It's hard for people nowadays to understand the idealism of the time," says Dore. "Obviously they wanted to avoid the dominant male models. And while there are problems when you try to rule by consensus. And you can end up with the secret leadership described in Jo Freeman's brilliant essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness. But they really believed that all women should be equal and that no one should be privileged because you're a great writer or you're a great speaker."

There’s an infectious sense of possibility underlying the film as women take to the streets to protest against the Vietnam War, President Nixon, the Miss America beauty pageant, economic inequalities and plenty more besides. Amid this culture of protest there comes a moment, during an anti-war rally, when feminist Marilyn Webb takes to the stage, only to get jeered, cat-called and threatened with rape by the “right-on” men in the crowd.

Important work

“That happened a lot,” explains Dore. “I didn’t know about it before. New Left men in the States looked down on woman as secondary, despite the fact that women were very participatory in the movement. The idea that women would say that their rights were important horrified these men. As far as they were concerned here was an important work to be done against the war. There were racial inequalities to be addressed. How dare women think that their issues might be important too.”

It's gladdening to watch people – who are mostly housewives and secretaries – coming together to create such iconic works such as Our Bodies, Ourselves. That classic text has sold four million copies in 29 languages since it first emerged as a hand-cranked, mimeographed pamphlet from the Boston Women's Health Book Collective.

“They weren’t medical students or doctors,” notes Dore. “They were ordinary women who went to medical lectures and medical libraries. Because before that, everything below the belly button was “down there”. There was no way to discuss it. And that’s typical of the feminist movement as a whole. It was ordinary women who effected huge social change.”

A cynic might look at 40-year-old footage of women campaigning for reproductive rights and think plus ça change. Not so fast.

“We’ve had huge setbacks, of course,” says Dore. “For example, the campaign against Planned Parenthood by certain right-wing and religious groups is completely obscene, because mostly what Planned Parenthood does is provide contraception and basic health care for people who can’t afford it any other way.

“But it’s difficult for younger women to understand just how narrow life was for women in the 1950s. If you weren’t married at 21 people made fun of you for being an old maid. Some of the older feminists I talked to attended college and if you weren’t married by the time you graduated they had these humiliating rituals – you’d have to wear a silly hat or something – to denote your failure. Women couldn’t rent an apartment without a husband. They couldn’t open a bank account without a husband.”

Distorted history

Dore hopes that the film will bridge the gap between contemporary feminist activists and the older, second wave predecessors: “Older feminists ask me why aren’t there any young feminists? Younger feminists think that second wave feminists that came up in the 1960s were bourgeois and homophobic and racist. And both sides are wrong. It’s way more complicated than that. But we’re dealing with a history that has been distorted and sometimes obliterated.”

What can younger activists learn from watching women with mimeographs?

“Well, the internet is a great tool but there can be a lot of ugliness there. I still think it’s useful if you meet up once a month or two months or whatever. Because you can’t be as harsh to someone when you sit down face to face. And to be in a long-term fight, you have to have personal and social ties to other people.”

She's Beautiful When She'sAngry premieres at Dublin's Feminist Film Festival on Saturda, October 31st

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