By CHRISTINE MARIE
“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” a documentary film directed and produced by Mary Dore, 2014.
When the noted documentary filmmaker Mary Dore set about to tell the story of the beginning of the feminist movement that burst onto the scene in the mid-1960s, she could find no funders. Dore was supported when creating such famous historical films as “The Good Fight” about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War or “Children of Labor” about immigrant Finnish labor in America, but when she applied for grants from leading progressive funding sources to make a film about the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s, she found no takers.
The refusal of corporate liberal cultural gatekeepers to facilitate the popularization of the lessons of the real and unvarnished revolutionary-minded upsurge of young women will make a little sense after you watch “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.”
After 21 years of refusals, Mary Dore and her team finally managed to scrape together the funds to produce an honest and invaluable look at the early years of one of the most transformative movements in U.S. working-class history. And the story is nothing like the bundle of clichés that have come to stand for history in gender studies departments around the country.
Challenging academic version of feminist history
Instead of the simplistic story of a supposedly white middle-class movement with little to teach today, the film details the movement’s early expressions in the radical cauldron of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the antiwar movement, and the leftist Students for a Democratic Society; the means of political clarification in journals like Notes from the First Year and position papers from the Women’s Union of the Young Lords; and the process by which thousands of young women, some middle class and some working class, found their way into small conscious-raising and action groups from one coast to another.
It also tells the story of young female intellectuals who attempted to use the analytical tools of political economy and psychology to explain the oppression of their sex and to urge their sisters to bravely take on the social questions—rape, incest, the right to female sexual pleasure, domestic violence—that until a mass movement said NO, resulted in shaming, job loss, and ostracism from family and friends.
One of the most poignant moments of the documentary involves a veteran of the period explaining how her group would anxiously wait for each new analytical effort and quickly gather when a position paper came in to savor the golden nugget of a new theoretical contribution.
A revolutionary mindset
The demands of these women remain unfulfilled and revolutionary today—free abortion on demand, an end to forced sterilizations of women from the oppressed nations and nationalities, the right to raise healthy children regardless of income, 24-hour free educational childcare, full incorporation into the public sphere of work and politics without discrimination of any kind. These demands are still to be taken up seriously by the organizations that purport to represent working women.
In addition, these feminists began writing a new social history that, for the first time, included women as agents of change. They struggled to imagine a completely new social order, based on radical alternatives to the heartless economic competition and the rigid nuclear family pattern of capitalism but different from the bureaucratic nightmare of the Stalinized Soviet Union.
As part of this process, they rediscovered the history of the women’s movement of the suffrage years and of the early Russian Revolution. They re-introduced the broad movement to the ideas of Marx and Engels regarding a human epoch of primitive communism prior to class society and the subordination of the female sex, and inspired a feminist anthropology that, despite fits and starts, continues to demonstrate the “false normal” of gender oppression.
Mass protest independent of capitalist parties
Perhaps most important of the lessons that this movement bequeathed to the social movements today was the absolute conviction that they could win the majority to their side by deconstructing the logic of the capitalist economic system and by protesting for the change they wanted in actions independently of the Democratic and Republican parties.
While the boldest demands remain to be won by today’s generation, the women who birthed the Second Wave of feminism nevertheless transformed U.S. politics and the working-class movement in the most fundamental ways. The legalization of abortion and the partial halt to forced sterilizations will be judged to be the most important material gains, but struggle around those central issues had an impact on consciousness and law in so many arenas that today it is difficult for young women to imagine life as it was for those born female before the 1960s.
And, as the documentary shows, the women’s liberation movement achieved these gains by mobilizing in the streets in the many thousands for abortion rights.
A living movement full of debate
The nature of the women’s liberation movement 1965-1971 remains in contention. Mary Dore comes down hard on the side that refuses to ignore the fact that the radical wing of the movement, the women’s liberation wing, emerged out of the Black and anti-imperialist movements of the day and was the work of female activists of the left. She illustrates the way in which struggles within the Black power movement, the Puerto Rican movement, and the broad left ran parallel with and intersected small town and university conscious-raising and abortion rights groups.
“She’s Beautiful” does not shy away from depicting some of the defining moments in hard fought battles inside both the liberal and left wings of the movement over how forcefully to integrate the fight for the rights of lesbians and transwomen activists, over priorities in terms of forced sterilization and other racialized issues, and over the questions of what kind of leadership and organization were actually feminist and effective.
The viewer is privileged to hear testimony from activists on both sides of many of the issues that split groups and coalitions, and also led to consider the fact that these sometimes terrible debates might have been part of the strength rather than the weakness of a new social protest movement being built by hundreds of thousands learning on the job.
The documentary can be criticized for failing to explicitly explore the role of revolutionary socialist women in the theoretical and practical building of the movement. The viewer does get a sense from the film of the incredible work that they did to revive the Bolshevik tradition on women’s liberation inside a revolutionary socialist movement far in time from 1917. But one can infer from the film clips showing male leftist leaders trying to shout down feminist speakers at conferences and demonstrations that, without the irresistible force of the mass movement, even the organizations of the far left would have been slow to regain their revolutionary heritage on this question.
The key role, however, that the women who led these fights internal to the left played in shaping the broader discussion through practical leadership and the dissemination of Marxian anthropological thinking and theory is only suggested. Some comfort can be taken in the knowledge that the documentarians’ notes, along with the historic photographs that were selected for the film, will now be archived.
Some future researcher will find pictures of The Militant newspaper advertising a talk on “Black Women’s Liberation” by Maxine Williams, a photo of Evelyn Reed’s book on women’s evolution, and a picture of Mary Alice Waters, a leader at the time of Socialist Action’s predecessor organization, the Socialist Workers Party, and the author of one of the best codifications of Marxist analysis of the position of women at the time of the Second Wave and of Marxist theory regarding the way forward. The latter is still available at the website of International Viewpoint: http://www.internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?rubrique133.
This minor weakness should not stop anyone from going to see “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.” It can be the occasion to introduce young revolutionaries to one of the most important chapters of U.S. working-class history and a time when the women’s movement seriously fought for a complete transformation of the social order. It will provide the revolutionary-minded with a real feel for the complexity, richness, and messiness of a mass movement driven from below by a generation forced into new circumstances by the crises of the system.
The film will remind anyone who views it how quickly consciousness can change and propel millions into motion around a completely new vision of the world. Learn more about the film, the process, and the places at which it may be viewed at http://www.shesbeautifulwhenshesangry.com.