All the Sisters Were Valiant
DOC NYC has grown into the country’s largest non-fiction film festival in just its fifth annual incarnation, to three downtown venues offering more than a hundred selections, a number of them world premières. In Activism Section “Fight the Power” is She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, for which director, co-producer and archival researcher Mary Dore indicated it took decades to raise cash to complete, from before the birth of her now-twenty-one-year-old son, and even then much material has had to be left out.
She introduced the ninety-two minutes and afterwards shared stage and long applause with five of her subjects for a Q&A. It is obvious why festival programmers had taken the unusual step of booking her documentary immediately after one single viewing. The anger and the beauty are stirring in this picture about the origins and the growth of modern, “second wave” feminism -- brief frames capture precursor Suffragettes of early last century. Thus, slightly later figures like Ms. co-founder Gloria Steinem, who has approved the film, are not considered. Of the couple dozen who do appear individually, footage moves viewers with the late Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan.
Neither then nor now is the rest of the world brought into consideration as historical clips picture prevailing attitudes in the U.S. in beauty paraphernalia and pageants, patronizing and manipulative Hollywood and Madison Avenue images -- e.g., “You’re awful pretty when you get mad” and “You’ve come a long way, baby”--homemaker virtues, workplace etiquette, signs in bars. Leaders, “magnificent women, so great, so courageous,” appear from among “thousands of others who did the same thing” nameless in marches, bra burnings, wolf-whistle-at-Wall-Street-types or W.I.T.C.H./Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell-hexing them, protests, strategy brainstorming, fieldwork, and education. Those faces and names that are singled out also speak today, their wisdom of hindsight furnishing additional depth to and understanding of events. Some few do indicate disappointment at the present direction of matters but quickly add that each generation needs to fight anew for its rights.
Chicago, Boston and New York are naturally epicenters of interest, recruiting and development, but as much as anywhere the spark was struck in the Bay Area, rising out of unrest at California universities, where radical movement males openly macho-marginalized coeds. Making their own groups, women went alongside and then beyond anti-war and free speech agitation -- to the National Organization for Women, Women’s Equity Action League, Women’s Political Caucus. As with many a sociopolitical upheaval, some not surprisingly moved even further into radicalism, such as Rita Mae Brown and the Lavender Menace disruption of the 1970 second Congress to Unite Woman.
The accumulating achievements so altered this nation that it is difficult to believe such change once even needed to be wrought. Just as Civil Rights evolved from concern with racial equality to take on the war in Southeast Asia, women’s lib expanded to embrace rights and respect for specific segments like African-American sisters, lesbians and working mothers. Emphasis was also placed on controversial gender-wide issues like birth control information, the Pill and (when discovered) its potentially dangerous side effects, unlimited access to abortion -- “Our Bodies, Our Lives”/“Nuestros Cuerpos, Nuestras Vidas” -- sexual harassment, equal pay and equal work, informed counseling, open discussion of and access to education about sexuality and the female body, and establishment of university-level women’s studies departments.
The fate of the Equal Rights Amendment and continued strenuous opposition now forty-one years later to Roe v. Wade, backsliding along with items in nearly any day’s news, indicate that the struggle is far from finished and that in the face of complacency vigilance is necessary to protect what has been gained. To judge from SBWSA, new heroines, anonymous as well as celebrated, will take up the torch. Less heralded than many other documentaries, Dore’s should gain the audience it deserves by word of mouth.
(Released by International Film Circuit; not rated by MPAA.)