A feminist protest march in August 1970, as seen in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. Photo: Diana Davies
Present day. Women and men wear red and boost signs bearing the message: DON’T MESS WITH TEXAS WOMEN. From the rally stage, a woman speaks into a microphone. “We should have the right to choose,” she says.
I’ve been watching this spectacle play out in the Texas legislature for the past couple years, holding my breath during streaming filibusters, shaking my head at news clips. Now, from my cushioned theater seat, sitting with a group of girlfriends and an 11-year-old girl, I feel like I’m there, at that rally. “We should have the right to choose. We should be mad,” the speaker says. “Are you mad?” Tears brimmed in my eyes as text fleshed across the screen: “More than 40 years ago, women demand equal rights in every sphere.” Great, I thought, I am going to cry through this whole thing.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is director Mary Dore’s new documentary covering the start of the second wave of feminism in the United States, from 1966–1971, stopping two years shy of Roe vs. Wade. Placed within the context of current protests in Texas, where the clock seem to be turning backward for women’s rights, the film’s beginning creates an immediate connection. Within the first minutes, I felt my own history with feminism—which began over twenty years ago with volunteer work at a Philadelphia abortion clinic and rallies in DC—link arms with the present. To see myself as part of the continuum was heartbreaking and electrifying.
My 11-year-old friend Clara at a screening of She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry in Seattle.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry follows 30 individual women and the Our Bodies, Ourselves collective, interspersing archival footage and photos with present day interviews, as well as performances of critical feminist writing from the era and a few (but not too many) dramatizations. While the big names—Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug—appear in the archival footage, the women Dore and her team focus on represent the everyday women and activists who formed and shaped the core of the movement. In the documentary’s narrative, the feminist movement splintered off from the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, where women had worked and organized around issues of racism, poverty, and peace but were often being denied leadership and recognition, relegated to making sandwiches, treated as breeders for the revolution, and were silenced when they spoke out. At one demonstration, when a group of women took the stage and addressed the crowd about equality for women, the sea of men before them began to jeer and shout. The voices and the twisted laughing faces of the men were a familiar twist of a knife inside a shared wound. They yelled, “Find an alley to drag her down!” and “Take her off the stage and fuck her!”
Second wave feminism, while it sought to expand freedom, still operated within its time and the binary thinking of U.S. culture, which tends toward broad homogenous groups. As activist, author, and scholar Linda Burnham recounts in the film, “When the voice of one is used for the voice of all, you have a problem.” Many white feminists weren’t willing to understand and address how society specifically treated women of color differently, or acknowledge the role of race in their experiences. Likewise with class. Lesbians were silenced or kicked out of the National Organization for Women (NOW), with prominent figures claiming it was “too soon” to talk about their issues, that homosexuality was “decisive.” Dore shows these failures of the larger movement to address and acknowledge intersecting oppressions by including women who fought within the movement itself, and the history she presents includes their struggles and triumphs, and the different groups that formed in response. Instead of just celebrating “girl power,” the film paints an honest, critical, and inclusive portrait of the history of the second wave.
The Lavender Menace. Photo: Diana Davies.
It feels visceral to watch some of the historic footage unfold: a bed sheet painted with “WOMEN’S LIBERATION” unfurling from the auditorium balcony at the 1968 Miss America pageant, a “WOMEN UNITE” banner blowing in the wind from the Statue of Liberty, the triumphant looks of the Lavender Menace as they overtook a NOW convention. While their future was uncertain at the time, viewers now can watch these decades-old clips and know that these are the women who, along with thousands and thousands of others, actually changed U.S. culture. Today, with the deadly ignorance of politicians on the far right, the proliferation of rape culture and misogyny on college campuses, pay gaps, lack of universal child care, and vitriolic internet trolls, it can feel like little has changed. But as She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry shows, culture has changed. Even though we can’t “retire from women’s issues,” as one activist in the film said, our society is more equitable in many ways thanks to the work of these mid-century activists. It is because of these women that I was able to hold a technical job and advance to the journeymen level when I served in the U.S. military. It’s thanks to them that I had access to birth control when I was younger and only had a child when I was in ready, in my early thirties. It’s because of their political work that I had access to a safe and legal abortion four years later, when my partner and I decided it wasn’t the right time to have a second kid. Because of them, my mom has a safe and affordable place to call home.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry captures the beginning moments of the second wave of feminism, but pays homage to the riot grrrl feminism of the early ‘90s with a handful of the songs on its soundtrack. Having come of age during that time, music is a synonymous part of feminism for me. When the opening beats of Le Tigre’s “Hot Topic” started, my friend and I both let out an involuntary cheer. In that song, they call out 50 or so names of artists, activists, and musicians—James Baldwin, Yoko Ono, Vaginal Davis—and the chorus chants, “Don’t you stop / I can’t live if you stop.” That song always has a way of getting me, of plugging its prongs straight into my heart and resetting the rhythms. “Keep going,” it tells me. “You are part of this long line of women – of activists and artists, part of something bigger.” At the end of the movie, I wanted that song to come back again and play on repeat. I wanted every woman and man and non-binary human in that theater to stand up and add their names to that list, for us to sing each other’s name out loud.
Dore made her first documentary in 1984, when I was in second grade. It amazes to stand in this moment, as a thirty-seven year old feminist mother, and witness our time. We have Beyoncé silhouetted by FEMINIST in shouty caps. Last year Rebecca Solnit and Roxane Gay published complex, critical books. And I keep humming to myself, “No no no no no don’t stop….”
Watch the trailer below:
Bitch Media is based in Portland, where She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is showing at Living Room Theaters this week. Family Forward Oregon will host a discussion after the 7:30pm showing on Thursday, January 29th. Click here for showtimes and more info!
Samantha Claire Updegrave is an urban planner, MFA candidate, and an assistant editor for Soundings Review. When not tethered to a desk, she can be found stomping around town with her little 5-year-old T-Rex. Find her online at samanthaupdegrave.wordpress.com or on Twitter @scupdegrave.