March is Women’s History Month and Mary Dore’s documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry helps us celebrate, remember and cheer one of our most vilified sheroes of the last century — the women’s movement.
Zooming in on the years 1966 to 1971, Dore excavated the archival images of the birth of the movement. Dore captures the spirit, soul and fire of these fiercely courageous, brilliant and badass feminists who were fighting for the very same issues we fight for today — our right to control our bodies, and our struggle for freedom and equality. We stand on the shoulders of these mighty warriors.
F.B. I. Director J. Edgar Hoover’s notorious COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program) operations spied not only on M.L.K., but also on organizations and individuals associated with the movement. Dore highlights the risk these women took, too.
And who said feminists aren’t any fun?
Dore documents the hilarity, excitement and outright boldness (along with the scandalous moments) of the movement. If you thought for one moment these women lacked chutzpah, Dore quickly disabuses you of the notion.
Boston was an intellectual base with activist circles of feminism in its heyday. Today it is mostly a forgotten history, which is one of the reason for Dore’s documentary.
Perhaps because I had experienced the movement in Boston, I felt that too many of the written narratives centered on New York City, the media capital. So the realization emerged that this should be a grassroots view of the movement, not focusing on the most famous, or the ‘firsts.’ And that it was about collective organizing, not about heroic individuals.
In 1969 the first feminist conference was held at Emmanuel College spawning Bread and Roses, the first socialist women’s organization in the country. In 1971 in Cambridge, Female Liberation began publishing The Second Wave Magazine: A Magazine for the New Feminism.
The most important book published during the Second Wave Women’s Movement, in my opinion, and also in the last century was “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (originally called the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective).
Now a global project with its motto “Information Inspires Action,” the book helped launch the women’s health movement and inspire, empower and equip women worldwide with information on health, sexuality and reproduction to claim the rights of their bodies. Translated in at least 29 languages, the New York Times called the tome a “feminist classic” and Time Magazine heralded it as “one of the 100 most important works of non-fiction.”
“We came together with a passion for a project. We would do a course on women and their bodies, and if women were excited about the material, they would take it into their communities, their neighborhoods and just pass on the information,” Miriam Hawley proudly states in the documentary.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry gives one of the more honest depictions, I’ve seen to date, about the movement, because it doesn’t ignore, excuse or explain away its many troubling controversies.
As “the bastard child of the civil right movement” race was just one of its fault lines.
I was with SCLC — the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — in the South. Many of us who started this new movement had come out of civil rights, and absorbed its ideas, so that it shaped the women’s movement. In some ways, the women’s liberation movement was the bastard child of the civil rights movement,
Jo Freeman (AKA Joreen) states in the film. Freeman is known for several classic feminist articles, one of which is “The Bitch Manifesto.”
The movement’s appropriation of the Black Civil Rights paradigm to ignite and to further the rights of women shocked and angered women of color — particularly women of African descent-with the exclusion of them.
Protest marches abound with women of color and poor women publicly denouncing the political stronghold and exclusionary practices of the movement — especially in it’ s early years, which had primarily been an intentionally exclusive women’s country clubs that spoke to Betty Friedan’s feminine mystique of upper-crust “pumps and pearls”-wearing white women. Black women — straight or LBT — had neither voice nor visibility in much of the movement, but especially Friedan’s circle.
We started Black Sisters United, and it was basically a consciousness-raising group. We were struggling to understand what was different about our perspective on women’s place in the world from what we were hearing from the mainstream women’s movement. And we couldn’t have that conversation in spaces that were majority white women,
Linda Burnham states in the film. Burnham is presently the Research Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
Three years beyond Dore’s lens on the women’s movement, in 1974, the Combahee River Collective was founded in Boston by the boldacious act of several lesbians and feminists women of African descent. And as a sisterhood that understood that their acts of protest are shouldered by and because of their ancestors — known and unknown — who came before them, the Collective‘s name honors the resistance action by abolitionist Harriet Tubman in 1863 in South Carolina, known as the Combahee River Raid.
The Combahee River Collective was not only a response to the Black Nationalist and misogynistic politics of the Black Power Movement, but the Collective was also excoriating the exclusionary practice of feminism. In explaining black women’s lives as interlocking oppressions, the “Combahee River Collective Statement” is one of the earliest and most lauded manifestos to unapologetically denounce single-issue agendas and politics coming out of both black male and white feminists — straight and queer — circles.
When white feminists pounced on First Lady Michelle Obama in 2007 for not using the F-word, many African-American sisters came to her rescue, stating that many African-American women don’t use the term ” feminist” but instead prefer the term “womanist” (term coined in 1983 by Alice Walker, meaning all women of African descent–straight and LBT) because of the racism embedded in the feminist movement and the strained history that remains unaddressed to this day.
The movie correctly highlights sexual orientation and gender identity issues as another fault line in the movement. As many of my LBT friends share their history with me, the sisterhood between straight feminists and us was strained at best and non-existing at worst. One reason was that in 1969, Betty Friedan, then president of the National Organization for Women, called us “the Lavender Menace” stating that LBT women were a huge liability to the women’s movement.
I joined NOW, and I was the youngest person there and I think I was the only southerner. I called them on the carpet about class, and I called them on the carpet about race, and then I called them on the carpet about lesbianism, I said, ‘You are treating women the way men treat you. And those women are lesbians,
renowned and charismatic author Rita Mae Brown states in the documentary. Brown, known for her lesbian classic, Rubyfruit Jungle, parted ways with Friedan.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is at selected theaters across the country. It’s a women’s history course in 92 minutes. And it’s time well spent.