The new documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, which chronicles the movement for women’s rights in the sixties and early seventies, is nothing if not timely. It’s touring the country just as the concept of the grassroots movement as the spark for social change is having a moment. Thanks to the incredible film Selma, which puts movement strategy and ferocious hope on equal footing with personality and electoral power, and in large part because of #BlackLivesMatter organizing, the American public is grappling with the question of how change happens. They’re wondering aloud what would make a person go back to the Edmund Pettus Bridge—as hundreds of civil rights activists do in Selma—after whip lashes and clubs rained down on them the last time they tried it. A person who typically doesn’t give mass movement a second thought—the type who was confused by the “community organizer” part of Obama’s résumé—may be infuriated or dismissive if #BlackBrunch shows up in their neighborhood cafe, but they’re talking about the tactic just the same. That counts for something.
Simply getting people talking was a goal then as now, and late in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry historian and feminist Ruth Rosen recounts a series of events that proved how dangerous even that can be. The women’s movement had become such a successful, persistent presence—shutting down all-male congressional hearings on birth control safety, for example—that J. Edgar Hoover feels it’s a destabilizing threat. The Bureau discriminates just like most employers, and so doesn’t hire women as agents. But it sends a team of informants to spy on consciousness-raising groups. Soon the infiltrators are bored. They report back that these women are just talking about their husbands’ refusal to help out around the house and how subsidized childcare really would be a nice thing. There’s nothing revolutionary happening at these meetings, the spies say; attending them is a waste of time. But Hoover is adamant that his informants stay the course, calling feminist organizers a national security threat.
Hoover was right in a way. Once people start talking, they understand that what they’ve always thought of as source of personal humiliation—being repeatedly harassed by police without cause, for example, or having your boss chase you around his desk every chance he gets—is something more. It’s not the result of your own failings; it’s a social sickness. “Once you stop blaming yourself for all of this, it was like somebody had lifted a rock off of you,” activist and academic Carol Giardina says in the film. “And then here were women all around you who were ready to go out there and do something about it.”
The film takes as its focus the protests, campaigns, confrontations and provocations—as often outlandish as earnest—the movement instigated, and it mixes the history you know and expect, like the burning of bras at the Miss America pageant in ’68, with lesser-known stories, like the role women in the Young Lords played in exposing forced sterilization in Puerto Rico and New York City. This documentary doesn’t pretend there weren’t elbows thrown, disagreements over leadership styles, or divergent agendas. The film has no narrator, and so the women who made up the movement—those who learned to provide safe, if not legal, abortions as part of the Jane Collective, those who didn’t identify with the movement’s focus on white women’s concerns and so formed Black Sisters United, those who ran street patrols when a string of Boston murders targeting women hit the headlines—speak for themselves. There’s no objective voice to guide the story. Instead, director Mary Dore offers what feels like an unvarnished telling, trustworthy in part because these women were dealing with many of the same messes and contradictions we still struggle with today, particularly the fractures within movements.
In one scene, archival footage shows activist Marilyn Webb attempting to address a crowd at an anti-war demonstration and being shouted down by men—her New Left comrades, mind you—who demand that someone “fuck her down a dark alley” rather than allow her to continue talking. “I didn’t expect movement men to behave like that, and I was shocked,” she recalls. Now such threats happen mostly anonymously on the Internet, but their hate-filled nastiness is just as shocking. Black women in Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee formed the SNCC Black Women’s Liberation Committee in 1968 because their male counterparts had a hard time seeing their own sexism. As activist and writer Fran Beal puts it looking back, “We’re talking about liberation and freedom half the night on the racial side, and then all of a sudden men are going to turn around and talk about putting you in your place? That was the contradiction in terms that we were no longer prepared to put up with.” The film also dissects the movement’s tendency to ostracize leaders who attracted too much attention, and women recount how they were thrown out of groups they helped start. “People had read about me, so I was like this mini-celebrity,” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz remembers. “In Cell 16, they said that I was oppressing them…. ‘I feel oppressed just by the fact that you exist.’ OK. You want me to stop existing?’”
There are plenty of similarities between then and now, but the differences are even more interesting. I came away from the film thinking that the goals of that era’s women’s movement had been loftier. After all, organizers had nearly been successful in getting Congress to pass the Comprehensive Child Development Act, a bill that would have created sliding-scale early-education and after-school programs nationwide. Nixon vetoed it, positioning himself as the sole voice of reason standing between American women and a kind of Soviet obliteration of true motherhood. But Congresswoman Eleanor Norton Holmes is featured in the documentary, recalling what that historic fight for childcare felt like from an activist’s perspective. There’s also a vigorous conversation about marriage that feels eons away from the current largely uncritical approach to the institution. “If women are to be married, women should receive pensions,” activist Jacqui Ceballos, who was active in NOW, is seen telling a crowd in the film. Today we’re bombarded almost daily by sky-is-falling propaganda about the social ills associated with singledom and single parenthood, and few major feminist organizations mount serious counter-arguments.
“Unlike now, we didn’t want a piece of the pie,” activist and lawyer Alice Wolfson says in the film, summing up some of this gap between what was and what is. “We wanted to change the pie.”
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is screening in theaters nationwide now.