An overdue documentary flashback to the U.S. women’s liberation movement, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” arrives at a time when, despite notable gains, the clock seems to be turning backward on many of the issues — reproductive rights, sexual harassment, equal pay, etc. — that “libbers” fought more than 40-odd years ago. “The bitter lesson is that no victories are permanent,” one veteran activist says here. But Mary Dore’s feature is less cautionary that celebratory in tone, capturing the exhilaration felt by a generation of women who challenged and shed age-old gender role limitations in a surge of rebellious energy. The result should connect with older (and hopefully younger) women in a theatrical release kicking off Dec. 5 in NYC, Dec. 12 in L.A.
Limiting its purview to a first-wave period of 1966-1971, “Beautiful” crams a great deal of info, events, issues and individuals into a surprisingly smooth chronicle narrated by three dozen or so original participants. Some had been involved in the civil rights movement earlier that decade, and were encouraged by the presence of female organizers there. But upon returning home, they found that anti-Vietnam protests, as well as more radical causes like SDS and Black Power, remained bastions of strutting male leadership despite all talk of revolutionary change. Women were “used to lick envelopes,” their input ignored or belittled.
So they began talking and organizing among themselves, often in “consciousness-raising groups” that were revelatory for most, as few had ever been in any position to discuss myriad “shameful,” “private” experiences (including abortion, rape, spousal abuse, workplace harassment, et al.) that turned out to be very common indeed.
These initial awakenings rapidly led to aggressive public actions in the variously angry and prankish spirit of the era. On the latter front, there was W.I.T.C.H. (Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell!), whose members ran around casting “hexes” in Halloween garb; a “First National Ogling” of men on Wall Street; and other instances of provocative street theater. More seriously, women banded together to agitate against a host of inequities that suddenly seemed as inexcusable as they were obvious: Job discrimination, exclusion from standard academia (triggering the birth of women’s studies programs), the failure to acknowledge housework as “real” labor, etc.
The rapidly growing, fissioning movement soon spawned offshoots specifically addressing the concerns of black and Latino women, the poverty class, and others not entirely at ease in the largely white, middle-class feminist mainstream. The National Organization for Women (N.O.W.) weathered a crisis when a so-called “lavender menace” demanded acceptance from co-founder Betty Friedan and others who feared the org’s popular gains would be undermined by acknowledging the many lesbians in their midst.
Dore (“The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War”) crisscrosses the country to recall various regional hotspots for activism, political fights won (the legalization of abortion) and lost (Nixon’s veto of a national childcare bill), cultural landmarks like the publication of The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective’s “Our Bodies, Our Selves” (since translated into multiple languages around the world), myriad feminist intellectual and artistic expressions, and more.
There are also, of course, glimpses of the considerable opposition, from men (and women) on the street insisting “a woman’s place is in the home” to TV’s David Frost scolding an audience of feminists (“You’re so oversensitive!”). It’s noted that J. Edgar Hoover assigned FBI spies to infiltrate women’s groups, fearing they threatened the security of the nation. Veteran leaders remember the eventual polemical factionalism and contentiousness that would find some ousted from groups they’d founded. It was all a heady, from-scratch learning experience, with plenty of bumps en route.
This history might easily fill out a 12-part miniseries. It’s to the credit of “She’s Beautiful” that it seems neither hectic nor glib despite the enormous amounts of material that doubtless had to be excluded to fit a single feature’s frame. Recitations from original texts and brief reenactments fill the few remaining crevices left between a bounty of present-day interviews and archival clips. While at times one might wish for a less conventional feel more in keeping with the heady, adventurous spirit of the times portrayed, pic’s straightforward cogency should serve it well in educating new generations of women — particularly those who disavow “feminism” (seeming to equate it with “man-hating,” as many men did 40 years ago) while remaining oblivious to how great a debt their lifestyles owe to its trailblazers.
Nancy Kennedy and Kate Taverna’s heroic editing is a standout in expert assembly.