Looking back 40-50 years, it’s hard to believe that job equality and birth control access were considered legitimate points of contention within our society. Credit is due the feminists of the 1960s and 1970s for the fact that only the most reactionary conservatives and fundamentalists challenge these notions today. Mary Dore’s excellent documentary, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, illuminates this key period in the forward march of women’s rights.
For a 90 minute film that mostly limits itself to the years 1966-1971, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry still covers a lot of ground. Most notably, the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966, but these years saw the exponential formation of other like-minded associations. Also arising were groups like the Black Women’s Liberation Committee, the Redstockings, and the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective (the latter responsible for the groundbreaking manual Our Bodies, Ourselves).
She’s Beautiful shows how women discovered the power of protest through their involvement in the civil rights campaign for African-Americans and by demonstrating against the Vietnam War. At the same time, women were disgusted to find that they were often relegated to “licking the envelopes” and were raucously, raunchily threatened when they brought up feminist issues at rallies. Clearly, the time was right for a separate feminist movement.
Director Mary Dore doesn’t break any new stylistic ground in her film, basically following the rules of the “How to Make a Documentary” playbook. Present day interviews with key movement figures are interspersed with illustrative footage from back in the day. All of this unfolds to a soundtrack of the era, with tunes by the likes of Janis Ian and Jefferson Airplane.
But that’s OK, really. Dore keeps her documentary chugging along at a brisk but not overwhelming pace, showing how feminism wrapped itself around multiple still-relevant issues: rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, child care, birth control, abortion, and equal pay and opportunity in the workplace.
Better still, this film’s lighthearted title signals that this story will be handled playfully. Along with necessary serious talk about serious issues, we see protesters outside the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City doll up a sheep with a contestant’s sash. Women participate in Ogle Day in New York City, turning the tables by catcalling dashing fellows on Wall Street. And the poet Alta creates a literary journal entitled the Shameless Hussy Review.
I also appreciate how Mary Dore situates the start of second-wave feminism within its wider historical context. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry looks back to the suffragist movement of the early Twentieth Century, with images of petticoated ladies battling for the vote. It also propels us to the present day, when many states (including my own Tennessee) are blocking abortion access in defiance of Roe vs. Wade. As one activist puts it, “You’re not allowed to retire from women’s issues.”
To their credit as well, participants retrospectively and candidly own their failings. Yes, the Furies went too far in labelling even male toddlers as the enemy. Conversely, NOW fell short in cowering initially from advocacy for lesbian equality. Most woefully, many transgressed in attempting to tell women what to think, rather than challenging them in how to think.
This is a film worth seeing for anyone interested in 20th Century American history. One activist asserts that the traditional narratives of moral progress deny the influence of radical movements, which is true whether we’re discussing workers’ rights, the abolition of slavery, or feminism.
Equally so, this is a film readymade for a secularist audience, since second-wave feminist gains were inspirational triumphs of freethought. Here are just a few of the activists’ comments that leapt off the screen and into my notebook:
– “Suddenly, everything was up for questioning.”
– “…the danger of conversation…”
– “Every possible idea is at risk.”
The advancement of women’s rights is also another facet of the decline of societal religious influence. In Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, Susan Jacoby correctly writes, “[T]rue belief in and commitment to the equality of women and men shakes the foundations of all religions.”
Feminism is yet another success story of the Enlightenment Project, where the dictates of individual conscience again supersede the tyranny of authoritarian states and misogynistic divine mouthpieces. In that vein, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry aptly concludes with abortion rights advocates marching outside the Texas capitol, at that time the stronghold of theocratic bully Rick Perry. Together the protesters meaningfully chant, “Women must decide their fate – not the church, not the state.”
4 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry contains some tame nudity, coupled with brief talk of masturbation and orgasms. I think this film would be an excellent consciousness raiser for teens and their parents to see together.)