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. She 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.
And who said feminists aren’t any fun? Dore documents the hilarity, excitement, outright boldness and scandalous moments of the movement. If you thought 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 reason for Dore’s documentary.
‘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.’
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry gives one of the more honest depictions, I’ve seen to date of 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. The result was it excluded 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 it had been based primarily in 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.
One person who responded is Linda Burnham, now the research director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
She says in the film: ‘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.’
Three years beyond Dore’s lens on the women’s movement, in 1974, bold lesbians and feminist women of African descent founded the Combahee River Collective in Boston.
As a sisterhood that understood their acts of protest are because of their ancestors, 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 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 black male, white feminist 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 many African-American women don’t use the term ‘feminist’ but instead prefer the term ‘womanist’ 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. The sisterhood between straight feminists and LBT women was strained at best and non-existent at worst.
One reason was that in 1969, 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,’ renown and charismatic author Rita Mae Brown states in the documentary.
‘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.”’
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 on International Women’s Day – or any day – it’s time well spent.
Watch the trailer here: