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Film Review

She's Beautiful When She's Angry

Unless you were a woman in the 1950's and 60's, it's hard to imagine or remember how embedded traditional woman's roles were in our culture. Women, even those with college degrees, were expected to marry, have children, stay at home and cook. Print advertising often showed the carefully coiffed wife, kneeling, to give her husband a martini after a hard day at his office. Or the same perfectly outfitted woman caring for smiling clean scrubbed kids. Many professions were closed to women. In 1952, Sandra Day O'Connor, newly graduated near the top of her class with her law degree from Stanford, was refused interviews by at least 40 law firms, who would only offer her secretarial work. Her first job, as a deputy county attorney in San Mateo, was initially without pay, and she shared space with a secretary. Her experience was the norm, except that she ended up as a Supreme Court justice years later.

In the late 1950's, Betty Friedan, a writer and social activist, began talking to female college graduates. She recognized that the dissatisfaction and depression of housewives and mothers was widespread, trapped in homemaker roles. They were desperate to be more than wives and mothers. She called it "the problem that has no name". In 1963 Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, which described this problem and became the catalyst for the second wave of women's liberation. It is no exaggeration to say that her book sparked a revolution. The first wave of women's liberation was the long, bitter campaign for suffrage, which took over 50 years before women gained the right to vote in 1920. The second wave is the subject of a very accomplished, powerful documentary film, She's Beautiful When She's Angry, written and directed by Mary Dore, a well known documentary film maker (The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War). She's Beautiful ... focuses on the period of 1966-1971, when the newly emergent women's movement succeeded in bringing women together to change a culture.

Dore uses wonderful archival footage and stills, interspersed with interviews with feminists who were instrumental in the fight. And it was a fight. Many of the women are well known, some lesser known, but all are and were enormously articulate. Their stories are riveting, and it is haunting to see them as young women in the 1960's, and now, much older, but still passionate and articulate. It's a who's who of the movement: Rita Mae Brown, Carol Giardina, Fran Beal, Muriel Fox, Susan Brownmiller, Jacqui Ceballos, Kate Millet, Heather Booth, and many more. Some, who have died, are represented by their daughters. Nona Willis Aronowitz, an important contemporary feminist writer, speaks for her mother, Helen Willis. Reproductive rights was one of the demands, and critical if women were to have careers. Although the pill was first marketed in 1960, and sex before marriage became the norm, women bore all the risk. Abortion was illegal and often dangerous. The archival footage and interviews are powerful, as in the accounts of the desperate search for abortion providers and abortion deaths. The publication of Our Bodies, Our Selves, was another very important event that marked a turning point in the beginning of open discussions about sexuality, childbirth, and women's health.

But perhaps the most important demands were jobs and equal pay for equal work. Women wanted meaningful jobs in professions that had traditionally been closed to women. The movement caught fire in most major cities, and this was before the fax or the internet, in an era of mimeos and posters. Again, the archival footage catches meetings and discussion, that even today, are fascinating. One pivotal event was the decision to stage a nationwide strike of women, on the 50th anniversary of the right to vote (1920). The organizers were worried that only a few hundred women would show up, but tens of thousands of women poured out into the streets in New York City and marched with strong and often witty signs and banners. Their anger was galvanizing. Signs and sweatshirts ranged from humorous to rage: "Stare at your own damn tits" and "Fuck rape". The footage of these women marching in such numbers, with such solidarity and sisterhood, is immensely moving.

Dore doesn't shy away from the controversies and splits that plagued the movement, such as gay, class, and racial issues. Friedan was afraid that gay issues would stiffen resistance to women's rights. Rita Mae Brown, outrageous (in a good way) then and equally articulate now, is a star here. The formation of NOW (Betty Friedan again) and its important role in breaking barriers is discussed. Dore packs a huge amount of material in her film with masterful editing. There is actually so much here, that it could easily be expanded into a television series, much like the struggle for civil rights. And this was indeed a fight for civil rights, the rights of women. I just can't say enough good about this film. I was not only very moved but riveted by the struggle, which sadly still must continue. As one of the feminists said so well: "All victories are only temporary". Here we are in the 21st century with many states imposing severe restrictions on abortion, and there are real worries that Roe v Wade may actually be overturned by a conservative Supreme Court. So no matter how busy you are, see She's Beautiful When She's Angry. This is powerful history, and important to all, not just women. I hope that younger women, more than any other group, see Dore's film to understand and appreciate how much we all owe to those women who broke down the gates. Just opened at Opera Plaza, the Rafael (San Rafael), and the Shattuck (Berkeley). Running time: 92 minutes.

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