“It’s the women’s power,
It’s the women’s power!”
This chant for women’s power opens the door for the radical, dramatised history of the early years of the so-called second wave feminism or more precisely the women’s liberation movement in Mary Dore’s documentary, She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. Spanning over the years from 1966 to 1971, Dore effectively combines a variety of archival footage from the movement like latest interviews with many activists, scholars like Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, and Susan Brownmiller, with poetry, pictures, and visual clippings from the movement, making sure there is not a single moment when we do not feel the fervour and passion that the women on screen do!
The documentary takes the stereotypes of what makes a feminist (your usual man-hating, bra-burning, forever angry killjoy) and uses them, often hilariously, to drive home the importance for the revolution of which liberation was the soul. The journey that begins with protests against countries restricting access to proper reproductive healthcare for women delineates the many strands of the movement striving for breaking the shackles of unequal wages, discourses (or lack thereof) around abortion, rape, lesbianism, identity politics, and sexual ‘inferiority’ of women over men, and all chronicled with the spirit of rawness, celebration, and with exceptional music by Mark Degli Antoni.
What Kind Of A Woman Are You? Restless? Too Involved? Satisfied?
Betty Friedan Will Help You Decide
What kicks off as a protest march about women not being given their much deserved right to choose for their bodies becomes a major discourse for liberation from the unevenness in relationships where women served as mere means to men’s sexual satisfaction. Jacqueline Ceballos, the then president of the ‘New York’ chapter of the National Organisation for Women (NOW), talks about her ‘click’ moment of gaining consciousness about the sexual politics operating between men and women when her friend handed over Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique to her. “Something’s Wrong, Something’s Wrong”, felt Ceballos, who left the comforts of her middle class domestic life to wage for women’s autonomy and equality, after reading the book.
Though Friedan’s effort to identify the unnameable problem white, middle class women were facing in the domestic sphere became a landmark text for, well, white, middle class women who wanted to break free from the confines of the private, she did not talk about the shackles that the public caused for black women for whom the acutely racist outside world was more humiliating than the inside.
The Personal Is Indeed Political
Many of these women disgruntled by being treated merely as ‘envelope lickers’ in the civil rights movement went on to form ‘consciousness raising’ groups to discuss the ‘private’ problems which they later found were common to the majority of them. The slogan, Personal is Political, thus entered feminist vocabulary.
NOW had many women sending applications self-recruiting themselves into the stride against lack of jobs, equal wages, and leadership positions for women.
Along the same time, NOW had many women sending applications self-recruiting themselves into the stride against lack of jobs, equal wages, and leadership positions for women. I found the self-recruitment interesting because these women who were deconstructing the binary of private/public didn’t just self-recruit themselves to NOW but also to launch the liberation movement. They took the steering wheel of changing the status quo in their own hands and announced the movement with full force.
All Women Are Beautiful
One of the women in the documentary says that you could look like Miss America then and you still thought something was wrong with the way you looked! That still rings true because women continue to be measured against the strict beauty standards that never apply to men. Really how many times have you seen politicians like Mayawati and Smriti Irani critiqued not on their political stances but appearances? But dare anyone say a word about that 56-inch chaudhi chaathi (broad-chest) and the pride it feels in lying non-stop the very citizens who elected it!
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry outright rejects such sexist, racist beauty standards for women. Amidst the chant of slogans like, “There’ll be no Miss America” and “All women are beautiful”, they burnt instruments of female torture (hello bra burning) in a freedom trash can. Some women even snuck up to the balcony where Miss America was being crowned and just before the results were announced they unfurled the banner reading “women’s liberation”.
That was the first time when these words appeared for the world to see.
We Talk In Different Tones. We Don’t All Agree. We Have The Right To Define Our Own Differences
What I like about the documentary is its non-cautionary approach towards conflicts within the ‘libbers’. Whether it was the issue of lesbianism or lack of intersectional politics in the early stages, the activists are seen unravelling all the contradictions for the viewers themselves. As against general assumption of white women being the guardians of women’s liberation movement, black women, for whom the (white) problems discussed during consciousness raising sessions didn’t resonate, organised separately. This also tells us that there is no one way of entering into any movement.
Whether it was the issue of lesbianism or lack of intersectional politics in the early stages, the activists are seen unravelling all the contradictions for the viewers.
You might have the click moment of gaining feminist consciousness like Ceballos had that leads you to act for the cause, or you might despite having full knowledge of it cannot relate to some aspects of it and organise separately. The black women, for example, went on to form a Black Women’s Collective. Or you might also become part of the movement like my mother, whose doings have been feminist all along but only recently she gained knowledge about what feminism entails.
When you are furthering your cause through a movement, it is essential to have a feeling of solidarity within the participants. But presiding the room smelling of total solidarity isn’t easy. It requires the hard work of opening up the windows for the air of differences to remain suspended in the room, then getting down on streets to engage with the many social, political, and economic differences that exist within movement participants. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry disrupts this notion of universal sisterhood through the question of lesbianism.
The co-founder of NOW, Betty Friedan plus many members of the organisations didn’t want to interact with nor raise the issue of lesbianism for the fear of it splitting the movement. Activists like Rita Mae Brown along with the Red Stockings group and the Gay Liberation Front thus came up with the famous manifesto ‘Woman-Identified Woman’. This lavender menace (as Friedan called them) even barged the second Congress for uniting women where there was zero representation of same-sex issues and stood in front of a full house wearing their lavender menace t-shirts, claiming their identities.
Male Chauvinism Up Against The Wall
“I don’t know what women are asking for. Suppose I want to give it to them.”
“You may as well relax honey because whatever they are asking for it’s not for you!”
So on one hand was the internal tussle between feminists over what counted as core movement issues, on the other was the regular intervention from the male population who didn’t understand what these agitators wanted when the men ‘gave’ them everything. “Women’s place is in the home”, “You (feminists) are oversensitive”, were some open oppositions by men blaring the television screens and protest marches.
When you are furthering your cause through a movement, it is essential to have a feeling of solidarity within the participants.
As if the ride couldn’t get any bumpier that J. Edgar Hoover appointed FBI spies to sit in women’s meetings and bring back all possible means of information which he thought were a threat to the nation’s security. I can’t say if it was solely the threat to nation’s security or also to the ‘right-givers’ that even the hearings about birth-control pills had an all male panel!
Uppity Women Unite
Whether it was women in the W.I.T.C.H (Women’s International Conspiracy from Hell!) dressing up as well, witches casting hexes, or organising the First National Ogle-in of men on Wall Street as a role reversal of sexist calling on the streets, Dore makes sure to doze the viewer with regular respites of the ‘radical’ in the movement.
These ‘uppity’ women who had the courage of burning their degrees upon realising they didn’t know much about women’s history, or taking over the Statue of Liberty to proclaim unity among all the women in the world, radicalised the discourse around women’s autonomy. When they saw their freedom being barricaded, they chose to kick down the barricades themselves. For example, the landmark book on women’s bodies, Our Bodies, Ourselves was published as a result of no information being disseminated to women about their bodies.
Alix Kates Schulman talks about sexual pleasure and the knowledge about it and jokes, “If we never had them (orgasms), how did we know how to fake them?”. Whether it was lack of information around the side-effects of birth-control pills or about their anatomy, the women from the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective took the task to themselves and researched thoroughly to fill in the gaps to come up with the book.
If You Are Angry Enough About Something, You Will Change It
I watched She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry at a time when the bill legalising abortion in Argentina was defeated. I watched it being skeptical of such prospects tapping on our shoulders to bring forth change. But like the bill in Argentina, despite (and because of) the defeat, caused thousands of demonstrators from the women’s rights movement Ni Una Menos (Not One Less) to collectivise for a revolution. The the documentary despite being located in the second wave urges us to not forgo our efforts towards a revolutionary change today.
By affirming the efforts of the present day feminists in waging their fight against rape, reproductive justice, gender pay gap, and mant more, it tells us how we cannot and should not ever settle for crumbs. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is not just a story about the change or changemakers, it is also about all those times when the sense of injustice has and will continue to transform the status quo. It is about changing the existing pie and not just taking a piece from it. It is a reminder for all of us who want to fight a battle against injustice – if you are angry enough to change something, you will change it.
Featured Image Source: Santa Cruz