From the May-June 2015 issue of News & Letters
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a documentary of the women’s liberation movement (WLM) in the U.S., from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Filmmaker Mary Dore used a wealth of historical news coverage to give a sense of the breadth of organizations and depth of demands in the explosive growth of the WLM. Activists, identified within archival footage—including women like Fran Beal of the Civil Rights Movement’s Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lesbian rights activist Karla Jay, and Judith Arcana of the abortion underground organization Jane—gave contemporary interviews interspersed in the film.
The film includes comments of men and women expressing the post-World War II common “wisdom” that a woman’s place was in the home. The first objectives of organizations like the National Organization for Women were to confront barriers to women working, not just until a man needed that job, and earning wages equal to men—something women have yet to win.
The film showed the dismissive attitudes of men towards women—who were doing unsung work in student, Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War groups—by showing crowds of male protesters mocking women who tried to speak at the 1968 Washington, D.C., anti-Vietnam War demonstration. It documented some of the many organizations that formed, including Redstockings—one of the earliest, whose radical vision was one of a more human world. W.I.T.C.H./Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell and many independent groups focused on socialist feminism.
The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective concentrated on health and sexuality and created the book Our Bodies Ourselves, which continues to be updated and has been translated and used in many countries. The Collective was influential in changing healthcare, helping women’s sexuality and healthcare concerns be seriously considered and researched. Chicago’s clandestine Jane Collective helped women obtain safe abortions. Illegal and unsafe abortions were so prevalent that on the eve of the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, respected journalist Walter Cronkite reported on the national news that thousands of U.S. women became seriously ill or died from complications of back-alley butcher abortions each year.
A criticism of the WLM was that it was largely a white women’s movement; that Black women who had to deal with both racism and sexism were overlooked. The film showed Black women as part of the WLM, including as founders of NOW, and as creating their own groups. The Black Sisters United ran street patrols when there was a string of murders of women in Boston.
She’s Beautiful packs a great deal of history in a small amount of movie time: the national women’s strike demonstrations on August 16, 1970, commemorated the 50th anniversary of women winning the right to vote, showing the mass character of the WLM; the 1969-70 protests against the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City and its objectification of women; the fear of mainstream feminists that acknowledging the participation of Lesbians in the movement would marginalize the WLM; the eventual welcoming of Lesbians and other Queer women into the WLM; the demands that rape, including marital rape, and domestic violence be recognized as crimes that women did not bring on themselves. The film took up the vibrant feminist press, and even the News and Letters Committees pamphlet Notes on Women’s Liberation: We Speak in Many Voices, published in 1970, made an appearance.
It was not within the scope of the movie to show how the WLM arrived at the present-day retrogressive war on women, although it did note the shameful attack on poor women over 40 years ago when President Nixon vetoed comprehensive childcare legislation in 1972.
Dore spent 21 years making She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry—mainly because she had trouble finding money to fund it. At a March 14 showing in Chicago, she answered questions from the audience and encouraged people to meet in person to build a new, vibrant women’s liberation movement.