This month, filmmaker and activist Mary Dore shares her feminist film masterpiece with the world: She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. Featuring rarely seen archival footage, photographs, uniquely feminist texts and music (The Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band? Yes, please!), the film offers an inspiring account of the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s.
The Ms. Blog caught up with Brooklyn-based Dore in L.A. and picked her brain about the film, her feminist inspirations and the importance of activism.
So you were in Ireland when you found out your job at WNET, the PBS station in New York, had been cut—and that’s when you were inspired to make this film?
I was just, like, ‘Okay, what would be your fantasy project?’ and I realized that no one had ever made a major epic documentary on the women’s movement. I only wanted to focus on the very earliest days, because that’s the story that nobody knows—that [the Second Wave feminists] came out of the Civil Rights movement, the anti-war movement, and at some point realized they needed to be active for themselves. That’s the part that I think is really interesting.
The film features such a diverse collection of fascinating feminists, such as poet and feminist press pioneer Alta, Lavender Menace organizer Karla Jay and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. How did you choose your subjects?
It was deliberately diverse. Because people don’t know this history, you had to show that there were these little sparks everywhere. I love hearing about who did things first, but I felt it was important to show that there were all these grassroots women. They did extraordinary things, but they were regular women. I wanted to tackle the issues that these early feminists brought up and get no credit [for].
The film shares the origin stories of several unconventional activist organizations, including feminist newspaper It Ain’t Me Babe, street theater group Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (W.I.T.C.H) and JANE, an underground collective that facilitated abortions in Chicago prior to Roe v. Wade in 1973.
The JANE collective cared so much about the people they were taking care of. Even before they started doing abortions themselves, it was a big part of their program to make sure that the women felt safe. There’s a lot of movements that do incredibly brave things, but what’s really remarkable about the women’s movement is that it took enormous intellectual risks. You had to re-envision the world … take these chances, and that was so brave because you got nothing but derision on all sides. And you also made mistakes because it’s all uncharted territory.
Do you feel critics of the women’s movement fail to take that into account? Is the women’s movement held to an unreasonably high standard of perfection?
No movement is perfect and every movement makes mistakes, but … for whatever reasons, the women’s movement is so denigrated. People believe A) It’s been done, who cares? or B) It was a failed movement. But it wasn’t a failed movement! It changed how we live today. When you see a guy carrying a baby on his chest, thank the women’s movement. When you see women on the Supreme Court, thank the women’s movement. Those things don’t happen by magic. It happens because people pressure for it and eventually change happens.
You show that the women’s movement was much more than a “white” women’s movement.
I wasn’t about to pretend that in every women’s group I came across in the early days it was beautifully integrated, because that was not the reality. Feminism started the same time as the Black Power movement, when separatism was much more normal for various clear political reasons. The [women’s] movement was moving forward at the same time, but with different priorities. How many people know Fran [Beal] and other women started the SNCC Black Women’s Liberation Committee in 1968? I thought the stuff around [Denise Oliver-Velez and] the Young Lords was fascinating—that’s another whole strand. We’re gonna work with men and kick their butts until they do things the right way. I wanted to show all those alternatives so people would know it was diverse.
What do you hope audiences will understand more deeply after seeing this movie?
You can make enormous changes. Ordinary people can make enormous changes. The women who did Our Bodies, Ourselves were not medical students; they were ordinary [women] who met each other in a mothers’ group and realized they knew nothing [about women’s health] … and just couldn’t believe it. [Women’s history pioneer] Ruth Rosen couldn’t believe she had a master’s degree and was working on her Ph.D. in history and knew nothing about women. When you decide to do something about that, you can make enormous change.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry opens in New York on December 5 and Los Angeles on December 12. Click here for information about a screening near you.
Photo courtesy of International Film Circuit, Inc.