"We were angry. Maybe the anger is what carried us through and made us fearless," says Alice Wolfson, an activist who was a member of D.C. Women's Liberation and The Daughters of Lilith collective, as she reminisces about the women's liberation movement in the late '60s. This seems to be the lesson that the documentary "She's Beautiful When She's Angry," which documents the history of the women's lib movement, is trying to impart upon contemporary feminist activists: If you just get angry enough, you can become fearless and change society.
"She's Beautiful" adds a sense of urgency to this by opening with a black screen and the words "A majority of states are restricting women's access to healthcare and the right to choose," followed by scenes from a pro-choice rally in Texas. "In terms of reproductive health, reproductive justice, we've gone backward in a big way," says Judith Arcana, who was a member of an underground feminist abortion service before abortion was legalized, toward the end of the documentary. "I'm seriously disheartened by the current situation, but at the same time, I'm angry. And one of the things I learned decades ago," Arcana says, as the camera zooms in on her, "when we're that angry, about something that bad, we take action against it."
It's a pretty simplistic framing—"Just get angry, ladies, and you, too, can change the world!" And the documentary has a few other weak spots, like the occasional scenes that are acted out, to cheesy overdramatic effect, in between the shots of women's lib leaders talking about their work and historical video footage. But "She's Beautiful" has some interesting historical information about the women's lib movement, as well as some valuable lessons for current feminist activists.
Some of the information in the documentary will be pretty basic to anyone who's at all familiar with the feminist movement—I was tempted to fast-forward past the testimonies of middle-class women who talked about how Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique" changed everything for them—but there's new information there for even people who may consider themselves well-versed in feminism. For instance, developing a child care system was a central issue in the women's liberation movement, and in 1971, Congress actually passed a comprehensive child care act, but President Nixon vetoed it, effectively killing this issue. "Most historians don't even remember that, forget about the rest of society," says historian and journalist Ruth Rosen.
"That was a tragic moment in history, and we've been paying for it ever since," says Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. "I can think of frankly no more important issues early feminists raised than education and child care."
Possibly the most interesting takeaway lesson from "She's Beautiful When She's Angry" is how much intra-movement conflict there's been within feminism since its inception. There's lately been a slew of articles hand-wringing about the state of feminist discourse, saying that social media has made feminist and leftist debate "too toxic" and that people shouldn't be publicly calling out or criticizing other feminists when they fail to be inclusive or intersectional or "truly" feminist.
But "She's Beautiful" drives home the point that that debate between different factions has been around for as long as feminism has. The documentary includes an activist who was part of a co-ed Puerto Rican nationalist group; black women who felt unheard by white feminists, so they started their own feminist organizations; lesbians who were thrown out of NOW for protesting the organization's refusal to bring up gay issues; and more. All of these different feminists describe being dissatisfied with, and frequently talking back to, the more-mainstream middle-upper-class feminist organizations.
"[Feminists] were inventing things, and that is a very interesting edge to be on," says Chude Pamela Allen, an early organizer of the women's lib movement. "We were figuring it out, and it wasn't always easy and we didn't always do it right." "She's Beautiful" is an important reminder for feminists, particularly straight, white, financially comfortable ones, that disagreement and getting called out for mistakes is not hurting feminism—if anything, it's central to it.