Historical documentarians are made to put complex events in perspective through clarity and insight that only emerge over time. If the subject is rich enough, they also can assemble little known or long-forgotten stories to reveal larger historical truths. That's a fair description of director/producer Mary Dore's She's Beautiful When She's Angry, which takes on the multifaceted history of the modern women's liberation movement with a focus on its tumultuous early years of 1966 to 1971.
Dore's no-nonsense film sidesteps the feminist movement's familiar icons and celebrities in favor of its many unsung heroes, the grassroots organizers and street-level workers who toiled outside the limelight to bring equality for women to the workplace and the culture at large. Underlying Dore's efforts is the idea that the women's movement never earned the respect accorded other social movements of its time, which played out in the current era through Dore's many difficulties acquiring funding to complete her film. (She started working on it in the 20th century.) But respect is what the women's movement is all about — then and now.
The sheer quantity of movement contributors mentioned or discussed in She's Beautiful When She's Angry can be overwhelming, and sometimes makes Dore's history seem scattered and unfocused. In addition, the film needlessly steps into the quagmire of staging re-enactments of key historical events. But by incorporating many of the movement's disparate and sometimes opposing voices, the film uncovers a secret history of women's rights that connects easily with the global struggles faced by many women today.
The film quickly moves from a long-gone era in which employment classified ads were divided into "jobs for men" (career-track positions) and "jobs for women" (hired help) to a new consciousness about societal roles and the inequality of the sexes — an awareness that stemmed from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and early '60s. Dore organizes her material more by topic and theme than chronology, allowing her to delve into the movement's long-forgotten sub-groups and factions.
Few remember W.I.T.C.H. (Women's International Terrorist Conspiracy From Hell), New York City's Redstockings (known for its focus on pro-choice issues), Black Sisters United (which had a very different perspective than the movement's mainstream) or Cell 16 (which advocated separation from men and trained women in self-defense). At minimum, these groups (and many others) reflected the diversity of activist women and enriched the debate about women's rights. In the feminist movement one size never fit all.
Archival footage of every imaginable stripe keeps Dore's film lively and engaging. A banner unfurled by activists at the 1968 Miss America Pageant gives much of the world its first exposure to the phrase "women's liberation," and history professors caught up in the spirit of their time burn their advanced degrees on campus after realizing how little they know of historical achievements by women.
The politics of women's rights has its own buried history, embodied by the film's retelling of President Richard Nixon's veto of the Comprehensive Child Development Bill of 1972. This legislation would have created a national day care system, and its defeat dealt the women's movement a crushing blow. It's not much of a leap to the politically charged controversies of today, from equal pay for women to sexual assault on campus.