There have been several documentaries, books and oral histories about feminism and the history of women’s liberation in the last decade, but some fail to touch upon an integral part of the movement, which is where and how lesbians found their place among the straight women. Directed by Mary Dore, the new film She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry gives a considerable amount of discussion to the topic and features commentary from some of the most important lesbian figures at the time, including Karla Jay, Kate Millett and Rita Mae Brown.
While the first half of the documentary focuses on the beginnings of the movement and how women came to revolt against their roles in life as set by men (wives, mothers, secretaries), the successes of the liberation brings up how different factions of women’s libbers came to demand focus on their individual issues, including those of race, class and sexuality.
“I told no one I went to college with that I was a lesbian, I never told anyone,” Karla Jay says in the doc. “I think that was what the ’60s were like for many of us—we grew up in silence and isolation, and that’s why consciousness-raising was so appealing, because much of our lives we could not speak of.”
Karla was part of Redstockings, a radical feminist group that came out of the time, of which Rita Mae Brown was also a member for a brief time. Karla credits Rita (who went on to become the author of the lesbian novel Rubyfruit Jungle) as demanding lesbian visibility in feminism at large.
“I joined NOW, and I was the youngest person there and I think I was the only southerner,” Rita said in the film. “I knew that I was as good as they were, and I knew that i’m not who I sleep with. I called them on the carpet about class, and I called them on the carpet about race, and then I called them on the carpet about lesbianism, I said, ‘You are treating women the way men treat you. And those women are lesbians.’”
NOW (or the National Organization for Women) was a huge part of the women’s lib movement, and it was headed up by The Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan. Betty infamously referred to lesbians as “the Lavender Menace,” saying that the gay women were detracting from larger goals. This infuriated lesbian feminists like Rita Mae, who helped to stage a protest at the 2nd Congress to Unite Women in 1970, which is reenacted in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.
“The women’s movement had coined the motto ‘the personal is political,’” Karla Jay said. “But when you are lesbian, and want you want to talk about lesbian relationships as opposed to heterosexual relationship, they didn’t want to hear about it.”
What’s also important is that the lesbian-identified women who were part of the feminist movement were also huge supporters of their straight sisters. They fought for reproductive rights, campaigned against rape, and equality in relationships and marriages no matter the sex of someone’s chosen partner. Karla Jay led a demonstration outside of Wall Street called “the First National Ogle-in,” essentially catcalling a large group of men that waited to see a large-breasted woman leave work to walk to the subway every day, grabbing at her and making sexual statements. The clip is included in the film and is both hilarious and relevant today.
Kate Millett wrote the bestselling Sexual Politics, which came out in 1970 and had her on the cover of Time magazine.
“As feminists, what we believe in is very simple and that is the social, economic and political equality of the sexes. Because the relationship between the sexes is in fact a political relationship. We’re an oppressed group and we have been through history,” Kate says in a 1960s television interview from the film. She echoes those statements in a present day interview: “We were changing the relationship between male and female. Nothing is more basic than that.”
Out poet and Pulitzer Prize finalist Susan Griffin reads some of her early pieces on camera, including part of “Three Poems for Women:”
As noted in the film, feminism was about the being “female,” which gave all women involved shared interests and goals, but different consciousness raising groups were necessary to have more focused discussions on things that affected some women differently. Linda Burnham speaks about finding Black Sisters United and how the group was the first time she ever heard any discussions on sexual orientation.
“It was the first group I was with where there were lesbian women,” she said. “It was a deep learning experience.”
There are more than 30 women interviewed for the film about their time spent in the women’s liberation movement, and every single one has different thoughts, memories and opinions on what worked and what didn’t. Despite the struggles they have that we now share as women, lesbians and feminists, their persistent dedication to being heard, seen and respected has given us so much of what we have today.
While we’re still waiting to make as much money as our male counterparts do and to gain full control over our bodies, there is also much to be grateful for and She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry is a great reminder that also manages to be inclusive. Feminism is not just for straight, white women, and this documentary is proof.
She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry opens in NYC on Dec. 5 and in LA on Dec. 12. Check out their website for information on other screenings.