The historical documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry stitches together — to borrow an image from one of its subjects — a magic quilt of the various groups, motivated by various concerns, that more or less coalesced to form the early feminist movement of the late 1960s. One of those subjects is Alice Wolfson, who helped lead protests against the fact that the Senate’s “Nelson pill hearings,” which examined the negative health effects of the birth control pill, were entirely devoid of women, the people who suffered those effects. The footage is remarkable: the women shout — articulately — from the gallery, and the Senators find themselves compelled to respond. At least, until the ladies are ushered out of the chambers, whereupon they address an eager and interested media.
Matthew Lickona: You say in the film, “We brought Washington, D.C. to its knees,” and watching the footage, I can see what you mean. Could that even happen today?
Alice Wolfson: I don’t think so. In those days, we could just walk right into the Senate hearing. There were seats, and you didn’t have to show any ID to sit in those seats.
ML: Actually, “Could that even happen today?” was something I found myself thinking again and again as I watched this film.
AW: Right now, it feels like people are just working and working and working; they’re on a treadmill, they’re glued to their devices in one way or another. It’s kind of hard to understand how to reach people. I helped organize a demonstration for the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade a few years ago. There were young women involved, and they used social media, and we could still hardly get any people out. It makes you think: when the anti-choice people can bring out thousands, it’s because they’re still working to get something. To make abortion illegal. So maybe it’s the absence of things that really moves people to action.
But we wanted our daughters to be able to take for granted that they could have an abortion if they needed one. That they could go to medical school if they got good grades. Now, 48 percent of the students entering medical school are women; back then it was maybe 5 percent. Same for law school. There’s still inequality, but so much of what we were striving for at that time really has happened. When my kids were little, it was impossible to get after-school childcare. Now, most public schools offer after-school care.
She's Beautiful When She's Angry: Official Trailer 1
ML: So it’s hard for people to have the same sort of fervor that they did then?
AW: It does feel like that was a time of great political and social upheaval, and that doesn’t exist right now. So the question you’re asking is, “Can this happen in the absence of so much upheaval?” But we may be seeing the beginning of it, with people beginning to understand the great differential between the [wealthy] and everybody else. There is no middle class, basically, any more. And understanding that is making people angry, I think.
ML: That’s interesting to note, since it seems like the very first activists, with the National Organization of Women, were interested in economic opportunities first and foremost.
AW: They were. And I do note in the film that NOW wanted in on the pie: equal pay for equal work. That’s a great goal. But we [radicals] wanted a different kind of pie — not that we had it figured out. And I think that women [today] could get pretty angry if they got in touch with how hard their lives were because of not having, say, available childcare. It’s so integral to the whole idea of women having an equal role in the workplace. I know somebody who is working for Google who has a baby. The childcare is right there; she can go down every lunchtime and see her baby. So, of course, she’s willing to work longer, which gives her more opportunity. But most women don’t have access to that kind of childcare. It’s a huge impediment to moving forward. And if the Supreme Court or the Congress limits abortion — not just the 20-week ban, but even access — then that will be a huge thing. I don’t think women would stand for that. And it’s been interesting for me to see the reaction of younger women to this film. They’re very turned on.
ML: I was struck by Nixon’s comment when he vetoed the childcare bill, that we don’t want our women to be like Soviet mothers. The implication was that we don’t want the state to be the primary caregiver. It seems, given all the stuff you read about the importance of attachment and bonding in child rearing, that it’s possible to be sympathetic to that line of reasoning.
AW: I don’t think that’s what the bill was saying at all. Nixon was just hitting an anti-communist nerve. It was about affordability and accessibility. I think women have as much right to choose to stay home and raise their children — which is why I think that doing that should be something that’s paid — as not. But the only way they can choose not to do that is if childcare is available.