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She's Beautiful When She's Angry: Lessons

02/18/2015 11:57 am ET | Updated Apr 20, 2015

She's Beautiful When She's Angry gives us a passionate, vibrant summary of the Women's Movement from 1966 to 1971. The movie brims with the vitality of the late '60s and early '70s. The energy and color of the film makes us long for those halcyon days when our universe was being discovered. All things seemed possible when rights were being fought for and asserted -- not fallen back on to defend.

The film follows the awakenings and re-awakenings of women to the issues that blocked their full participation in the promise of American society. As Baby Boomers came of age, they bridled against social and economic norms. Activist historian Ruth Rosen laments, "We knew nothing about women."

But their eyes were quickly opened to the issues around them. What was referred to as Second Wave Feminism was born, seeing as nineteenth century and early twentieth century women's struggles to gain the vote came to be known as First Wave Feminism.

As women went to school, they crashed into gender discrimination and sexual harassment. They were restricted entrance to universities. When they gained admission, they were tracked to certain fields. Everywhere they encountered different versions of sexual harassment. As one professor told his female graduate student, "Either you fuck me or I'll fuck you!"

As they dated and started families, women's access to family planning, birth control and abortions was restricted. Their career options were limited. Young women were expected to set up households and raise families rather than pursuing professions. They were the unfulfilled junior partners at work and at home, valued for their appearance rather than their intelligence and abilities.

The women rebelled. They stopped blaming themselves and took action. As Susan Brownmiller proclaimed: "Change happens because radicals force it! Regular people -- not the Supreme Court -- give us rights." Seizing on the social change momentum of the '60s, women broke with old rules and old roles.

When men defined beauty with their Miss America Pagents, women redefined it, announcing that "All women are beautiful." They burned their bras and donned witch and fury costumes. In anger and creativity, women took to street demonstrations, even to Wall Street to confront men, mocking their patriarchal behaviors and values.

Many of the leading activists, like Jo Freeman and Fran Beal, came out of the Civil Rights Movement. They set up the National Organization for Women (NOW) as a civil rights organization for women. Heather Booth was told to shut up and sit down when she tried bringing up feminist issues to her SDS colleagues. Fran Beal shares her nervousness bringing up issues to Black Liberation Movement meetings.

With mixed reception, women forged ahead. In 1968 the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) set up a Black Women's Liberation Committee. NOW Chapters spread from New York, Chicago and Boston across the country. Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique set out the problems and a path forward. Kate Millet's Sexual Politics redefined the very elements of struggle.

The film provides a comprehensive and wildly entertaining summary of all major aspects of the new Women's Movement. Director Mary Dore (The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War) skillfully weaves together the actions, actors and aspects of Second Wave Feminism: political struggles, the fight for economic equality, lesbian activism, issues of race, battles over health and reproductive rights, re-shaping the family and workplace. Dore lets the women talk for themselves through archival film footage ranging from Rita Mae Brown's humorous outrage to Eleanor Holmes Norton's more measured reflections.

Opponents of feminism rising do not fare quite as well in front of Dore's camera. FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover orders his agents to do surveillance against women's organizations. Former President Richard Nixon vetoes the Comprehensive Childcare Bill proclaiming, "We don't want our women to be like Soviet Women!" On the street interviews with random men sound all too much like the voices of today's Tea Party.

But the spirit of women in rebellion drowns out the voices of reaction. Footage of women and men marching in demonstrations chant: "This is what a feminist looks like." You are not allowed to retire from women's issues, we are told. As the film so ably shows us, it's not just that she's beautiful when she's angry... it's that she's beautiful when she's out in the streets, fighting for her rights, struggling to make the world a better place.