What Were Feminists Thinking 40 Years Ago? Uh, Same Thing They’re Thinking Today.
We can use a good documentary wherein old-school feminists talk about why “women’s issues” mattered then and matter now.
And whattya know, director Johanna Demetrakas has one all set to materialize Friday on Netflix. It’s called Feminists: What Were They Thinking? — and the answer to that not-rhetorical question is that they were thinking then and are still thinking now about things women deserve and still have not fully attained.
While it obviously doesn’t reference real-life events of the past month, those alone underscore the value of a film like this.
Demetrakas launches Feminists from a famous 1977 book called Emergence in which photographer Cynthia MacAdams shot dozens of women who in her mind represented the feminist essence of that time.
Initially she focused on the well-known likes of Jane Fonda, Kate Millett, Michelle Phillips, Lily Tomlin and other women with connections to various artistic communities. She later expanded the portraits to non-celebrities she might just stop in the street.
A New York gallery mounted an exhibition of these photos to mark the 40th anniversary of the book, and Demetrakas took the opportunity to talk with many of the subjects about what feminism meant to them then and now.
It will surprise no one to repeatedly hear words like “empowerment.” Happily, Feminists takes that sort of notion deeper.
Judy Chicago is one of many subjects who recall that when she was in school, it seemed to be the boys who mattered. Professors in school wouldn’t call on her, she remembers. Another woman heard the classic declaration from a male teacher that she could either become a professor or a mother. There was no option to be both.
Feminism, there is wide agreement here, kicked down that door. It didn’t magically make opportunities available. It just reassured women, and warned some men, that women 1) had a voice and 2) did not have to accept subordinate status.
Celine Kuklowsky reflects, almost with a laugh, how she grew up bombarded with the message that the role of girls was to watch boys do stuff. Then one day she thought, hmmm, why can’t I do stuff too?
Feminists is comprised entirely of interviews, with only an occasional vintage clip and flashes of MacAdams’s book to break them up. This structure works out well, letting the viewer piece together his or her own narration on the wider issues the documentary raises.
Critical among those issues: the effect the feminism of 40 years ago has had on life today, and how the next generation feels about the subject and the movement.
Echoing the sentiments of civil right activists, gay rights activists and others, the feminists here say their movement sparked valuable progress, just not enough of it.
There are still miles to go, Feminists suggests, and while this documentary was filmed before the #metoo movement, it connects the lack of power and respect for women to a culture in which men would feel entitled.
Even then, several subjects admit it’s a lesson more easily spoken than absorbed. “It was only 10 years ago,” Fonda tells Demetrakas, “that I learned ‘No’ is a complete sentence.”
The concept and reality of partial progress bothers the subjects here. What doesn’t bother them is that a new generation pushing for women’s rights often avoids the term “feminist.”
Instead, they speak of more specific goals from under the old feminist umbrella, like equal pay or equal opportunity. The veterans here say that’s fine, that it doesn’t matter what you call the battle as long as you fight it.
That makes complete sense here, because Feminists is striking for its lack of nostalgia. This isn’t old-timer’s day, swapping war stories. It’s much more a discussion of the issues, how to get from where we were to where we need to go.
The reminiscences tend to be personal, with subjects reflecting on where they were in their lives when they posed for MacAdams. Most of the memories are positive, though they are often rooted in hard experience — which in turn probably helps explain why these women were and are so determined to make the experience less hard for those who follow.