This evening on our drive to the airport with our 82-year-old visitor, the writer and feminist activist Alix Kates Shulman, the conversation centered on Apple computers, social media, and Spotify. Self-described as “indefatigable,” Ms. Shulman had had a busy day. After breakfasting with Cleveland friends and breezing through the Cleveland Museum of Art, she introduced the documentary She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (in which she appears) and answered questions afterwards. Twenty years her junior, I would have needed a nap, but Ms. Shulman showed no signs of fatigue. Then her flight back to New York was delayed, a setback she accepted with unruffled good humor.
Ms. Shulman is one of about a dozen second-wave feminists interviewed in the film, exhibited in a film program my husband curates, directed by Mary Dore, which covers the years 1966-1971 of the movement in the U.S. Others include Kate Millett, Ellen Willis, Rita Mae Brown, Eleanor Holms Norton, and Susan Brownmiller. All are lively, funny, and articulate—belying the stereotype of the stodgily intense feminist. They’re vital and passionate and still hopeful.
The film reveals the immense courage of women who stood up, asked questions, wrote books, marched, and sometimes shouted. There were internal divides and occasional missteps, but the consistent message of equal pay for equal work, recognition of sexual harassment and sexual violence, equitable employment opportunities, advocacy for women’s health and for families, has largely taken hold. They imagined change, and then made it happen.
When we got home from the airport, out of nowhere I thought of a 94-year-old friend, a liberated woman in many ways, but a mom and wife who took no active part in the movements of the sixties and seventies. A few times when we’re driving somewhere, she’s made comments about men pushing strollers or carrying a baby in a back-pack. It looks funny, she says. Her husband would never have done such a thing, she says. Her husband—a dear man and a great father, by the way—would have seemed emasculated to his own wife if he made such a small gesture toward sharing childcare as pushing a stroller.
It’s a change in the world wrought by the women’s movement, with the help of open-hearted men. We’re accustomed to seeing men taking care of their kids, at least those of us younger than 90, and though there’s still a lot of work to do, we’re not going back. Women can be senators and CEO’s, and men can be caregivers. The film conveys the message articulated by Andrew O’Hehir in his Salon review: “Whatever mistakes have been made along the path and however the movement has been stereotyped, the essential project of feminism has always been the project of human freedom.”