‘She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry’ Celebrates the History of ‘Our Bodies, Ourselves’

OBOS founders
Founding members of Our Bodies Ourselves in the late 1960s / Photo: Ann Popkin
By Guest Contributor |

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” filmmaker Mary Dore and Our Bodies Ourselves founders discussed the critically acclaimed documentary and OBOS’s place in the women’s movement following a recent screening in Boston (video is available). OBOS founder Norma Swenson later wrote this reflection; read more reactions in the comments.

by Norma Swenson

As we approach International Women’s Day, viewing “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” Mary Dore’s remarkable, unique film on the women’s movement, feels perfectly timely. We are encouraged to remember our roots on IWD, and this film opens it all up, especially little-known parts from the recent past.

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I was thrilled to see “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” at the Coolidge Theatre with the filmmaker and founders of Our Bodies Ourselves. I’ve always had a special interest in documentaries and use them to teach students and to inspire audiences to action. Because so much of the footage was scarcely ever seen before, “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” stands as a work of scholarship about the beginnings of second-wave feminism and social history. The scenes and interviews are exhilarating; there is simply nothing else like it.

Women and Their Bodies cover (1970)

Women and Their Bodies cover (1970); later renamed “Our Bodies, Ourselves”

This is the first film about second-wave feminism to illustrate clearly the distinctions between what became the global women’s health movement and how, as a movement, we were somewhat distinct from what most would call mainstream feminism — closer to roots in women’s liberation. No other documentary thus far has done that.

It explains the place of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” in providing a feminist guide to women’s health and medical care, while providing a bibliography and lexicon for who was organizing and how to organize for local and national change.

Just as it is almost impossible to explain what life was like before television, it is also difficult to realize now that the most important work done in the early, radical days of the women’s movement was done before computers or the internet. There were no websites, no Skype. We paid a lot for long-distance phone calls, and overseas we could only trust crude, thermal-paper faxes.

All the organizing and labor was given freely, with few paid expenses — though being paid, and paid equally, was on the list of Second Wave demands.

The connectivity of modern communication and social media was still a ways off. All we saw at the time was what commercial media chose to show the American public. This film reveals what we did not clearly see while it was happening: a vast landscape of historic change in human consciousness. Most who lived it are still among the living.

My mother was 8 years old when women won the right to vote and electricity came to the immigrant farming community where she was born. By the time I was a mother, she was president of a women’s rights organization. One of the high points of “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” is the tribute paid and the link made to that first wave, which started with such a sweeping agenda and ended after not quite a century with the single, narrow goal of giving women the right to vote.

First-wave feminists also smiled when they marched, as we see in Mary Dore’s film, but we know they were also very angry and endured extreme violence. Whenever I see the White House fence on TV, I imagine Alice Paul’s ghost still chained to it, as I learned from the film “Iron-Jawed Angels.” My mother had been dead for more than a decade before I realized she had been quoting Paul when she said during a speech, “Deeds, not Words!”

On the back of an early edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” is a picture of a smiling Florence Luscomb, suffragist and MIT grad, standing next to a “Feminism Lives” banner. It was taken a few years before her death. Many of us feel linked to those activists, in one way or another.

I remember marching down Huntington Avenue going west, starting from the Boston Public Library, holding one side of the Our Bodies Ourselves banner, realizing I was not warmly enough dressed for the stiff breeze. I cannot say now when, or what for, we were marching. I carried the OBOS banner again for the 2004 March for Women’s Lives in Washington, D.C., with my new partner holding the other side.

In Brazil’s São Luís do Maranhão, I marched with local women past a police station, because a woman had been raped by one of the officers who then accused her of lying. We carried defiant, hand-made signs tied to sticks. I will never forget the heart-stopping drums of the tribal groups that greeted us marching into the opening ceremonies at the Nairobi Conference at the close of the UN Decade of Women in 1985, or the Indigenous People’s Aztec drummers welcoming attendees in 1983, at the first UN Human Rights Conference since 1948.

“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” shows us the new generation of emerging young women protesters, with different styles and voices. They have figured out that upcoming generations have to keep fighting if they want the rights and gains won in the past to be alive and robust for them when they need them.

It’s all in the film. Let’s hope it will be seen, everywhere.

Norma Swenson, a founding member of Our Bodies Ourselves, has worked with colleagues throughout the United States and globally to help define and create the field known as women and health. Read her full bio.

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“She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” Articles & Reviews

As Dore shows us protests, street theater and consciousness-raising meetings, the effect is to be thoroughly transported back to a heady time when “the personal is political” was a revelatory statement rather than a bumper-sticker slogan. This is another success of the film: It makes clear how new and tenuous this all was.Rebecca Jacobson, Willamette Week

The timing couldn’t be better for “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry,” a celebratory but clear-eyed documentary history of the 1970s women’s movement. Ty Burr, Boston Globe

There was an energy to the activism. It’s that era’s passion and sense of purpose that [Mary Dore] has sought to reclaim in her new film …Loren King, Boston Globe

While there have been dozens, if not hundreds of books that cover similar terrain, few films have been so encompassing or ambitious. – Erin Trahan, WBUR

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4 Comments

  1. Vilunya Diskin says:

    I loved watching the film. It brought back those vibrant years of activism. I remember how empowered we felt doing this work: collecting data together, sharing our experiences around our kitchen tables, integrating the data and our experiences, and feeling bathed in the supportive recognition of our shared lives.

    I felt again that excitement of stepping out of our comfort zones and reaching into the unknown. We helped build this movement that opened so many new conversations about what it meant to be a woman in the 20th century. Made me feel proud. – Vilunya Diskin (OBOS founder)

  2. Joan Ditzion says:

    I’m so grateful that Mary Dore made this movie which beautifully captures the culturally transforming, decentralized, social justice, grassroots WL movement that we were part of.

    It also captures the spirit, intelligence, creative energy and activism that was unleashed in us as second-wave feminists. It’s a period of history that hasn’t been well documented. So many younger women and men don’t know about it and take for granted the real progress that was made.

    As a founder of OBOS, I have grown up in this era and want the wisdom we have accumulated, our OBOS legacy and the vitality of feminist values to be preserved. I hope this movie is shown in communities throughout the country and stimulates intergenerational conversations in thinking about what are the important issues today as we continue to work together for a just, egalitarian society and address the unfinished issues of the women’s movement. – Joan Ditzion (OBOS founder)

  3. I was born in 1972, and my mother gave me “Our Bodies, Ourselves” in the 80’s. It demystified so much! I bought it again in my early twenties and got as much out of it as I had five years earlier. I just ordered the 2011 edition from Amazon and I’m curious about how it will read as a 43 year old. I saw an “Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause” – guess that’s next.

    I just looked for “She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry” on Netflix and didn’t see it there. What gives?