As I watched the premiere of Jennifer Lee's excellent new documentary,Feminist: Stories from Women's Liberation at the L.A. Women's International Film Festival, I had an unpleasant déjà vu moment. Once again, I was learning about American women's history, my history, through random happenstance. This had happened to me several years earlier when I discovered, in researching my film A Single Woman, that women and men still do not have equal rights under federal law in the United States.
Lee's film chronicles the women's movement from 1963 to 1970 with a short primer on the social role of American women during the Second World War and through the 1950s. Spoiler alert: it ain't pretty -- American women were seduced by patriotic hyperbole and real need into the workforce and subsequently kicked out of it with not much more than a Bundt cake recipe, a couple of valium and a trip to Bergdorf Goodman in exchange (if you were white and middle class, that is).
The second wave of feminism emerged organically from the civil rights and anti-war movements where women were dismayed to find themselves again on the "shit work" end of the stick, despite the lofty speechifying and happy stoner image of the Hippie revolution. Left without a chair when the music ended, consciousness-raising groups bubbled up across the country providing women, for the first time, with an all-female non-hierarchical environment in which to give voice (and listen) to issues that had heretofore been taboo. That led to debate, strategy, organization, action -- and the rest is a history beautifully laid out in Lee's film.
But what good is history when nobody knows it? When it's generally forgotten despite taking place less than 50 years ago?
Today's American woman seems to be comfortably cocooned in a strange illusion where female empowerment is widely equated with the freedom to dress a certain way (super sexy!) or party a certain way (binge drink!) or be as sexually indiscriminate as the next guy (hook up!). We seem to have bought the sex-as-power fallacy: a handy, shallow bait-and-switch that's as old as it is bogus and completely skirts the real issues of power, and our complete lack of it. Power is when we have seats at the table. All the tables. All the time.
Feminist historical amnesia might be fine if things were great for us now, if the battles had been won and stayed won and egalitarianism were the order of the day. But let's face it: these fights were never won. The brave women highlighted in Lee's film launched opening salvos, but the battle had really only just begun in 1970. Rape, domestic violence, the gender pay gap, the fight over women's bodies/reproduction, lack of childcare, sex discrimination -- it's ALL still going on.
If nowhere in our society do we learn of these women and how their struggles led to our Sheryl Sandbergs and our "Slutwalks" then we are condemned to fall for the same old propaganda: media messages claiming we have arrived and all is well; beauty and sex appeal packaged as purpose; shiny airbrushed objects dangled before us in commercials and the perpetual dissatisfaction of trying to find meaning through pervasive consumerism.
As American women, we find ourselves at the epicenter of the defining civil rights fight of the 21st century. When more than half the U.S. population doesn't have equal rights under the law and three quarters of them don't know it, that's a de facto violation of the majority's civil rights. Global justice and equality for women and girls is not a PC bumper sticker but an absolute necessity for the survival of the planet and the species.
And what good is a Women's History Month if we don't bother teaching women's history? When the American woman's role in our history is not taught in our public schools it belies its' relevance and invalidates the cultural contributions of our entire sex. It robs the next generation of the intellectual capital, will and strength they need to bring us over the goal line.
Remembering and studying the women who broke the barriers before us is not just the right thing to do; we ignore their hard-won lessons at our own peril. For American women, our careless amnesia is plain poison and Lee's film is a healthy portion of the antidote.