Is the documentary F:WWTT? relevant to feminism today?
A comparison between feminism of the 1970s and feminism of today, via a cultural analysis
In 2018, a documentary called Feminists: What Were Whey Thinking? (available on YouTube and Netflix) surfaced in the wake of the #MeToo movement with a purpose to reflect back on how the feminism of the 1970s laid the foundation for the feminism of the present day. The narrative for Feminists: What Were They Thinking? is grounded in Cynthia MacAdams’s photography book Emergence (1977) which depicts powerful portraits of women who were influential in the women’s movement during the 1970s. Women including Phyllis Chesler, Judy Chicago, Funmilola Fagbamila, Meredith Monk, Wendy J.N. Lee, Margaret Prescod, Gloria Steinem and Cheryl Swannack, amongst others, are portrayed in timeless black and white photographs in a variety of situations. The photographs range from nudes and portrayals of women tired at work, to shots of the experience of motherhood. Sometimes the images are heavily stylised, artistic shots and more often than not the subjects are staring directly at the camera. MacAdams wanted to see if “women looked different because of feminism” and to explore whether she could capture this essence of their awakening on camera. Her aim was to provide an artistic representation for women that did not rely on masculine approval or attention, but allowed women to shed their cultural restrictions and take their space in the world, which was seminal for the time.
The 1960–1980s brought about huge change for the Western women’s movement. Often attributed to the publishing of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (1963) which catalysed the debate of gender equality and discrimination, predominantly in the workplace and family home, women began to openly challenge the traditional views that they should find solace and identity in running a family home. As highlighted in the documentary, prior to the 1960s certain traditionally feminine ideals, including ways of dressing, working, walking and talking, had been championed in society. However, as Cynthia MacAdams discusses in the documentary, walking around the re-exhibition of Emergence at the Steven Kasher Gallery, New York, in 2010, the 1970s is the time when “...women took responsibility for themselves.”
At the same time that these women were being photographed, the women’s movement in the US won some major legislative and political victories including The Equal Pay Act of 1963, which theoretically outlawed the gender pay gap, plus a series of landmark Supreme Court cases through the 1960s and 1970s that gave certain married and unmarried women the right to use birth control. Women were allowed to hold credit cards under their own names and apply for mortgages, and marital rape and sexual harassment in the workplace was outlawed. However, a major flaw of the feminist movement at that time was that it was predominantly run by white middle-class women, and only worked to serve their purpose. As a result, the issues of race, transgender rights, class, religion and nationality were overlooked. For instance, while both black women and white women advocated for reproductive freedom, black women also organised to stop the forced sterilisation of people of colour and people with disabilities. This was not a priority for the mainstream women’s movement, despite an estimated 60,000 sterilisations occurring across 32 states in the twentieth century.
One thing that really struck me when watching Feminists: What Were They Thinking? was a banner that said “I can’t believe we are still protesting for this shit” which had also been a frequent slogan for the most recent Black Lives Matter marches in 2020. While forced sterilisation in the US was theoretically outlawed in 1981, the lives of people of colour are still under threat. A black person is 3 times more likely to be killed in a police encounter than a white person in the US, and in the UK, a person of colour is 9 times more likely to be stopped and searched than a white person. So we can still see how racist discrimination has prevailed, despite social and cultural shifts for women and other groups. Since the 2010s, it has been said that we are in a fourth wave of feminism, which aims to hold intersectional awareness at its forefront, encouraging society to consider people not just for their gender but to also understand the racial, ethnic, gender, religious and international factors of women’s lives. In Feminists: What Were They Thinking? the banner was being flown at the 2017 anti-Trump rally in New York. In an interview with a mother and daughter at the protest, the mother speaks of her anguish and shame at having to still protest for women’s rights, just as she did in 1993 with her own mother and, as the documentary highlights through women’s stories, as many other women also did in previous decades. What unfortunately lacks in this moment, and perhaps in the documentary as a whole, is more depth on the racial discrimination that has been continuously overlooked by the women’s movement in previous years. Many feminists still aren’t addressing intersectionality as they say they are.
So, why are we still protesting for this shit? It certainly feels like, in recent years, campaigning for equal rights has taken a different path. With #MeToo, BLM, the anti-Trump protests and the website Everyone’s Invited, now more than ever we are seeing the extent of daily sexual abuse and misogyny that is often overlooked. Just a quick look on the website Everyone’s Invited will give you a good insight into just how frequent sexual misconduct, even of minors, is in society today. One of the stark differences between feminism of the 1970s and today is the use of the internet to create spaces of empowerment for women and girls. Women in the 1970s didn’t have the internet at their arsenal, but they did have art.
Emergence is arguably still relevant today because it serves as a reminder of just how far feminism has come. Resurfacing the book Emergence via a documentary gives the book, the artist and her subjects, a new platform that enables them all to provide context and meaning to their portraits in the 1970s. Another notable artwork that is referenced throughout the documentary is Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), which features a huge triangular table that plays host to a banquet of thirty-nine porcelain vulvas dedicated to women such as Virginia Woolf, Artemisia Gentileschi and Boadicea, with a further 999 other women’s names inscribed in gold along the outline of the table. Public reaction was polarising, with the work being described in the US Senate as “garbage”, “weird” and “pornographic”. Despite this, it was deemed as a public success, as evidenced by its tour which moved between 16 venues in six countries reaching a viewing audience of 15 million. The result was that Chicago’s work literally took up more space in the traditionally male-dominated art world. If we were to compare Cynthia MacAdams’ book Emergence and Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, with the website Everyone’s Invited, the most stark contrast is the use of identity. On one hand, Emergence almost appears to be a modern day Spartacus. Cynthia MacAdams deliberately created a space where women could stand up and be counted. Pictures of both strong and vulnerable women, who presented themselves as themselves, with their purpose devoid of the male gaze, had never been exhibited in such a way before. As Kate Millett, former partner of MacAdams put it: “They’re a new kind of woman … You haven’t seen them before. Neither have I. At least not in pictures. A new breed of us just coming into being, never recorded until now, never noticed, given a name, allied into a continuity … the lot of them. They with the new thing in their eyes. Looking back at you. And beyond. Because they’re the future.” Similarly, according to Celine Kuklowsky, she was often told by her mother “les femmes ont le pouvoir” (“women have the power”). Although she had a very feminist discourse, Kuklowsky’s mother was limited in power by social constructs of the time and was unable to release herself from the shackles of conservative French society. This goes to show that there was a thirst for the status of women in society to develop and many were on the cusp of an awakening, however, it wasn’t until the 1960s that discourse turned into popular organising and action.
Figure 1, The Dinner Party (Chicago, 1974-78), Flickr, 2015
What we don’t see, if we were to just look at the book removed from the documentary, is how these women became vulnerable and why they need to reclaim themselves. What we also don’t see in this work is the depiction of ordinary people. The book Emergence is filled with female artists and activists who were progressive for their time. Whilst their images provide something to be admired and set an example to others, we don’t see much representation of women outside of this elite artistic circle. Everyone’s Invited, in contrast, is an anonymous space where people (51,000+ at the time of writing) can share stories of when they have lost their power as individuals following sexual assault, and are now reclaiming it by contributing to a public collective. The other aspect of these stories remaining anonymous is that these stories can no longer be reduced to simply a ‘woman problem’, as so often happened with the feminist art of the 1970s. These stories have come from people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages and sexual identities, which also highlights just how widespread sexual assault culture is, resulting in this space becoming the apex of our human problem.
One other notable limitation of The Dinner Party in comparison to Everyone's Invited is the lacking representation of women of colour. There is only one place setting for a black woman, Sojourner Truth, an abolitionist and suffragist. Everyone’s Invited, on the flip side, has democratised the feminist space by removing identity completely, which allows anyone to contribute, rather than the selective process of Chicago’s work. The anonymous sharing of these intimate experiences also highlights the lack of societal support or resources that should protect these victims and enable them to feel comfortable with publicly speaking out at the time. What we can harness, however, in publishing this loss of power, is the undeniable vulnerability of every individual (which can no longer be swept under the rug) and the need for society to gather collectively and make changes together. This is no longer about just women regaining their power, but about a total re-education of what our human rights are and how we can expect society to support them. Interestingly enough, Feminists: What Were They Thinking? closes with a quote from Hillary Clinton at a conference in Beijing, 1995: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights. Once and for all.” This goes to show there was an awareness in the 1990s that feminism meant more than just a particular type of women’s rights, and intersectionality was, in theory, desired by feminists. However, there is significant evidence to suggest intersectionality was not truly addressed in the mainstream feminist movement until more recent years.
Figure 2, The Dinner Party (Chicago, 1974-78), Flickr, 2016, close up of Sojourner Truth’s vulva
Another clear theme that runs through the documentary is how feminism as an identity was a taboo back in the 1970s, as it still often is today. Funmilola Fagbamila shares a memory of a time where a Fedex worker was taken aback in fear and disgust that she could openly call herself a feminist, and Judy Chicago recalls that when she was in college, male professors wouldn’t call on her to speak in class and there was no way for her to raise this issue of sexism. She, in turn, was scared of being called a feminist as it was associated with the perceived dowdiness of the suffragettes. Despite it being over four decades since the 1970s and the success of The Dinner Party, Wendy Lee comments that a lot of women talk about wanting to get more “women on screen” but don’t necessarily talk about themselves as feminists. There are many men in the public sphere, including Barack Obama, who have adopted the identity of a feminist, however Lee comments in the documentary that this term is more often than not used to “look cool” without really having an understanding of what the term means. Instead, we are seeing the term “empowerment” being used a lot more. Dr Christina Scharff, Senior Lecturer at King's College London points out on 100 Women: The Taboo of Feminism, feminism is often associated with “men haters'' and the use of the term “empowerment” can actually be detrimental to the women’s cause. “Empowerment” suggests that women themselves can or should do more to be successful in their jobs or get what they want – but this call on women to actively take up space and smash through the glass ceiling doesn’t necessarily also call on men to share their space or review their own actions. The term “empowerment”, therefore, doesn’t do enough to challenge and change the gendered power dynamic that exists.
The documentary Feminists: What Were They Thinking? has a particularly meaningful place in society right now as, in light of the #MeToo movement, BLM and Everyone’s Invited catalysing the conversation of all women’s rights into society again, we have to look back in order to look forward. There are stark limitations to the documentary in terms of answering the intersectional demands of feminism, however, it does serve as a reminder of just how far feminism has come and how much more there is to go. It seems that owning your voice is the pinnacle of contemporary feminism. Whilst Everyone’s Invited has taken the world by storm by anonymising victim’s stories, we cannot forget that the #MeToo movement lived on Twitter and in public protests where many people have chosen to use their public profiles or show up in person. It goes to show that there are people who are comfortable and able to share their stories and identity with the world, however, we cannot assume that being in the public eye is safe or right for everyone. Interestingly enough, the recent move towards compulsory consent and sex education classes in schools could be another cornerstone in shifting conversations around sexual misconduct and misogyny in the public sphere. Whilst this is seen as a positive step by many, this has also met some resistance from some areas of society. Looking back, if feminism has taught us anything, it is that we need to use our voices to be heard, anonymously or not, and there is strength in numbers no matter how you want to share it. Hopefully we won’t be protesting for this shit for too much longer.
N.b - For copyright reasons, we have not been able to include images of Emergence in this article, however, I would urge any readers to have a look at the images available on Google
100 Women: The Taboo of Feminism - BBC Sounds, 2016
Black people more than three times as likely as white people to be killed during a police encounter - Harvard FXB Center, 2020
Explained: Why are women paid less? - Netflix, 2018
Feminists: what were they thinking? - Youtube, February 2016
Sojourner Truth - The Dinner Party, Brooklyn Museum
This is what a feminist looks like - NBC News, June 2016