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By 1970, she was the chapter president. That August, Betty Friedan, the national president, organized a women's strike to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 26th Amendment, which had given women the right to vote. In the days before the August 26 strike, the membership of the Chicago NOW chapter doubled. On the day of the strike, 15,000 women filled Daley Plaza.
Recently, filmmaker Mary Dore interviewed Collins for her documentary about the women's movement in the late 60s and 70s, She's Beautiful When She's Angry. "Mary Jean asked me, 'Why don't young people come to me to learn about organizing?'" Dore recalls. "I think it's because no one knows."
Dore hopes that when She's Beautiful When She's Angry opens at the Music Box tomorrow, Chicagoans will know who Mary Jean Collins is. Collins and three of her fellow activists, Judith Arcana, Heather Booth, and Vivian Rothstein, will join Dore and producer Elizabeth Dreihaus for a Q&A after Friday night's screening.
Last week, I got to talk with Arcana, Booth, Collins, and Rothstein in a conference call. (Dore was supposed join us, but she was stuck on a train; we talked separately the next day.) I thought I'd mostly gotten over my feeling that I'd missed out on everything good by not being around for the late 60s and early 70s, but watching a screener of the film brought all my envy back. Dore juxtaposes archival footage with talking-head interviews, and what's especially striking is how alive and joyful the women looked back then.
"It gave us such a sense of joy, love, excitement, and energy being in the movement and finding each other," confirmed Booth, who was the founder of the Jane abortion collective and one of the cofounders of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union. Collins, Arcana, and Rothstein made noises of agreement.
One of the gratifying things about She's Beautiful When She's Angry is that Dore skims over or completely ignores the more famous and frequently told stories about the movement, like NOW and Ms. magazine and the ERA, and concentrates on women who were not necessarily straight or white or middle-class and who did not live in New York or Berkeley. "Activism is everywhere," Dore explains. Which is true, but it's easier for the national media to cover it when it happens in New York. Anyway, the Chicago women felt that the movement here had its own special flavor.
"We were practical," added Arcana, who worked for the Jane Collective and taught in the Women's Liberation School. "We would ask, 'What do we need?' And then we would do it."
"We had Womankind, a newspaper," said Rothstein. "We had a speakers bureau. We had the Liberation School where we taught auto mechanics, the history of the family, karate. We had a rape crisis line. We had Jane. We had the Chicago Women's Graphics Collective. We had the Women's Liberation Rock Band. We had a whole city within a city of women's institutions."
Of all the CWLU's activities—or any of the activities mentioned in She's Beautiful When She's Angry, for that matter—Jane was the most badass. Booth founded it in 1969 when she was a student at the University of Chicago. “A friend mentioned his sister was pregnant, nearly suicidal, and needed an abortion, so I helped find her a doctor," she recalls in the film. "A few weeks later, someone else called . . . the word had spread. I was living in a dormitory, so I told people to call and ask for Jane. In those days, three people discussing an abortion was a conspiracy to commit a felony murder.”
Many of the women in both the Chicago group and in the film in general came to the women's movement through their work in civil rights and student groups. In 1965, Arcana attended a national SDS meeting in Champaign-Urbana. "There was one discussion about the woman question. There were 200 people there, and every time a woman would say what she thought, a man would say, 'That's not true.' Two of the people from the group—they were from SNCC—said if women were going to get it together, they would have to go off by themselves. An hour later, I decided they were right. I came back to Chicago and set up a women's discussion group on campus."
(Booth's story was similar, except the men at a meeting at U. of C. told the women, "Awww, shaddup!")
"Women are a powerful constituency," said Rothstein. "We're uniquely able to organize and engage. There's a huge opportunity for social change. But women's organizations are thought of as 'less than.'"
That was something Dore discovered when she first started applying for grants to fund the documentary. She started before her twin children were born. They are now 21.
"There are literally hundreds of documentaries about civil rights and gay rights," she says, "but this history has been neglected. It's not held in the same level of respect. When I applied, at first I got nothing but 'no's, even from liberal foundations. They said it was done, passe. The stereotyping and slandering of the women's movement was effective. They didn't think [a documentary] was needed. But it's really important. It was the biggest social movement of the 60s. It impacted half the population."
The women's interests were far-ranging, and the film shows many different battles: campaigns for equal pay for equal work, demonstrations for gay rights, protests outside the Miss America pageant, and a catcalling campaign on Wall Street after an article appeared in the New York Times about how commuters liked to grope one particularly well-endowed woman on her way to work. Women did poetry readings and created feminist comic books and established their own presses (one of which was called Shameless Hussy). The Chicago activists in particular fought for better jobs for women.
"We were so undervalued in the workplace," said Collins. "We were underemployed. We spent half our time doing work for the movement."
"We had all this talent," Rothstein agreed, "and no place to go."
"So we took all that energy and talent and intellect and spirit," Arcana continued, "and made our own channels."
One of the biggest issues in She's Beautiful When She's Angry is the fight for better child care. It affected women of all races and classes and brought them together: in Chicago, Booth said, the Action Committee for Decent Childcare was evenly divided between black and white women. In 1972, President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Bill, which would have provided a national day care system. That, the film argues, and not the ERA was the biggest defeat in the women's movement of that period.
Still, you kind of have to wonder how something like that could have put a stop to all that energy and talent and intellect and spirit. Of course NOW still goes on, and Collins is still involved, and Arcana, Booth, and Rothstein have continued to work as activists, but the CWLU broke up in 1976. There was nothing like it when I was growing up in the 80s. Instead there was a sense that all the 60s activism had been silly, especially "women's lib." Anyway, I could play real sports at school and I could go to college and get a job, and what did I want, to have to share public bathrooms with men? Because that's what the ERA meant, didn't it? I was just as angry as women in the 50s and early 60s, I thought, but I had no outlet for my anger except for reading library books and listening to Courtney Love, who I didn't really like anyway. I blamed that on growing up in the suburbs, but when I got to college, ready to join the women's group on campus, there was almost no movement to speak of, just the annual Take Back the Night march. I could barely contain my disappointment. What the hell had happened?
The women from the film had different theories.
"Politics is one of the reasons we made as much progress as we did," said Collins. "We had a healthy economy. Then the right wing took over."
"Because there was so much success from that tremendous energy," offered Arcana, "people said, 'We're all done now, it's all OK. When the Hyde Amendment [which prohibits the use of federal funds for abortions] passed [in 1976], no one really knew. It was all, 'But we have Roe versus Wade.'"
"We made tremendous progress," said Booth. "And now there's all this pushback on women's health and on abortion. [Young people] take it for granted that all these things exist. It's part of the work women did."
The world has also changed. A lot of organizing happens over the Internet now instead of in face-to-face meetings.
"People are not necessarily organizers and they're not necessarily overtly political and they're behaving differently than we might have," said Arcana. "They're not marching in the streets, but they're out there and they're just as pissed off."
"We changed the world and institutions," said Booth, "and we changed ourselves, we in the movement and what we passed on. We learned greater confidence and greater boldness. We still have a far way to go, but there's a greater belief that we'll still be in this together."
"We have our history," said Arcana. "And now we have this movie."