Let's Go Full Crocodile, LadiesRebecca Traister
For only five nights in the fall of 1973, a documentary called “Year of the Woman” played at the Fifth Avenue Cinema in Greenwich Village. Crowds lined up around the block. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., described it as “the greatest combination of sex and politics ever seen in a film.” And then “Year of the Woman” all but vanished for 42 years, robbing us of a movie that captures–in its raucous, weird, unmistakably ’70s style–one of the most pivotal moments in feminist history.
The setting is the Democratic convention in Miami Beach. The time is July 1972. New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm has just completed a groundbreaking campaign for the presidency (“I ran because someone had to do it first,” she would later write), and the National Women’s Political Caucus, founded by icons including Betty Friedan, Dorothy Height and Gloria Steinem, is trying to leverage women’s power at a political convention for the first time. The feminist activists want Democratic candidate George McGovern to make the legalization of abortion a part of his platform. And it all goes terribly wrong. McGovern’s campaign instructs his delegates not to support the abortion plank and allows an anti-abortion activist to speak from the floor. The betrayal feels so deep that Steinem eventually tells Nora Ephron, through tears, “They won’t take us seriously. … I’m just tired of being screwed, and being screwed by my friends.”
As a journalist who covers women in politics, I’ve read the intense written accounts of what went down in Miami–including Germaine Greer’s, Steinem’s and Ephron’s (which we’re republishing here). But I’ve had to imagine what it felt and sounded like: the convergence of powerful women, the late nights, the arguing, the swearing, the marching, the drum circles. It never occurred to me that I would ever see it, that I could ever see it, since one of the enraging challenges feminists encountered in Miami was that the men holding the news cameras refused to accord them the respect of recording their project.
But it turns out there was a crew of women holding cameras the whole time. They were making “Year of the Woman.”
Purchased by a fan in the early ’70s, the film has only been shown a handful of times. After a 2004 screening at the Sarasota Film Festival, The Washington Post called it “too radical, too weird and too far ahead of its time for any distributor to touch.” It has often been referred to in the media as a “lost” film. But it wasn’t lost. All you had to do was phone up Sandra Hochman, the director, and ask if you could see it, which The Huffington Post’s Jason Cherkis did a few months ago.
Now, “Year of the Woman” is being widely distributed for the first time. And watching Hochman’s movie is like opening a door to Oz and seeing a black-and-white narrative erupt in trippy color.
There are the distinct voices and faces of Friedan and Florynce Kennedy and Bella Abzug, the funny, brassy congresswoman from New York on whom Hochman’s camera often lingers. There’s Chisholm, resplendent in a big-flowered dress that transports us back to The Time Before Pantsuits. There are glimpses of Coretta Scott King and Shirley MacLaine. And there are slick male provocateurs: Norman Mailer, here appearing as feminism’s most implausible friend, and the purring Warren Beatty, all soft-lips and pheromones, a liberal actor and activist who appears mostly confused by a filmmaker whose priorities don’t seem to include having sex with him.
Hochman, a well-regarded poet and fixture of Manhattan society then in her mid-30s, had never made a movie before. But she was sent to Miami with $15,000 by Porter Bibb, a producer who had worked on the Rolling Stones documentary “Gimme Shelter.” Her all-female crew, fresh out of school, is glorious in retrospect. It included Barbara Kopple, who would go on to win an Oscar for “Harlan County, USA”; Claudia Weill, the future director of “Girlfriends” and episodic TV including “Thirtysomething,” “My So-Called Life” and “Girls”; and Martha Coolidge, who would later direct “Valley Girl,” “Rambling Rose” and “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge” and serve as head of the Directors Guild of America.
Together, these talented, ambitious young women–louche in their critique of sexual objectification and unembarrassed by the use of poetry and costume as modes of political protest–capture the energies and irritations that powered the revolutionary women’s movement. They also provide us an extraordinary lens through which to examine the election we’re about to kick off in earnest, the one in which women aren’t simply seeking leverage from male candidates, but in which a woman may well be the candidate.
So what does “Year of the Woman” teach us? Well, that Bella Abzug was a boss–laughing and smoking and yelling from the podium–and that white feminists (and in fairness, black feminists) spoke way too easily of the “niggerization” of women back in 1972. But mostly, the film reminds us of the absolute ferocity–and good humor–that women used to kick and bite their way into our political system.
The Democratic men in this picture are practically affable in their disregard for women’s equality. Counterculture hero Jerry Rubin tells Hochman, with great exuberance, how great a McGovern presidency will be for “women, gay people … crazies!” Meanwhile, Charles Evers, the older brother of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the mayor of Fayette, Mississippi, is tragic in his despair over the women who “want to become men” and drive trucks and otherwise cease to provide the full-time nurturing men require.
The movie’s through-line is a series of conversations between Hochman and The Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald. Isn’t it a good thing that women insist on being taken seriously at this convention? Hochman asks. It is, he concedes, “but for me it was fun to have all the hurdy-gurdy. … The streets were full of young girls dancing, pretty girls in their skirts and saddle shoes and waving pom-poms–you kind of miss a little of it.” Unlike many of the men in the film, Buchwald appears to understand that his time is passing, and that–in the big picture–it might just be for the best.
The guys who come off worse are the ones less willing to acknowledge that there’s a revolution happening at all. Hochman asks Fred Dutton, the Democratic power broker who had served both John and Robert Kennedy and who was then working for McGovern, whether any women are writing position papers for the candidate. “Yes,” replies Dutton. “They tend to so far work mostly in the child care centers and things like that.”
And then there’s Gary Hart, George McGovern’s dashing campaign manager. Two years away from his first Senate campaign and a decade in advance of his first presidential race, he stands in for the future of the Democratic Party. So when Hochman asks him whether McGovern would consider a woman–for instance, New York Rep. Shirley Chisholm–as his running mate and Hart replies that there is “no satisfactory woman candidate” available, it’s like a slap. What did he mean by “satisfactory?” Hochman follows up. “Well, one who is qualified to be president of the United States.”
The exchange with Hart is evidence of just how low the stakes were when it came to women in politics. Here is a guy still beloved by many contemporary progressives, who might’ve been president deep into the ‘90s had his 1988 presidential campaign not been derailed by a sex scandal, but who didn’t feel compelled to offer even a polite nod to Chisholm, the first black woman ever elected to Congress. By 1972, Chisholm had already started working with Republican Sen. Bob Dole to create the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program and to expand food stamp benefits to the poor; she had also partnered with Abzug on a bill that would federally subsidize child care. And yet Hart didn’t have to muster a respectful word about her or the historic race she’d just run because it didn’t matter. Who was going to get mad at him? No one important. Just women.
Reached by email about his remarks, Hart, currently the U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland, explained that he was traveling and unable to speak at length, but that it’s “sufficient to say my views in the half century since have advanced 180 degrees, as my public record shows.” And it’s true. It was a long time ago. As current progressive hero Bernie Sanders now says of an essay he wrote in 1972, in which he claimed that all women fantasize about being raped by three men: “It was … written in a way I certainly would not write it now.”
But the past isn’t really so ancient, nor is it inapplicable to our present political moment. In 2015, there remain plenty of self-styled progressive men who harbor (often unconscious) resentments toward women in politics. They roll their eyes at “single issue” priorities and make it clear that there are far more important things at stake in elections than the lack of female representation on state, local and federal levels. Their influence might explain why a recent poll out of Iowa shows 59 percent of Democratic women supporting Hillary Clinton compared to 39 percent of Democratic men. Those of us familiar with these men joke about them and create funny names to de-fang them: They are the brogressives, the lib-bros, members of the Demofratic Party. But they’re no funnier than their forerunners; they are, I fear, somewhat scarier in their lack of self-awareness.
And then there is the frightening similarity between the issues then and now. Food stamps are in peril. Affordable child care remains a fantasy (but at least we’re talking about it again.) The “abortion issue,” decided by the Supreme Court the year after this convention, is also fundamental to the anxiety currently felt by Democrats. If a Republican wins in 2016, it will not simply mean that a woman has lost. It will mean that many women will lose: The Court will become fixed in its conservatism; Roe will likely be overturned; contraceptive access will diminish; voting rights will be further curtailed. And that’s where “Year of the Woman” comes in: It reminds us how aggressively women once fought to get what’s theirs.
There is no question that the style of feminist protest depicted in “The Year of the Woman” dates the movie. In its crucial scene, protesters led by Hochman and Kennedy storm a knot of male newscasters, including Dan Rather and Mike Wallace, and angrily question them about their failure to cover the abortion debate or feature Chisholm on their broadcasts. The men just sit there, silent, placid, some of them laughing. The women get madder. “We are people that have been left out,” Hochman shouts. One man holding a camera tells her to shut up.
Suddenly, some of the women, including Hochman, don crocodile and Mickey Mouse masks. “We are not freaks,” they chant from inside their papier-mache heads. “We are dignified human beings. We are not freaks.”
In the scene preceding the confrontation with the newsmen, Hochman invites a stripper named Liz Renay to accompany her onto the convention floor in a golden rhinestone dress. Her arrival practically brings the convention to a halt. Men are all over Renay with cameras; one reporter asks her measurements. 1
So while it may be fair to wonder if the protesters’ medium (silly masks) might not be undermining their message (“We are dignified human beings”), it’s also hard not to wonder how else they are supposed to behave when a media slavers over them as strippers but won’t cover them as presidential candidates. What else can they do, but go full crocodile?
“I naturally don’t want to be here wearing a Mickey Mouse mask,” Hochman says. “But people don’t take women seriously; they make them into freaks. So I say, as a poet, be a freak.”
Be a freak, and express your fury without apology or nicety. As the women shout at the broadcasters, some men approach them, urging them to back off. One of them makes the mistake of crossing the brilliant, hilarious, incandescent Flo Kennedy. “What the hell are you taking your equipment off for,” she bellows. “Get your fucking hands off of me, goddamn it, don’t touch me, motherfucker.” Then later as the scene grows more chaotic, Kennedy can be heard in the background: “You stop laying your hands on women; the next son of a bitch that touches a woman is gonna get kicked in the balls.”
And oh, it feels so good to hear this, especially in today’s revivified but anodyne climate of feminist discourse. Technology has permitted many more women, including many more diverse women, into the fight, strengthening the movement. But contemporary mores mean that they must say the right words; they must follow well-intentioned but suffocating scripts; they must tread carefully lest they inflict damage with their speech. Good god is it liberating to watch a bunch of loud-mouthed broads who do not give a rat’s ass about violating safe spaces without trigger warnings.
“Move on over or we’ll move on over you” goes the women’s take on the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” led by Kennedy, and the aggressive fury of the tune feels like a balm: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the flame of women’s rage.”
Today, logic tells us, the stakes are too high for that kind of rage. The antics that were useful then would only work against us now, making us look and sound like outsiders again, when we’re so near the inside.
Except that we’re not actually inside. Clinton is far from inevitable, Congress is 19 percent female and there’s only ever been one black woman in the Senate. The political paths of women in the Democratic and Republican parties remain littered with high bars and double standards, veiled insults, obvious insults, 2 offhand references to beauty 3 and heightened fundraising challenges. The mere act of being a woman running for office draws derisive comments, as it did earlier this month when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell complained about Clinton playing “the gender card.”
It’s enough to make you wish that McConnell would bump into some angry crocodiles threatening to kick him in the balls at his party’s convention. You want to see a gender card, buddy? We can play a gender card.
Because no matter how cool we play it, powerful and paternalistic men–sometimes even progressive ones–are still going to accuse us of making a scene. In denying our rage and ceding our rights and reasons to put on a furious display, we’re supporting the myth that three centuries of gendered and racial discrimination are over, that things are pretty much even now.
Maybe this “lost” film can encourage women to shake off their courteous husks and get real about their frustrations. Recall that back in 2008, some of Clinton’s most indelible moments came in New Hampshire, after the media had piled on her and it looked like she had nothing left to lose. Then and only then did she allow cracks in her amiable exterior to show: She told the Iron My Shirt guys that they represented “the remnants of sexism, alive and well”; she snapped at her patronizing MSNBC adversary Chris Matthews, calling him “obsessed” with her; and then, of course, she got a little verklempt. That incident was widely read as Clinton showing her soft side, but I always saw in it something else: tears as one of the only acceptable expressions of anger available to women who have been taught since birth to bottle up their fury and frustration. Why else would Steinem have cried to Ephron on the street in Miami? Whatever it was, it worked. Clinton won New Hampshire in a surprise upset, with women putting her over the top.
Clinton should remember the impact her frustration had, especially when one of her minders inevitably tells her to button up and play nice. Because if women are really going to clear the next big hurdle, to make it into the White House in a non-wifely capacity and into the Senate and House and state legislatures in numbers that are no longer embarrassingly small, we have to get a little more reptilian in our antics, a bit more ball-busting in our anger, to fan the flames of women’s rage with less polite apology.
Hey, as this film reminds us: A girl can dream.
In recent years, Sandra Hochman has grown interested in empowering young people. Her book for children, "King Timmy the Great," written with Tad Danielak, can be purchased from Dataworks at 212-967-5500.