Images from The Woman's Film

These shots from the opening sequence juxtapose images of women laboring – sweeping, changing diapers, emptying ashtrays – with mass media images of idealized womanhood.

Across scenes in which women of different classes, races, and activist allegiances collectively analyze their material and political conditions, the mode of production insists on audio-visual equality to make a case about women’s collective oppression. The women featured in the documentary are framed similarly in from the shoulders up as they describe their coming to feminist consciousness.

As the film advances, many of the interviewed women appear as public speakers and leaders at demonstrations and rallies.

Images from Janie's Janie

Janie’s Janie begins on the outside of Janie’s intimate life, following her towards the heart of her story: her domestic life inside the home.

In this symbolic shot, Janie’s image appears as a reflection in the looking glass. At stake in the film is Janie’s ability to recognize herself as an autonomous person and a vital member of her working class community.




The Woman’s Film,
identification and difference

In an interview published in the inaugural issue of Women & Film in 1972, San Francisco Newsreel filmmaker, Judy Smith, describes the film she produced, directed, and edited with Louise Alaimo and Ellen Sorin, The Woman’s Film. Asked about whether the filmmakers prioritized the aesthetic construction or the information at stake in The Woman’s Film, Smith replies,

“…this film came from the people. We when started out to make this film we decided that we weren’t going to write the script, that the ideas would come from those women, that—like what Mao says, from the people to the people” (33).

A New-Left filmmaking and distribution collective, Newsreel was at the center of the political cinema scene in the United States in the late 1960s. Newsreel filmmakers generally claimed an anti-bourgeois notion of cinema, keen on shocking what they understood as bourgeois aesthetic sensibilities.[5] [open endnotes in new window] Films produced by the collective infamously share anti-conventions such as shaky camera work, blurred focus, erratic editing, and a lack of narrative cohesion. The first film made by an all-women crew in the filmmaking collective, The Woman’s Film brings the tension between art and propaganda to the fore in the mind of the interviewer from Women & Film. But Smith’s reply to the question of whether content or form guided the production of the film aims at a slightly different target, one perhaps just left of the art vs. propaganda mark. Smith, instead, explains the philosophy guiding the production of The Woman’s Film. Quoting Mao, she points at once to the inspiration for the film, the reason for its form, and the purpose of its content: from the people, to the people.

Smith thus not only links the film to Marxism through the teachings of Mao; she also conjures the feminist practice of consciousness-raising—the hallmark political program of the women’s liberation movement. A broad range of seventies feminists, including radical feminists, such as the New York Radical Women and Redstockings, held fast to the idea that women needed to completely rethink thinking as a way of getting closer to the truth of women’s oppression. Likewise, The Combahee River Collective, for example, reference the significance of consciousness-raising in their “Statement,” explaining how the process of “talking/testifying” generated new understandings among the women about “the implications of race and class as well as sex.” Rather than understand women’s oppression through theoretical models created by the class of oppressors, feminists sought to access an untainted mode of understanding their roles in society, their relationships to each other, and the multi-layered oppressions that many women faced.[6] Women, in other words, although they comprehended their oppressors and the forms of oppression they faced distinctly, depending on their race, class, ethnicity, and sexuality, wanted a mode of thinking that resonated with the particular experiences of being women in the world. British feminist Sheila Rowbotham stated the case unambiguously in Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World:

“the language of theory—removed language—only expresses a reality experienced by the oppressors. It speaks only for their world, from their point of view. Ultimately a revolutionary movement has to break the hold of the dominant group over theory, it has to structure its own connections” (33).

Rowbotham echoes the sentiments of many women’s liberation activists and thinkers who saw the program of consciousness-raising as a method of analysis and discovery designed to create more relevant and revolutionary modes of thinking. Women who claimed the revolutionary right to practice consciousness-raising also reached back to a lineage that included the Chinese revolutionary slogan “to speak pains to recall pains” and the rhetoric of Guatemalan revolutionaries—hence women’s liberation’s most memorable slogan, “the personal is political.” Consciousness-raising, in other words, signaled the emergence of revolution—the coming together of a newly defined people, in this case women, in an effort to name their oppression, connect through shared experience, and strategize a collective liberation.[7]

One of the earliest feminist documentaries, The Woman’s Film explicitly demonstrates the trajectory of consciousness-raising, which takes the five women featured in the film from personal lament, through shared experience, to political action in organizations dedicated to the eradication of gendered, racial, and class-based oppression. The Woman’s Film reveals the ways that these early films depended on identification and served as audio-visual analogs to the practice of consciousness-raising. The women featured in the film move from describing their problems and narrating shared experiences to taking part in political action. Diverse women are framed similarly from the chest up in traditional talking-head poses as they contrast the lives they expected to live as grown women with the constrained lives they ended up with. Each woman is often isolated from other influences and centered in the frame, commanding the full attention of the spectator. There are no psychologists, social workers, or feminist spokeswomen interpreting the narratives of these poor and working class women. Granted full command of the time and space of the frame, each woman is validated as the expert of her own experience, witness to her own transformation, and evidence for women beyond the frame of a newly possible subject of feminist politics.

Often when I screen this film for my students or my university colleagues, audience members bemoan what they read as unnecessary repetition throughout the film. However, repetition, accumulation, and accretion are key strategies the film deploys throughout to construct a collective awareness and a persuasive argument about the systemic operations of patriarchy and capitalism. The forty-five minute film opens with a series of still and moving images, a staccato montage that juxtaposes photographs of diverse women washing linens, dishes, and floors, with mass media representations of idealized brides and beauty queens. The pop music hit, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” provides the rhythm for the opening montage, which sets forth the contraction at the heart of the women’s liberation movement and explored throughout the film—that is, the clash between received notions of “womanhood” and the real-life experiences of poor and working-class U.S. women. Later in the film another montage adds layers of meaning to the women’s voices, repeating the film’s overall message that collective oppression demands a collective solution. In one telling sequence, a close-up still image of a woman’s head thrown back, mouth howling explodes into a grid that repeats the image column after column, row after row.

Similarly, the film’s accumulated interviews enact equality and justice formally at the same time as a repetitive rhetoric of shared experiences surfaces in the soundscape. Although the women interviewed are racially, ethnically, and economically diverse, they tell remarkably similar stories about disillusionment and entrapment. They struggle to find existential and material fulfillment under severe constraints, limited variably by controlling husbands, demanding children, exploitative bosses, or state bureaucrats. Across scenes in which women of different classes, races, and activist allegiances collectively analyze their material and political conditions, the mode of production insists on audio-visual equality to make a case about women’s collective oppression. In these scenes where women speak both to each other and to the camera, they arrive in aggregation at the realization that their/your oppression is systematic rather than individual. “The only way things are going to be livable is for a complete change over to be made,” explains one young mother. “Change has to come through changing minds,” concurs another. Women’s voices echo and reverberate with passion. Through the sheer force of repetition, the voices create a chorus, a consensus, and a collective body.

In the final sequence of the film, the diverse women featured throughout appear as leaders at rallies and demonstrations, galvanizing other women to resist and revolt. No longer framed in formal interviews, the women have emerged as public speakers. They yell, scream, and chant. As the accompanying musical track makes clear with the refrain, “I woke up this morning…,” by sharing their experiences and uniting their energies, the film suggests, women have finally woken up to the truth of their oppression. Significantly, The Woman’s Film also aspires to instigate this realization in spectators—the realization that feminism is possible here and now —perhaps even necessary—for me, too.

The audiences of women’s documentaries were conceived of as fluid sites of potential transformation and becoming. Although realism and identification came under severe scrutiny in a dominant strain of film studies in the mid to late 1970s, these films demonstrate that “realism” might also be a misleading term for an unruly assortment of aesthetic practices, and, as Alexandra Juhasz has argued, that identification can operate in a number of politically astute ways. In these films, for instance, identification with the faces, voices, and experiences of talking heads was crucial to the political demands of the moment: collective resistance and revolution against a culture that had silenced and suppressed the experiences and desires of women. Real women telling their own stories, in the supportive company of other women—both on and off screen—created a unique opportunity for political engagement and action.

A wide range of screenings and extensive media coverage suggest that Newsreel hit home with their first film by, for, and about women. In a review entitled, “‘Woman’s Film’”: A Look at Poverty,” The San Francisco Chronicle announced on February 26, 1971,

“Women’s liberation now has its own full-length film, with more good humor than anger” (20).

The Woman’s Film enjoyed successful runs in New York and California theatres. Newsreel filmmakers also screened the film to diverse audiences, ranging from movement meetings and university screenings to a room of male telephone company employees.[8] In April 1971, the film reached the museum circuit with a screening at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as part of series programmed by John Hanhardt entitled, “What’s Happening.”[9] Positive reviews of the film erupted in print media from Berkeley to New York.[10]

The Woman’s Film mobilizes the two key concepts at work in consciousness-raising: experience and identification. Conceived as a site of pure authenticity, experience granted women in consciousness-raising groups a newfound authority. The Redstockings Manifesto expresses the vision in these terms:

“We regard our personal experience, and our feelings about that experience, as the basis for an analysis of our common situation. We cannot rely on existing ideologies as they are all products of male supremacy culture. We question every generalization and accept none that are not confirmed by our experience” (113).

As visualized in the film, each woman was the expert of her own being in the world, the author of her story about living in it, and the executor of her narrative describing that experience. By granting women the authority to generate alternative epistemologies through personal experience, Redstockings’ notion of consciousness-raising aspires to a radical reconfiguration of both collective identification and collective knowledge: women as a class allegedly shared a unique perspective on the world, hitherto unrevealed and hence a potential site of tremendous political power.

Further, experience constituted a vehicle for identification between and among women. The rhetoric of the Redstockings’ Manifesto fantasizes about a mode of identification that could bridge women in spite of their differences; gender, in other words, above all, defined women’s being in the world in the political vision of the radical feminists. “We identify with all women,” declares the 1969 Redstockings Manifesto,

“We define our best interest as that of the poorest, most brutally exploited woman. We repudiate all economic, racial, educational or status privileges that divide us from other women. We are determined to recognize and eliminate any prejudices we may hold against other women” (113).

In this fantasy of female solidarity, identification hinges not on identity between women, but on the identical recognition that gender is the defining feature of all women’s lives.

Feminist activists and scholars have robustly critiqued this fantasy of gender solidarity virtually since the moment it emerged. Many have valuably questioned the assumptions at play in this version of “identification not identity” that arguably suppresses, excludes, or ignores “differences” in a universalistic narrative that actually only applies to the perspective of white, middle-class women. The Combahee River Collective Statement for example makes plain that Black women’s experience of feminism and consciousness-raising requires them to go “beyond white women’s revelations” about oppression. They write,

“The major source of difficulty in our political work is that we are not just trying to fight oppression on one front or even two, but instead to address a whole range of oppressions. We do not have racial, sexual, heterosexual, or class privilege to rely upon, nor do we have even the minimal access to resources and power that groups who possess anyone of these types of privilege have.”  

What is important is to understand how The Woman’s Film builds a fantastical vision of feminism as a coalition movement that prioritizes the struggles of women of color and poor and working class women, and how it projects the lived possibility of a feminist fantasy where difference matters. Through its audio-visual commitment to consciousness-raising, the film mobilizes identification, but it does not build its alternative political imaginary around a homogenous category of woman. Rather, the film channels its commitment to justice and equality through its realist codes and conventions. By framing diverse individual women and groups of activist women with consistently applied time and space constraints, notions such as authority, experience and expertise are dispersed, decentered, and defamiliarized. Experience belongs to each and every woman diversely and uniquely, while at the same time identification with the accumulated recorded narratives and images allows viewers to locate themselves within the new world of justice constructed by the film. The Woman’s Film puts realist aesthetics to work at the service of a vision of feminist politics that prioritizes not only gender but also race and class. 

A close-up still image of a woman’s head thrown back, mouth howling explodes into a grid that repeats the image column after column, row after row. The film consistently stresses the power and necessity of the transition from thinking about individual malaise to systemic oppression.
Following the ideal trajectory of consciousness-raising, the film’s final sequences feature women rising up collectively.

Identification was critical to this aspiration. The filmmakers hoped that women viewers would “identify with the experiences and feelings of the women in the film” and embrace the idea that “women are strong when united, and when they work together and support each other, they have the power to bring about meaningful and necessary changes in this country” (“The Woman’s Film” Notes). The film both demonstrates and executes the possibility of a new, albeit fantastical, feminist becoming. By following the progressive trajectory from the personal to the political among a group of diverse women, The Woman’s Film stresses the power of identification and empathy and the action these have the potential to ignite.

Similarly, in Janie’s Janie (1970), a landmark Newsreel release directed by Geri Ashur with a New York-based crew including Peter Barton, Marilyn Mulford and Stephanie Pawleski, identification operates precisely within a framework of difference signaled by the Redstockings Manifesto. Janie’s Janie features the story of a white, single, welfare mother of five in Newark, NJ. The film’s narrative is motivated by Janie’s journey to independence, her transformation from her father’s Janie to her husband’s Janie to the final realization: Janie’s Janie. Unlike The Woman’s Film, which intercuts archival images of women to establish a historical framework for women’s oppression, Janie’s Janie visually takes place entirely in the context of the present. Whereas The Woman’s Film downplays a biographical imperative by featuring a myriad of women and a chorus of reflections on women’s oppression, Janie’s Janie maintains an interest in Janie as an exemplary figure for women’s liberation. Despite these differences, both Janie’s Janie and The Woman’s Film evidence an aesthetic commitment to projecting a consciousness-raising conversion narrative, as well as the impulse to cast a multiply oppressed figure at the center of women’s liberation. At a time when the mainstream press sought the least threatening spokeswoman for the movement in Kate Millett, featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1970, the women of Newsreel shared the opinion that “women’s lib” was about identifying with the most disenfranchised among them. Structured around the trajectory from the personal to the political implied by consciousness-raising, Janie’s Janie encourages women to see their own oppression mirrored in the narratives of all women despite the obvious differences in their material lives—to identify, as the Redstockings manifesto suggests, with “the poorest, most brutally exploited woman.”

In the opening shot of Janie’s Janie, a woman’s figure in the center of the frame walks away from the camera, towards the front door of a modest row house. Children rush out to meet her and assist her with the grocery bags she carries home. Janie’s Janie thus begins on the outside of Janie’s intimate life, following her as it were towards the heart of her story: her domestic life inside the home.

The first part of the film takes place within Janie’s home, where she answers questions from the film crew, often as she goes about quotidian activities, such as cooking and dressing her children. Jane Giese passionately recounts her former lives as her father’s Janie and then her husband’s Janie, clearly at ease with the filmmakers who interview her.

Inside her house, Janie continues with the motions of her life even as she answers delicate questions about her abusive father and controlling husband. She dresses the children, prepares a chicken for the oven, and folds laundry all the while smoking cigarettes and constructing the narrative of her raised consciousness. The film stitches together excerpts from several different interviews to create the trajectory that would lead Janie through her young life under her father’s strict rule to her dashed hopes of salvation through marriage, to her final realization that solidarity among women is the only answer that will lead to structural change for the working poor.

Visually the film eschews visual continuity for the sake of maintaining the consciousness-raising trajectory from the personal to the political. Janie narrates the sense of loneliness and isolation that plagued her before she linked up with the welfare rights activists in her community. Once she understands that women throughout her neighborhood share her struggles, the path towards action is obvious. At this point in her narrative, the film shifts from the domestic sphere, to the public sphere. As Janie speaks non-synchronously in a voice-over, shots of Janie show her outside her home where her political awakening has lead her: at the neighborhood child care center her group founded to provide free child care to working women and at the organization office where she consults with colleagues. In the film’s final shot, Janie walks toward the camera with a colleague, her body in motion in public. Janie heads past the camera into the distance, a new, public and collective horizon before her.

In the film’s final sequences, Janie appears in the public realm, at the childcare center she helps run and at meetings with other women. By the end of the film, Janie is a self-defined woman ... ... who nonetheless works collectively with other women. Whereas the opening shot moves into the private sphere, the closing shot frames Janie out on an urban street in the company of other women.

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