copyright 2012, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 54, fall 2012

Consciousness-raising and difference in
The Woman’s Film
(1971) and Self-Health (1974)

by Shilyh Warren

In the opening scene of Richard Leacock and Joyce Chopra’s direct cinema classic, Happy Mother’s Day ((1963), Mrs. Andrew Fischer emerges from the hospital while a sober male voice-off narrates the cause of her sudden fame: the mother of five has just given birth to quintuplets. Upon her exit from the hospital, Mrs. Fischer finds herself surrounded by a mob of male journalists. In the characteristic grainy, black and white footage of U.S. direct cinema or cinema vérité, Mrs. Fischer walks to her car and pauses to answer a few questions. The journalists crowd her, insinuating microphones and cameras at close proximity. Visible between two reporters in the foreground, Mrs. Fischer stands and smiles politely, but sighs heavily before uttering her first words in the film:

“I don’t have many feelings.”

In response to her own profound statement, she laughs awkwardly and then a cameraman in the foreground suddenly shifts his equipment, blocking our view of Mrs. Fischer. As the film advances, it becomes increasingly clear that Mrs. Fischer is an implausible candidate for the hungry eyes and ears of the cameras and microphones that surround her. Finally, unable to maintain her composure in this first scene, Mrs. Fischer turns away from the mob after a few more questions, lowers her gaze and stops talking.

Multiple interviews will follow in the film, each one more absurd than the others, as the Fischers become Aberdeen’s greatest local attraction. Reporters from outlets such as the Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post are pictured photographing the happy family in dad’s “only luxury,” The Model-T Ford, or out and about on the farm, or wading through the mountains of commodities donated to the family. Mrs. Fischer tries on an expensive store-bought dress and answers questions from the ladies’ club representative about which colors she’d like them to use at the lunch that will be held in her honor. Throughout these scenes, Mrs. Fischer is often recalcitrant, slow to answer, and quite likely to respond with a shrug and an admission that she really doesn’t care. It seems that as much as the local townsfolk and national media claim to want to celebrate the remarkable birth of her children, Mrs. Fischer is on to the media’s ruse. 

The new mother of quintuplets constantly refuses to meet the gaze of the camera and she rarely responds to the voice-off questions of the interviewer. In one of the few interview moments when she does respond, Mrs. Mary Ann Fisher is decidedly contrary. The interview follows a scene in which the remarkable numbers of goods donated to the family are displayed on a lawn for the purposes of a photograph. Automobiles, clothing, high chairs, gallons of milk, a mountain of jarred baby food, dishes, toys, and other gifts are splayed out for a photographer, who perches high atop a ladder in order to capture the shot. The ruse Mrs. Fischer seems to understand is evident in the juxtaposition of scenes in which the fetishization of the consumer goods parallels the commodification of the family itself. In the interview scene that follows, in which the couple self-reflexively consider their own fame, Mr. Fischer states his reluctant opinion that if tourists should come to the town to see the quintuplets, the visitors must be allowed in the Fischer’s home. Mrs. Fischer disagrees, stating unequivocally, “They’re never going to be on display to anybody as far as I’m concerned.” In response to the voice of a female interviewer (likely Joyce Chopra), Mrs. Fischer declares, “To anybody,” before she looks away, and then resumes defiantly, eyes still cast downward,

“As far as I’m concerned that’s the way it better be.”

As the central figure in Happy Mother’s Day, Mrs. Fischer manifests a clever skepticism about the interest granted her by strangers. Her reluctance to be the star of both the film and the events in Aberdeen raises important questions about the relation between the filmed subject and the film that traffics in her image and her story. Although the title of the film references a decidedly gendered affair, Happy Mother’s Day is far from a feminist film. Demonstrated by the complicity with discourses of journalism consistently evoked in the figures of cameramen and reporters, the film self-consciously takes part in the hysterical reaction to Mrs. Fischer’s reproductive capacities, which reduce the woman to the affairs of her uterus.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Mrs. Fischer’s reluctance to engage with the media that court her suggests that she feels she is being treated not like a queen (as one Aberdeen woman suggests) but rather like a freak. We can only speculate, of course, since the other side of her reluctance means we are never granted access to Mrs. Fischer’s feelings and thoughts about her dilemma. Mrs. Fischer, as she states so clearly in her opening lines, does “not have many feelings,” at least not many that she is willing to share with the film crew.

Before feminist filmmakers appropriated and reformulated the codes and conventions of direct cinema, including hand-held cameras, location shooting, intimate interviews, and occasional voice-over, direct cinema had very little to say to or about women. As much as Happy Mother’s Day makes possible a critical stance on the commodification of the Fischer family and implicates its own gaze in the media’s exploitative impulses, the film cannot find its way into Mrs. Fischer’s own version of her story. At no point do we hear about Mrs. Fischer’s pregnancy, the birth of any of her ten children, her concerns about the impact the new infants will have on her life, her family, or her finances. Our knowledge about Mrs. Fischer is interrupted, fragmentary, and highly constructed around the narrative of her ascension to media stardom. The title of the film, Happy Mother’s Day, comments ironically on what appears to be a very unhappy woman. Whether Mrs. Fischer was made suddenly morose by her new family configuration or is simply confounded by the relentless media attention, we never find out.

By the end of the decade, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the diverse coalitions of activists we refer to as the U.S. women’s movement would popularize and politicize the practice of consciousness-raising, which urged women to develop epistemological and theoretical frameworks based on their own experiences rather than received (patriarchal, capitalist) modes of thinking and being. To reconsider Happy Mother’s Day in what Linda Williams calls a “feminist hindsight” made possible by activism of the 1970s is to stage an alternative path into the feminist film archive of the 1970s.[2] Although women’s documentaries were hotly contested within feminist film theory of the seventies because of their aesthetic and conceptual resemblance to direct cinema films, the example of Happy Mother’s Day reminds us to consider an alternative relation at work between feminist documentaries and its vérité predecessors.

Women’s vérités

Joyce Chopra’s Joyce at 34 (1972), for example, captures what Mrs. Fischer denied having, that is, many feelings, particularly about motherhood. Chopra, who worked on several films with renowned documentary auteurs such as Leacock and Robert Gardner, made Joyce at 34 in 1972 with Claudia Weill. Her first film, Chopra’s Joyce at 34 is a highly self-reflexive take on the process of constructing images and narratives about the figure of the mother. A film about a filmmaker who is also a mother, Joyce at 34 is about the labor of mothering and the work of filmmaking. Importantly, Joyce at 34 is the first feminist documentary to explore the range of emotions, duties, and subjective acrobatics between personhood, motherhood, and labor that define motherhood for one individual from her own perspective. The film thus challenges the legacy of direct cinema in Happy Mother’s Day on two counts. Formally it makes explicit the technologies of cinematic meaning making, questioning thus its own act of representation. And thematically it grants authority to the mother’s own version of her story, insinuating thus a new politicized maternal figure into public visual discourse. In other words, the film explicitly converses with and contests its relation with direct cinema in ways that exceed its flattened designation as a derivative vérité film.[3] This holds true for many women’s documentaries of the 1970s, including The Woman’s Film (1971) and Janie’s Janie (1972) which further demonstrate how women’s documentary films often take up, resist, and transform direct cinema conventions in order to grant unprecedented authority and political legitimacy to women of color, working class women, and women fighting poverty.

In her landmark 1978 article about women’s documentaries, Julia Lesage countered anti-realist critiques about the political limitations of women’s vérité films, arguing that feminist documentaries accomplished fundamental political interventions. Feminist documentaries, for example, re-envisioned the iconography of women, politicized domestic space, and created an audio-visual analogue to the practice of consciousness-raising. For Lesage, feminist documentaries accomplished political acts not in spite of the realist audio-visual aesthetics they deployed, but precisely because of them. In her 1975 review of Sheila Page’s Women’s Happytime Commune, E. Ann Kaplan’s also forged a connection between feminist documentary and the political program of consciousness-raising. Like Kaplan’s early work on 70s women’s cinema, Lesage makes the realist aesthetics of feminist documentaries essential to their political relevance.[4] She writes,

“Women’s personal explorations establish a structure for social and psychological change and are filmed specifically to combat patriarchy. The filmmaker’s and her subjects’ intent is political” (509).

Placed within the context of a movement that sought to destroy patriarchy by convincing women that they needed feminism, bridging the personal and the political, and emphasizing commonalities amongst women as a political class, women’s documentaries screen a particular notion of the political. The aesthetics of feminist documentaries, in Lesage and Kaplan’s analyses, were most clearly legible within the discourse, rhetoric, and activism of the women’s liberation movement. The films gained political purchase because they shared the political vision of a collective, radical movement, particularly, in Lesage’s words, “the ethos” and goals of consciousness-raising (507). Lesage and Kaplan thus fasten the political impulses of feminist documentaries to their aesthetic conventions.

I agree with Lesage that the documentaries produced by feminist filmmakers sought relevance with movement politics. I also agree with Lesage that many feminist documentaries launch a return to the context of consciousness-raising—an arena of debate in feminist theory that went through a long silent period throughout the eighties but began receiving renewed attention in the mid-nineties, particularly amongst feminist literary critics. However, in this essay I supplement Lesage’s landmark engagement with feminist documentary films of the 1970s, which insists on relations between form and politics, by paying close attention to the way each film constructs political subjectivity within and also beyond the frame. The documentaries I re-read in this essay, Self-Health (1974) and The Woman’s Film (1971), stress identification, empathy, and authentic shared experience in conversation with the idealist rhetoric of various forms of 70s feminisms, including radical and socialist feminism, which emphasized the imbrications of class and gender. Shaped of course by my own feminist hindsight, this return to several landmark documentaries of the feminist seventies argues that the films continue to exert political and theoretical pressure to modes of thinking about feminist and cinematic constructions of political subjectivity.

Self-Health and The Woman’s Film, for example, despite their common allegiance to a practice of consciousness-raising, apply pressure to different political visions, indeed political fantasies, and constitute distinct political subjects. The Woman’s Film focuses on women of color and working class women and screens an imaginary of women’s liberation as a coalition movement where the most oppressed members of society inhabit the center. Writing about the women in the film, one reviewer remarks,

“They do not, in the wildest stretch of the imagination, fit anyone’s image of militant supporters of Women’s Liberation” (McKinney, 16A).

Whereas identification and experience in The Woman’s Film do not depend therefore on identity and sameness, in Self-Health women’s collective oppression and action is activated through a discourse of anatomical similarity. Read through the lens of consciousness-raising, The Woman’s Film and Self-Health thus provide evidence of feminist political fantasies as well the limitations of the rhetoric and visual manifestations of female solidarity.

Consciousness-raising has constituted a problem for feminist theory in the wake of post-structuralism—one that is at once theoretical and practical as well as aesthetic. This is because consciousness-raising promulgates the centrality of terms at odds with a poststructuralist, discursively-constituted and fragmented antihumanist subject: namely, experience and identity. If the renderings of political subjectivity in Self-Health and The Woman’s Film pose problems thus for feminist and film theory, it is not simply or solely because they are presented in the language of realism, but rather because concepts such as action, agency, autonomy and experience have been characterized as incommensurate with a poststructuralist understanding of the subject. What I believe is called for here, echoing the concerns raised by Kathi Weeks and Sonia Kruks in their reformulations of feminist subjectivity, is a resistance to the either/or terms of the modernist/postmodernist debate in which we must choose either a humanist, Cartesian self-knowing subject or a displaced and discursively constituted notion of subjectivity.

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] 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. 

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. 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.

Self-Health, experience and sameness

Despite an espoused insistence on concentrating on the most oppressed, however, the feminist fantasy of solidarity that consciousness-raising was meant to catalyze often lent itself to repressing difference. A powerful fantasy throughout seventies movement rhetoric, literature and film, consciousness-raising became equally problematic for the movement and for theory. According to Carla Kaplan, consciousness-raising was a project of significant albeit unrealized potential:

“[U]ltimately, it was neither challenging nor as provocative as it might have been. Consciousness-raising often failed to reach a truly heterogeneous group of women or even to appreciate the heterogeneity of its own potential practitioners. Many women left consciousness-raising groups disappointed at not being heard and fed up with the subtle pressures to conform to particular viewpoints or to avoid taboo subjects, especially about race and class, about feelings of hostility toward other women and feelings of desire for them.” (155)

Kaplan spells out the intrinsic problems that were built into consciousness-raising’s concept, practice, and theory. Based on similarity, consciousness-raising suppressed the significance of difference. Based on sisterhood, it made claims about womanhood that were soon critiqued as essentialist and exclusionary. Although the slogan for radical feminism insisted that “we are one, we are woman” (Echols 203), the fact was that this rhetoric of sisterhood, as soon as it was uttered, came under assault in the movement from working-class women, lesbians, and women of color.

The way that a pioneering film like Self-Health, for example, screens consciousness-raising into the fabric of a radical film about women reclaiming their bodies from the male-dominated medical-industrial complex locates sameness in the bodies of women who are all white. In Self-Health, by filmmakers Catherine Allan, Judy Irola, Allie Light, and Joan Musante, produced with the San Francisco Women’s Health Center, viewers take part in three group sessions for women. In the first, women are guided through a pelvic self-examination; in the second, women learn how to perform breast self-exams; and in the third women learn to perform bi-manual exams on other women. The women participants are gathered in the intimate spaces of the domestic sphere. In the manner of consciousness-raising sessions, the women form a circle with their bodies, which are casually propped against pillows on the floor. The camera replicates the egalitarian ethics of the consciousness-raising session by granting equivalent screen time to each participant, following the individuals around the circle as they engage in a discussion about their experiences with medical professionals and coming to terms with masturbation, menstruation, and sexuality.

Self-Health opens with a manifesto. Over soft, precise close-ups of the most general anatomical details of female intimacy—nipples, lips, arm pits, and pubic hair—a voice calls forth a new feminist subject: a subject defined by a dialectical relation between the individual and the collective; the female body mediates the exchange. In voice-off, a woman declares,

“We’re learning from our own bodies; teaching ourselves and each other how each of us is unique and the same, and what we need in order to be healthy.”

According to the visuals, what women share exists in the details of their bodies. By reclaiming this “lost territory, which traditionally belonged to our doctors, our husbands, to everyone but us,” the film suggests that women can lay claim to a veritable sisterhood. As the title appears during a long take that begins at a woman’s face and ends on her pubic mound, mapping “the lost territory” at stake, the voice-off proclaims, “and now it’s time to get it back.” By framing the women who speak in eye-level medium shots, the camera situates the spectator within the circle of women. The seamless editing between shots of women speaking replicates motions that might be natural for a person sitting among the women in the circle. Intimately situated within the most private kind of conversation, the spectator is not at all a voyeur, slyly perceiving but unperceived. Rather, the spectator becomes a participant of the group session. Self-Health thus reconfigures the cinematic representation of women’s bodies, recuperating them from the medical as well as the cinematic gaze and claiming them for women and for a presumably female audience.[11]

Once the film pursues the documentation of the three main workshops, the camera techniques focus on synching image to sound. The result is a film that evidences a commitment to message and content: women have historically been alienated from their own bodies by a male-dominated medical establishment; the film is one attempt to regain connections and territory. Provided with speculums, mirrors, and flashlights, women need first of all to assume a responsibility for knowing their own bodies—for recognizing the shape, feel, and characteristics of their cervixes, uteruses, and breasts. By extension women will have gained a power to control their health, reproduction, and holistic sense of self where the outside is coterminous with the inside of the body.

The film’s aesthetics focus on a linear trajectory, which begins with alienation and the sense that women individually experience this estrangement from the medical establishment. Then, through sharing their experiences, women realize that alienation is rather a collective experience. In voice-off, which accompanies a long-shot of three women lounging on a sheet examining their cervixes, a woman explains:

“A lot of us have felt the same fears and doubts and we always felt that we experienced them as individuals. And when we’re in a group we realize that many of us have felt the same things; there are fears and doubts that we share together and that we can explore together.”

Visually, the women in the film literally shed their outer layers as they collectively investigate their own and each other’s bodies. The journey takes these women to the interior of their bodies, where their commonality is revealed and then, literally, felt. In a third workshop, the facilitator guides the participant women through the mechanics of a bi-manual pelvic exam. Equal screen time is granted to the woman performing the exam and the woman, Christy, who is being examined. Christy is encouraged to feel for her uterus before the other women in the room are invited to experiment. Throughout the room, where women stand observing and participating in the lesson, comments of surprise abound: “It’s so small!”; “It’s amazing!” The intimacy—and intimate touching—among the women creates the possibility for connection, and ultimately action. Because the filmic techniques stress intimacy and egalitarianism with eye-level shots and medium shots that generally include a woman’s face with her genitals, the viewer metonymically takes part in the shared experience generated on screen. The key to the film lies in the strategies of identification—with the camera and with the women on screen: cervix to cervix, as it were. Interpreting Self-Health’s so-called naïve realism in terms of consciousness-raising we get closer not necessarily to the truth of the movement or of the film itself but rather to the truth of the interrelated fantasies of both the movement and the film. We can also see how the films develop alternative ways of thinking about identification. Whereas The Woman’s Film and Janie’s Janie (1971) illustrate a commitment to maintain a disjuncture between identification and identity, Self-Health slides into the discursive space where identification and identity become one.

Before film theorists in the 1970s linked identification to a mode by which dominant ideology infiltrated narrative cinema, Frantz Fanon used the term to describe post-colonial subjects’ culturally-situated viewing experiences. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon gives the following example in a footnote:

“Attend showings of a Tarzan film in the Antilles and in Europe. In the Antilles, the young negro identifies himself de facto with Tarzan against the Negroes. This is much more difficult for him in a European theatre, for the rest of the audience, which is white, automatically identifies him with the savages on the screen.” (Fanon 152-53) 

Fanon’s point is that cultural context defines the processes of identification for the post-colonial subject. Thus in Fanon’s conception, identification resists stasis and fixity; rather as a psychic process of recognition, identification depends critically on context. Fanon’s insistence on recognition not only with the characters on screen but via the other spectators in the room sheds light on the radical feminist understanding of the role of identification in the process of consciousness-raising. For radical feminists, recognition with other women happened not only as a result of the content of the shared narratives of experience, but within the community of listeners. To identify with women in a consciousness-raising session meant to collectively imagine a political subjectivity for the future, not necessarily to feel confident about the fixed identity of the present. In this way, identification served a forward-reaching goal rather than sedimenting a prior or fully constituted subjectivity.   

The disjunction between a feminist understanding of identification and the concept as it circulated in psychoanalytically-determined feminist film theory should come as no surprise. As Stuart Hall remarks,

“Identification turns out to be one of the least well-understood concepts … It is drawing meanings from both the discursive and the psychoanalytic repertoire, without being limited to either” (2).

In my reading, feminists saw identification through the process of consciousness-raising as the means of calling into being a new feminist subject in solidarity. This is not to say that the effort would ever be either successful or complete. Hall maintains that the fictions motivated by the efforts of belonging—in this case, the fantasy of sisterhood imagined in the process of consciousness-raising—are effectively constitutive of identities despite the “fictional nature of this process” (4). Feminist documentaries such as Self-Health and The Woman’s Film, by both performing and constructing consciousness-raising for and among feminist viewers, contributed to the constitution of an idealized and fantasized feminist solidarity. And yet, it is important to reiterate here that they demonstrate varied and telling understandings of the relationship between identification and identity. 

In seventies continental film theory, identification signaled the adverse practices of dominant cinema, which disarmed spectator-subjects of their analytical faculties and lulled them into passive receptacles for the ideology projected from the normative narratives on screen. At best, the film-as-text might evidence enunciative fissures in its ideological cohesion, creating exploitable crises for a resistant spectator. In contrast, for many feminist documentary filmmakers of the early 1970s the notion of identification implied a material, counter-hegemonic practice if it also supported a notion of subjectivity that assumed each subject contained within an authentic core that could be grasped and altered in full. Imbued with utopian potentiality, identification was assumed to be capable of generating a sisterhood among a viable group, “women,” previously distracted from their gender solidarity by the supposedly false divisions that kept them isolated from each other: domestic heterosexuality, class, race.

As I'v argued, the fantasy of sisterhood, given flesh in the practices of the real, manifests itself in Self-Health as a function of identification as identity. Another way to say this would be to point out that Self-Health problematically mobilizes an “essentialist” visual and rhetorical construction of the category of women.

As Nöel Sturgeon lays out this contradiction in Ecofeminist Natures, feminist activism and feminist theory are often divided along the lines of essentialism. Feminist activism is usually implicated in problematic structures of essentialism while feminist theory is credited with a more enlightened anti-essentialism. Sturgeon writes,

“the political implications of essentialist constructs of women or of race are some of the central problems of contemporary feminist theory” (6).

Sturgeon’s work on ecofeminism complicates what she sees as a “stalemate” between tropes of essentialism and anti-essentialism within contemporary feminism by paying close attention to movement politics and working in two directions: theorizing activist practice and seeing theory in that practice (11). It is helpful here to keep in mind the specificity and context within which Sturgeon analyses both the critique of essentialism and the mobilization of the category of women for feminist activism. As my analysis of The Woman’s Film bears out, movement-based calls for gender solidarity need not necessarily elide and suppress race and class differences. However, Self-Health exemplifies the ways that the fantasy of feminist sisterhood and the structures of identification mobilized by the rhetoric, practice, and visual representation of consciousness-raising could easily support the marginalization of difference, particularly when the notion of woman at stake is located in the anatomical similarities of the female body.[12] By constructing sameness through anatomy, and constituting identification through identity, Self-Health indeed provides evidence for the anti-essentialist critique of feminism.[13]

To reconsider feminist films of the 1970s with feminist hindsight is a task that mobilizes a host of aesthetic, political, and affective debates about the now-mythical “Seventies” as well as our contemporary moment. While I clearly desire to recuperate many of these films and make claims about their contemporary relevance, I hesitate to make a case based on terms as over-generalized as “the women’s liberation movement,” “realism,” “activism,” or even, “consciousness raising.” For, if the seventies are critiqued variously as essentialist albeit politicized, committed albeit naïve, and embedded in movement politics that were nonetheless misguided, I believe the contemporary critic’s task must be to insist on particularization rather than continued overgeneralization. Each film tells its own stories – stories about its political commitments, political fantasies, ideological revolutions and indeed, ideological shortcomings. In my discussions of The Woman’s Film and Self-Health, I have argued that as a critical point of reference, the rhetoric of consciousness-raising draws us into both the fantasies and the very real limitations of some feminist calls for female solidarity. Rather than insist upon the “real” versus the “contingent,” my appeal to recognize seventies feminist rhetoric as aspirational rather than evidentiary seeks to resist idealizing, romanticizing, or homogenizing both feminist cultural and theoretical production and the fragmented coalition movement politics from which they emerged.


1. Although the television network ABC commissioned the film, the broadcast producers were dissatisfied with Leacock and Chopra’s version of the story of the media “hoopla” over the quintuplets. They never aired Happy Mother’s Day but instead produced an alternative version called Quint City. According to Leacock, the ABC version was “toned down” and Happy Mother’s Day was a “political film” (Naficy 201). In a 1982 interview with Hamid Naficy, Leacock explains his sense of what makes Happy Mother’s Day political in these terms: “If you analyze it, if you discuss that film, whole aspects of our society will be revealed by it” (200). In the interview, Leacock expresses discomfort with the word “political” though he uses it quite a few times. At one point he says, “‘Political’ is such a bad word, like ‘propaganda’” (201). [return to text]

2. In “Feminist Film Theory: Mildred Pierce and the Second World War,” Williams argues that readings of Curtiz’s 1945 film, especially by feminist scholars “in the context of current feminist enlightenment” tend to neglect a nuanced consideration of female spectators of the 1940s. Feminist hindsight, in other words, encourages readings of the film that prioritize gendered analysis, but for Williams, these readings fall short by emphasizing “either the repression or the reflection of woman.” Williams also glosses a familiar history of 1970s feminist film theory, which she cleaves into dueling camps: psychoanalytic and semiologically oriented feminists on one side (repression) and sociologists and historians (reflection) on the other. The stories feminist scholars tell about the historiography of feminist film theory is a matter I and others take up elsewhere (see Warren). 

3. See, for example, Kaplan’s Women & Film, where the author argues that Joyce at 34 exemplifies the dominant trend of women’s filmmaking in the 1970s, what she calls documentary in the “verité style” and opposed to “avant-garde theory” films, such as Mulvey and Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1976) (125).

4. In “Women’s Happytime Commune: New Departures in Women’s Films,” Kaplan thoughtfully considers legitimate reasons for the vérité approach. In the later publication of her book Women & Film, Kaplan noticeably omits this analysis in favor of the rising trend of what Williams’ would call the psychoanalytic semiological approach.

5. Newsreel articulated their project this way: “Films made by Newsreel are not to be seen once and forgotten. Once a print goes out, it becomes a tool to be used by others in their own work … We intend to cover demonstrations; to interview figures like LeRoi Jones and Garrison; we want to show what is at stake in a housing eviction or in consumer abuses in Harlem; we should provide information on how to deal with police or on the geography of Chicago” (Rabinowitz 87).

6. Kathie Sarachild explains, “The idea was to take our own feelings and experience more seriously than any theories which did not satisfactorily clarify them, and to devise new theories which did reflect the actual experience and feelings and necessities of women” (“CR as Radical Weapon” 135).

7. In Woman’s Consciousness, Man’s World, Rowbotham stresses revolutionary potential of changed consciousness, which comes about only through great effort. She writes, “All revolutionary movements create their own ways of seeing. But this is a result of great labour. People who are without names, who do not know themselves, who have no culture, experience a kind of paralysis of consciousness. The first step is to connect and learn to trust one another” (27).

8, For example, a Newsreel press release advertises screenings in February 1971 at American Zoetrope, Surf Interplayers, and the University of California, Berkeley (MOMA Archives).

9. MOMA press release draft (MOMA Archives). Sharon Smith describes the screening to telephone company employees in the Women & Film interview (31).

10. Press reviews of the film include: Joan McKinney, “The ‘Quiet Women’ Speak Out,” Oakland Tribune; Beverly Koch, “Liberated women Take Up the Arts,” San Francisco Chronicle; Jonas Mekas, “Movie Journal,” Village Voice; Molly Haskell, “Women Without Men,” Village Voice; “Femmes Fatales,” Women’s Wear Daily; Irwin Silber, “The Woman’s Film,” Guardian.   

11. Eithne Johnson theorizes what she calls “the specular scene” in Self-Health in “Loving Yourself: The Specular Scene in Sexual Self-Help Advice for Women.”

12. Self-Health thus shares some of the limitations of the women’s health movement from which it emerges. Sandra Morgen’s Into Our Own Hands and Jennifer Nelson’s Women of Color and the Reproductive Rights Movement provide excellent analyses of women’s health activism of the 1970s. Both authors detail the critiques of the self-health movement in particular, which emphasized cervical self-examination as visualized in the film. Further, both authors stress the critique levied at mostly white women health activists for de-emphasizing the way health is always imbricated with race, class, and culture. Thus, the critique of the women’s health movement echoes the critique of seventies feminism more generally.

13. Landmark examples of feminist anti-essentialist critique include: Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”; Angela Davis, “Racism, Birth Control, and Reproductive Rights”; Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House”; This Bridge Called My Back; The “Combahee River Collective Statement”; Conditions Five: The Black Woman’s Issue; and The Black Woman: An Anthology.

Works cited

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