by Star Olderman
STEP BY STEP: BUILDING A FEMINIST MOVEMENT, 1941-1977. Joyce Follet, prod.; co-producer, Mimi Orner. 60 mins. 1998. Closed-captioned video. $40 (+$5 postage/handling; $8 outside U.S.). Step by Step, P.O. Box 285, Worthington, MA 01098.
For awhile now I have been looking for a way to give my women's studies classes a positive but realistic picture of how social change takes place. In the video Step by Step, produced by Joyce Follet, I believe I have found a film that will work. This impressively organized and moving documentary details the role played by eight midwestern women in the second wave of feminism. Although the central focus of the documentary is the period of activism in the 1960s and 1970s, the story begins in the 1940s, a time of awakening for many feminists. Follet then shows how the women kept their activism alive in the fifties, ready to bloom again in the later sixties and seventies. Step by Step ends with a summary of what the activists are doing today.
The film is immediately engaging, thanks to its focus on the personal history and political growth of very different and very interesting activists - some union women, some involved in party politics, others working in educational and religious organizations or in business or government. Very much in the tradition of Connie Field's wonderful Rosie the Riveter, Step by Step recreates a period of change for women through interviews, photos, and archival footage. Both films work by interesting us in the women's lives and their gradually widening consciousness. Yet, while Field's documentary contrasts the real experiences of five women with the unreality of wartime and postwar propaganda, Step by Step structures its narrative by gradually linking the stories of eight women who at first seem to be involved in very separate or very local struggles, finally bringing them toge-ther on the state and national levels. In this way, the technique of the film mirrors and reinforces the movement from individual to group awareness that marked second wave feminism.
Also, while Rosie the Riveter leaves us with a picture of five admirable, but separate, women whose lives were changed by forces beyond their con-trol, Step by Step follows women who joined forces to change history. These women ran for public office, changed laws, fought for equality through unions, and were brave "firsts" in integrating formerly male domains. Step by Step also shows how the women were supported and changed by their involvement in national efforts like Eleanor Roosevelt's Commission on the Status of Women, the formation of NOW, and by the Houston Women's Conference of 1977.
Although the video covers a lot of historical ground, it does this without being overwhelming or by oversimplifying. Probably the best example of how Step by Step manages to move quickly through an historical period and still retain complexity is seen in the section on the 1950s. While Follett doesn't ignore the usual story of the pressures to push women back into the home during this all-too-easily stereotyped decade, the interviews she uses give a surprisingly positive sense of the continuity of women's leadership and activism even in a time of repression and seeming conformity. We see soon-to-be Wisconsin State Assemblywoman Mary Lou Munts, for example, throwing herself into home and family during the 50s, but also continuing to use the leadership skills she developed in the forties through important (though volunteer) political and com-munity service. At the same time, one of the main family goals of the 1950s, that of owning a home, motivates Doris Thom to find work at Janesville, Wisconsin's General Motors plant, where she becomes involved with the United Auto Workers and begins to raise questions about sex-segregated work. Whether it is businesswoman Gene Boyer's attempt to participate in the Chamber of Commerce in Beaver Dam, or Addie Wyatt's decision to run for and become the first woman (and first African American woman) vice-president, and later president, of her union local - all the individual strug-gles begin to connect in the 1960s and 1970s as many of these women respond to, and themselves become, spokeswomen for feminism.
One disappointment in the film is that while it does an unusually good job of giving voice to both working-class and professional women, racial minorities could have been included more fully. The video doesn't ignore racial issues nor does it ignore the powerful critique of the women's movement by feminists who are mem-bers of racial minorities, but because interviews are so powerful, and Addie Wyatt is the only minority-identified woman interviewed, she becomes the lone voice that consistently brings up minority issues.
Another, much more minor problem, is length. At 56 minutes, the video creates a bit of a problem for classroom use, especially for those of us who teach 50-minute classes, but after watching the video a number of times, I couldn't see anything I wanted cut. Obviously the answer for teachers is to divide the film into two parts, combine it with related readings,1 and discuss it over a couple of days. There are plenty of good issues in this film to make such discussions worthwhile: the role of the individual in creating change; the importance of organizing and joining with others; how change moves not merely linearly from the personal to local to statewide or national levels, but how all these levels interconnect and continually affect each other; and the important, but usually invisible, role of the Midwest in creating change - to name just a few possibilities. This would also be a wonderful film to show during Women's History Month. At a time when many students are feeling hopelessly alienated from national leadership, this realistic look at how we all can participate in change may be a source of hope.
1. If the video is used to discuss social change, it would work wonderfully with, for example, Love and Lindsey's article on how support was organized for increased funding for breast cancer research. Susan M. Love, M.D. with Karen Lindsey, "The Politics of Breast Cancer," from Dr. Susan Love's Breast Book, 2nd ed., 1995; reprinted in Feminist Frontiers, ed. by Laurel Richardson et al. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997), 384-391.
[Star Olderman is Associate Professor of Women's Studies and Chair of the Women's Studies Department at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.]
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