"Sisters Of '77" A Page In Feminist Film History
With all the talk about Sarah Palin, Hillary Clinton, and Michelle Obama in the news during this presidential election, issues of racism and sexism have risen to the top of the American consciousness. What better time than now to look back at an important moment in American feminist history?
The documentary film "Sisters of '77" tells the story of the 1977 National Women's Conference held in Houston, Texas. The weekend long meeting was attended by a wide range of prominent women including former First Ladies Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson, civil rights activist Coretta Scott King, writer Maya Angelou, and feminist activists Gloria Steinem and Betty Freidan.
Cynthia Salzman Mondell is the award winning producer and director of "Sisters of '77," and I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Cynthia about the film, her career, and the current presidential election.
First a little background. As Jo Freeman.com described it:
The primary job of the national conference was to formulate and pass a National Plan of Action, based on recommendations from the state meetings. The final Plan had 26 planks, ranging from better enforcement of existing laws to broad demands for a national health security system, full employment, peace and disarmament.
Originally, Cynthia Salzman Mondell was contracted to do a short film about the conference for the Women's Museum in Dallas. It was to focus on women who helped found the museum and who had also attended the 1977 conference.
After receiving additional funding from Ed Delaney of Circle R Group Studios, Cynthia and her husband Allen decided to do an expanded version of the film which included interviews of some of the organizers and attendees.
Doing a film of the conference was a natural for Cynthia because she actually attended as an observer and was also one of several torch bearers who ran from the first National Women's Conference site in Seneca Falls, New York, to Houston. That first conference was held in 1848. Cynthia had this to say about the film:
It comes from my heart and soul because I was actually at the conference in 1977. I wasn't a delegate but I went to the conference because I lived in Dallas. My sister flew down from Baltimore with her baby and I put my daughter in the car, and we drove to Houston. Then we stopped because I ran with the torch right outside of Houston.
It was a very empowering moment for my sister because I said, "you're going to have to follow me" and she said, "I don't know how to drive a stick shift."
I said, "well you're going to have to learn now. Just keep your foot on the clutch if you can't figure it out." I always say we weren't the same after that conference and neither was my car.
It was a contentious time and not everyone was pleased with the conference's goals. There were protesters outside who chanted about men being superior to women, and across town another conference was taking place, nicknamed "the Phyllis Schlafly conference" after the ultra conservative who founded the Eagle Forum. Among the Eagle Forum's positions
We oppose the feminist goals of stereotyping men as a constant danger to women, while at the same time pushing women into military combat against foreign enemies.
Eagle Forum successfully led the ten-year battle to defeat the misnamed Equal Rights Amendment with its hidden agenda of tax-funded abortions and same-sex marriages.
The film, which was completed in 2005 won a Cine Golden Eagle Award under the previous title "The Spirit of Women," and was later broadcast nationally on PBS. Cynthia says that after the national exposure she was gratified by the reaction from young women especially. There were subsequent screenings on college campuses and young women would often say afterwards that this was their first exposure to the history of the women's movement.
Jen Johans of Film Intuition recently reviewed "Sisters Of '77." Here's an excerpt:
Charting the conference with captivating archival footage as well as inserting both supplementary research and candid modern interviews in Sisters of ’77, we’re given a thorough insider’s perspective of a hugely significant yet highly under-publicized event. And given the results of this year political campaigns and some of the controversial media coverage which has provoked eye-opening discussions about discrimination and double standards regarding both gender and race, the Mondells’ film seems even timelier.
The New York Times review by Alessandra Stanley in 2005 referred to the scorn many men felt about the conference:
The documentary tries to give a sense of how radical such a conference seemed 28 years ago. And that is probably best conveyed by a man who covered the conference as a television reporter. Those women "seemed like an outgrowth of the hippie movement," Ron Stone, a former Houston television news anchor explains. They were just off the commune and coming into town, by golly, and they wanted to use our bathrooms."
It's amazing the battle for women's rights went anywhere with the battle of the bathroom going on at the same time, but it just shows how much women have had to persevere.
Coming from a family of avid photographers, it seemed only natural for Cynthia, as a student to eventually pick up a video camera:
It was interesting what you could do with them and what people were doing with them because they were going to protest movements and capturing all this history. That's what started fascinating me about the moving image.
When I asked Cynthia about what she thought of the current state of women's rights she said that in spite of the increase in opportunities for women, "The issues we were fighting back then we're still talking about and fighting today."
To illustrate, she told me a funny, yet telling story about her daughter who works in the television industry. Early in her career her daughter was hired for a position that someone else was also doing in the same department, except the other employee was a man and it turns out he was getting paid twice what she was.
Several of Cynthia's feminist friends surprisingly advised her to tell her daughter to leave it alone and be glad she had an entry level position. But Cynthia advised her daughter to speak up. Well, after her daughter did that, the male employee was called into the boss's office and told that the company was going to combine their two salaries and then split them between the two of them.
Cynthia couldn't believe it, but her daughter was happy she had spoken up, and that she had at least gotten an increase in pay.
Personally, I found the story incredibly funny but also an exercise in learning to adapt to the practicalities of the business world while still fighting for what you want.
Bringing us further into the present day, I asked Cynthia what she thought of Sarah Palin's VP nomination and she had this to say:
I think it is so ironic that feminists worked so hard to give women choices, to tell them they could be anything they wanted to be if we could change systems and institutions and then we get a bright, articulate woman to run for one heartbeat away from being the President of the U,S. This is a woman who is anti-women's right to choose and anti- cell stem research. This is a woman who claims to have broken through the glass ceiling that Hillary helped shatter for her. This is irony at its best. And yet while I am against most everything Sarah Palin stands for, I do have to applaud her for guts, gumption and go-ahead. I just wish she would take all those good qualities and come fight for women's and human rights on my side.
Megan Smith is the BlogHer Contributing Editor covering Television and YouTube
and she was fascinated to learn about the 1977 National Women's Conference. Her other blogs are Megan's Minute, quirky commentary around the clock and Video Runway.