Documentary Features Social Sciences Alumnae who Shaped the Women’s Movement

Greg Borzo
Photo Credit: 
Virgina Blaisdell

Documentary Depicts Times that were A-Changin’

When Heather Booth and Jo Freeman arrived at the University of Chicago as students in the 1960s, women faced discrimination at many levels, on campus and in society at large. Both of them tackled feminist issues they came up against and went on to help form the women’s liberation movement as it developed across the country.


Their efforts, as well as those of dozens of other women, are sharply and skillfully portrayed in She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry, a new documentary film about the formative period (1966-1971) of the women’s liberation movement. The film premiered in Chicago on March 13, 2015, to a jubilant, sold-out crowd comprised mainly of women who had been activists in the ‘60s and younger women who were amazed to learn about how these feminists paved the way for them – tearing down barriers and opening up opportunities.


The stirring film chronicles a wide range of feminist activities using archival footage interspersed with contemporary interviews of the movement’s early leaders, including Booth and Freeman. Many of the leaders are depicted then and now, underscoring the link with the past and reminding viewers that the struggle continues. Indeed, the film resonates today, as it deals with issues – reproductive rights, rape, employment equality, childcare, and economic opportunity – that are current and vital today. And Booth and Freeman remain active feminists.


“I’m in awe of these women and the thirty-six others whom my film depicts,” said director Mary Dore. “They prove that activists who organize can change the world.”


Heather Booth, BA’67, MA’70 (EDUCATION PSYCHOLOGY)

When Booth arrived at the University in 1963 as an undergraduate, she did not think of herself as a feminist. “This was before the term was used and before there was a movement,” Booth said. “I simply believed that everyone should be treated fairly and respectfully.”


Right away, she determined that “although the University believed in the life of the mind, this purpose did not apply to women as much as it did to men.” When she noticed there were no courses on women’s studies, she got together with Naomi Weisstein, a likeminded teacher, and organized one.


When she noticed that few female students spoke up in class, she provided coaching and training to help them be more verbal. But then when those women spoke up more, they were not taken as seriously as men. To counter this, Booth and classmates conducted and distributed a study documenting that professors were four times more likely to take seriously comments made by male students than comments by female students.


When Booth learned that women had to check into their dorm by 11 p.m. but men could stay out until midnight, she worked to change this policy by organizing a “sleep-out.” When she learned that female teachers were less likely to get tenure, she protested. In 1965, Booth formed the Women’s Radical Action Program, which she describes as the women’s liberation movement’s first campus-based women’s organization in the country.


And when a friend needed an abortion, Booth helped her find a provider, even though at that time this action constituted a conspiracy to commit a felony. When others caught wind and came to Booth for help, she created the Jane Collective, a clandestine abortion coordinating service that originally operated out of Booth’s dorm. From University students, the service expanded into Chicago and throughout the Midwest. It ultimately performed more than 11,000 abortions from 1969 to 1973, when abortion was legalized.


Jo Freeman, PhD’73 (Political Science)

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s, Freeman worked on civil rights. After that, she worked on voter registration and civil rights in Alabama and Mississippi. Already an experienced activist when she arrived at the University in 1968 as a graduate student, Freeman immediately began organizing women on campus, especially the graduate students, who were not as organized as the undergraduate women.


Having also been a journalist, she wrote extensively about women’s issues. Shortly after arriving on campus, Freeman founded Voice of the Women’s Liberation Movement, which she describes as the movement’s first newsletter. Later, she published a pamphlet of outrageous things male teachers said, such as “There are too many women in this class.”


When she took a two-term course about the history of 19th and 20th century social movements that did not even mention the woman suffrage movement, she worked to include women’s issues in coursework.


When Marlene Dixon, a popular sociology teacher known for her radical disposition, was fired in 1969, women students staged a sit-in at the Administration Building, protesting that they had no say in University policies and there were too few women professors. Freeman helped handle the press for related events. At one press conference, she announced that only female journalists and the men accompanied them would be allowed to stay, imitating the men-only policies that were still found at Chicago bars and restaurants at the time.


When Freeman realized that male graduate students were getting more mentoring and job opportunities than female graduate students were getting, she worked to make professional advancement more transparent and accessible to women. In 1969, she took this issue beyond the walls of the University by organizing a woman’s caucus for the American Political Science Association, a step other fields soon followed.


Freeman’s extensive writings and photographs have made her a well-known chronicler of the 1960s radical and women’s movements. It also allowed her to contribute to She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry.


“Jo was my de facto academic adviser,” Dore said, noting that few people realize how important Chicago and the University of Chicago was to the women’s movement. 


Freeman’s help was appreciated as the film, which took more than 20 years to make, covers a great number of themes and includes scores of women. “Two of the first things I suggested were that the film not focus on New York City and that it stay away from the media stars who came later in the 1970s,” Freeman said. Instead, the film tells the lesser-known story of the movement’s early activists.


Freeman and Booth continue to write, advise and lead, utilizing their organizing skills honed at the University and building on their experience creating the women’s liberation movement. Freeman is an author, political scientist, and attorney. Her latest book is We Will Be Heard: Women's Struggles for Political Power in the United States (2008), and she’s writing another book on her experiences in the Southern civil rights movement. Booth is an author, teacher, and labor organizer as well as the co-founder and president of the Midwest Academy, renowned schools for community organizations, citizen organizations and individuals committed to progressive social change. Her latest book is Citizen Action and the New American Populism (1986).


“When you look back on the ‘60s, it’s hard to imagine that things were the way they were,” Booth said. “It’s easy for people today to take the advancements for granted but we shouldn't because those gains might slip. In any event, there are many other issues to address.”


To learn more about the documentary, She's beautiful When She's Angry, visit: