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One Movie Punch

Oct 18, 2018

Hi everyone!

Welcome back to Documentary Thursdays. This week, we return with a film about some women who had this crazy idea that they should be treated equally not just legally, but also socially and culturally. Crazy, right? For a few other films in that same vein, check out “Seeing Allred” (Episode #041), “Mercury 13” (Episode #116), “RBG” (Episode #200), “City of Joy” (Episode #256), and “Reversing Roe” (Episode #266). And if you have any suggestions, let me know at

And now...

Today’s movie is “Feminists: What Were They Thinking?” (2018), the Netflix Original documentary directed by Johanna Demetrakas. The documentary follows up with the women photographed for the 1977 photography book “Emergence” by Cynthia MacAdams, sharing their experiences about the women’s movement before, during, and after second wave feminism reshaped our notion of gender equality. The documentary features Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Judy Chicago, Laurie Anderson, and many more.

Spoilers ahead.

Back in college I took a course in Feminist Philosophy with Dr. Crista Lebens at UW-Whitewater. I think it was her first year as a faculty member at the university, and I was excited to take the course with a few friends. But what I wasn’t prepared for was to have my entire worldview turned upside, so much so that I wasn’t even able to sort out the many complexities of feminism, everything from early European writings addressing gender equality to a complex analysis of ideas like standpoint epistemology and intersectionality as emergent within third-wave feminism. I clearly needed a lot of gender deprogramming, and a lot of catchup on women’s history and the fight for women’s rights, and while I can’t say that happened by the end of that semester, I can say a couple years later it finally clicked in my head, and my entire worldview changed. Oh, Dr. Lebens, if you’re listening or run across this, thank you so much for helping me understand concepts like second wave feminism and patriarchy. It will not only help with this review, but has helped immensely in raising my daughter, especially in these times.

“Feminists: What Were They Thinking?” gives us a reflective look back at second wave feminism, a period defined by women’s rights activism most prominent from the early 1960s through the early 1980s, generally marked by the publication of “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan. Whereas the first-wave of feminism was mostly focused on enfranchisement of voting and property rights, the second-wave of feminism began to challenge not just codified gender discrimination within the laws, but also social, cultural, and political expectations. MacAdams’ “Emergence” captures a lot of influential feminist activists of the time, and I really enjoyed how Johanna Demetrakas uses it as a vehicle to look back at feminist organizing as a whole. Each subject’s personal experience helps us understand the history of feminist activism, but also the issues and concerns which gave rise to that activism, like domestic abuse, involuntary commitment, and workplace discrimination. And the growing consciousness of women around the world, with a powerful segment from Malala Yousafzai’s speech before the United Nations, which I believe will come to be seen as one of the most powerful and important acts of human history. The film reminds us of where we were as a society, where we are now, where we are headed, and glimpses of how to get there. It also pulls a number of classic and subversive artistic performances that are well worth looking into if you aren’t familiar, particularly Meredith Monk’s work. 

I do have some criticism of the film, especially the lack of racial and economic diversity among the subjects interviewed. In fact, one of the major criticisms of second-wave feminism was the lack of intersectionality with other progressive organizing efforts, keeping the focus on what were primarily problems for white, middle-class women. It’s the same kind of thinking that happened within the LGBTQ community during the fight for same-sex marriage recognition, which was primarily a middle-class fight, when many other concerns for working-class and LGBTQ people of color, like health care access and police brutality, are much greater (and more pressing) concerns. The film does discuss this lack of intersectionality, though, towards the end, as the film begins to chart the future, and you can hear in the newer generations that they not only understand, but embrace intersectionality, especially for the latest wave of organizing to not just fight for the remaining causes, but to protect the rights that were secured during second-wave feminism. 

“Feminists: What Were They Thinking?” (2018) is a loving, but critical look back at second-wave feminism, exploring the spirit of those times while looking ahead to what it will take in this new wave of organizing. Johanna Demetrakas works with Cynthia MacAdams’ “Emergence” as the means by which to reflect on feminism as a whole through engaging with the featured activists and artists. Fans of feminism and political movements, or folks who want a better understanding of second-wave feminism, should definitely check out this film, along with probably every women out there. Also, I love the subversive title and believe more than one member of the patriarchy will be tricked into watching this film as an anti-feminist critique. And that puts a smile on my face.

Rotten Tomatoes: NR

Metacritic: NR

One Movie Punch: 9.2/10

“Feminists: What Were They Thinking?” (2018) is rated TV-MA and is currently streaming on Netflix and playing in select theaters.