This is not a regular film review, as Women: A Success Story is not a regular film. “A liberating tale for a new generation,” inspired by Joanna Williams’s book Women Vs Feminism, it was made by volunteers and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Youth Social Action and the Jack Petchey Foundation; a community project that demands to be seen and shared and discussed, by women and men (there’s more about it here). Directed by Ceri Dingle, it has been put together by 100 volunteers, with 40 talking heads, all women, simply discussing and recalling their lives and experiences over nine decades of feminist progress. Its optimistic conclusion is somewhat foregone. This is not a time to niggle.
Each witness – ranging in age from 16 to 90 – is named in a caption, along with their date of birth, to help place them in their era. The documentary’s oldest participant is Elsie Holdsworth, born in 1928, and one of seven kids. She paints a vivid picture of life at the sharp end of the century, listing “one gaslight, two bedrooms, six children, no radio, no TV, no car, no hot water.” Her memory is pin-sharp and she provides valuable testimony from a pre-enlightenment age when, as a young woman, a job she took at Woolworth’s caused others to say she’s “climbing the social ladder, joining the elite.” (The loaded E-word is being bandied about again by today’s political class in this self-negating age of Brexit, but Elsie’s treatment at the hands of her peers seems almost comical to our modern ears – there’s a touch of “know your place” about such snarky opprobrium.)
Among the more millennial talking heads is Caroline Cafasso, 21, an American who reflects the #MeToo generation when she observes that in her experience young women “consider many men to be dangerous towards women” and is rueful about being “stuck in hook-up culture.” Further insight from the young comes from Millie Small, 16, who offers another blithely alarming insight: “I don’t think pregnancy is a very big fear for people.”
The film is split into clearly titled chapters – The Sexual Revolution and Freedom; Contraception: Free at Last; Mind the Gap – and makes sparing use of public-domain archive from patrician public information films to grout the witness footage (some of the more alarmist ones are from the binary certainty of America’s postwar period). This is not a film that dazzles with bells and whistles; it’s all about the content. That it was borne of a collective effort dovetails into the very subject matter. If there is a sisterhood, it might well be found herein.
Among the reassuringly ordinary witnesses, we meet the extraordinary Nadine Strossen, the first woman president of the American Civil Liberties Union (she objects to women who report rape being classed as “victims” in what she regards as a “persecutorial culture”); also Ivana Habazin, a nun who watched Rocky and took up boxing, thereafter becoming IBO middleweight champion; we may not be too surprised to see Joanna Williams herself, at a Suffragette Picnic in East London – where else? Activists abound. Take Mally Best, thrown out of school at 15, she took an engineering course at college, specialising in aviation and navigation (she was the only woman among 79 men). When she took her exam onboard a warship, male seamen were put on a three-hour curfew so they wouldn’t come into contact with a woman.
For ideological balance, there’s a former beauty queen, Miss Severn Diamond, now in her 50s, who discusses the rights and wrongs of calling female friends “honey.” A proud pageant finalist at 22, she embodies a different strain of female empowerment, saying she “never found men intimidating”. (She discusses motor racing’s hot-button “grid girl” issue too, failing to see the harm.) Meanwhile, Hilary Salt, a member of Council of the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, declares herself against boardroom tokenism that she thinks is “degrading”. “To me,” she boldly states, “it doesn’t seem be of any advantage for me when I’m sitting on the Council, to be there with my vagina.”
Other, more opaque issues are addressed, from FGM to man-hating and whether or not glamour modelling is simply just “a personal choice” (one participant says she thinks of herself as a woman “from the neck down”).
There’s also a fascinating tour of the now-closed Voice & Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament exhibition, where we learn that in 1918 the first woman MP Constance Markievicz, never took her seat in Parliament as she was a member of Sinn Fein and as such “would never take an oath of allegiance to a power I meant to overthrow.” (The first sitting MP was Conservative Nancy Astor in 1919.) Wallflowers are not in evidence.
Shocking facts arise; domestic abuse was not even investigated by the police in the 1950s, and wasn’t until the 1976 Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act – although rape in marriage continued to be legal until 1990s. Within that context it brings you up short to hear a 1967-born West Midlands bank manager stating, “If you see someone brushing your knee as sexual assault you have seriously lost the plot.” Another woman of similar age is strident on the subject: “We didn’t feel cowed, or worried, we just said no.”
All this and the memory of using a mangle to clean nappies in the 1960s. You might optimistically conclude that men have gone a long way towards being house-trained in the interim. You might prefer to come away from the film with the lingering and powerful image of the daughter of an Eritrean freedom fighter who emigrated to the UK in the late 60s and “grew up with the idea that there was no difference between women and men.”
Either way, man or woman, whatever your view, or gender, or vintage, this film gives plenty of food for thought, and deserves to be shared.