Director shares stories of women’s rights struggle

When she was 9 years old, Jennifer Lee didn’t just hear about the women’s liberation movement in New York; she lived it.
“The women’s movement was happening, and you absorbed it,” Lee said. “The feeling of that movement was one of incredible promise and joy.”
Three decades later in 2004, she began a 10-year-long project to make the documentary, “Feminist: Stories from Women’s Liberation.” The film premiered at UTD on Sept. 18, with the School of Interdisciplinary Studies Gender Studies Program and the Galerstein Women’s Center sponsoring the event.
“Feminist,” which focuses on the significance of the second wave of the women’s liberation movement, has played in public libraries across the country, was distributed to gender studies classes in colleges and was even shown by invitation in three universities in Islamabad after its release in 2013.
It later won Best of the Fest for documentary at the Los Angeles Women’s International Film Festival.
“I really didn’t know how people would take it,” Lee said.  “I don’t have a master’s degree in women’s studies or a Ph.D., but I am a person who felt the need to do this, and I hope that’s inspiring to people.”
Lee financed the film herself, save the $12,000 she proposed on Kickstarter toward the end of her project. She filmed the documentary while pregnant with her daughter, Lillian.
Her main challenge came when she started balancing her responsibilities as a new mother with her full-time job as a visual effects editor — the thought of her unfinished documentary lingering in the back of her mind.
“If I have half an hour tonight, I’ll edit, and if I have half an hour tomorrow, I’ll edit more,” she said. “And I just kept going.”
At first, her husband came along and helped with the video shooting. If he couldn’t make it, she’d find friends who were willing.
While creating her documentary, Lee interviewed more than 35 women — women who she believed played a crucial role in the second wave of women’s liberation movement but weren’t necessarily known.
The women took her on a journey to World War II where it all began. They then introduced lesser-known but transformative events that occurred during the movement, including the Statue of Liberty takeover and the abortion speak out in 1969.
Lee said The Presidential Commission on the Status of Women was a significant milestone in inspiring the women’s movement. The commission initiated by Assistant Secretary of Labor Esther Peterson was tasked with advising President John F. Kennedy with issues concerning women’s equality in education, in the workplace and under the law.
Feminists interviewed included Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” and women involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was one of the key organizations of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s. The women who were already fighting for racial equality fought for gender equality as well.
At a young age, Lee associated herself with feminism. When she was 17 or 18, Lee lived in the Quaker Meeting House in the artists’ area of Atlanta, Little Five Points, where she began volunteering at the feminist bookstore, “Charis Books and More.”
According to the feminist and film director, there are only 13 feminist bookstores left, but at one point, there were a couple hundred across the nation.
“It was extremely important as a teenage girl to sit in a feminist bookstore and see and hear the posters, pamphlets, self-published books and women’s music on the stereo — all about feminist history,” Lee said. “That shaped me as a woman.”
But it was a segment from “Meet the Press” on the court case Roe v. Wade that sparked her 10-year goal.
“Everyone at the table were men, and I’m wondering, ‘Why aren’t there any women at the table?’” Lee said.
She came to work the next day and told a coworker about what she had seen and how it left her in shock. That’s when Lee realized something that would change her perspective of the world — people were afraid of the word “feminist.”
“She whispered to me, ‘Are you a feminist?’” Lee said. “I whispered back, ‘Well yes, I am a feminist,’ but then why were we whispering it in the first place, when it has been 40 years since the women’s liberation movement?”
The word “feminist” has been made congruous with words such as man-hater and lesbian, Lee said, but feminism is not about that. It is a movement that values everyone regardless of gender, according to Karen Prager, the program head of Gender Studies.
“Women can and must be full citizens of the countries and states in which they live,” Prager said. “Their rights and opportunities should never be restricted simply because they are women.”
When Lee began making the documentary, she couldn’t recall ever seeing a film on the entirety of the women’s movement.
“We don’t have cultural memory of the women’s liberation movement, and that is a significant problem in our country right now,” Lee said.
Lee believes Aug. 26, the day women won the right to vote and the day of the 1970 march, should become a federal holiday.
“That’s a perfect day to tell young girls and boys what women achieved in our country,” she said. “Because not remembering those women is a real tragedy.”
Lee hopes there will be more films made on women’s liberation and that her documentary will help to dissolve the myth that this was a white-women-only movement.
Rejecting black women from the movement for gender equality erases the accomplishments of women like Pauli Murray, who Lee considers her hero.
Murray was a black woman who stood side by side with Friedan and whose work played a big part in racial and gender equality.
“She was an unsung hero in that we don’t know her name, and we should know her name,” Lee said.
What feminists want, Lee said, is to witness women getting into politics and leading 50 percent with men, and for women to know they can take the path they want and be treated fairly without sexism.
That’s why Lee is passing along these stories of the women’s liberation movement to younger generations, including her 9-year-old daughter.
“She won’t have to whisper ‘feminism,’ because she’ll know it,” Lee said. “It will be engrained in her. It will be in her consciousness.”

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