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This essay analyzes how the documentary With Babies and Banners employs strategies of realism to counter the dominant history of the 1936 General Motors Sitdown Strike. By visually depicting women strikers' memories, this film challenges contemporary ideologies with regard to women and labor through an act of historical revisionism. I argue that this film not only creates a counterhistory, but also demonstrates women's capacity to transgress the gender politics that often constrain and oppress them.
As the women's movement began to gain momentum in the early 1970s, a number of women turned to independent filmmaking, and specifically to the medium of the documentary film, as a means to illustrate and advocate feminist politics. According to Patricia Erens, "These women saw film as a tool for raising consciousness and implementing social change; they had a message and a wish to treat subjects of importance to women that male filmmakers had so far ignored" (555). In addition to exploring themes of importance to women, these emerging filmmakers also were committed to making women themselves the important subjects of their films. In an effort to reject stereotypical images of women--and to offer an alternative to the versions of femininity projected through classical Hollywood cinema--a number of feminist filmmakers began creating documentary films that presented women as complex film subjects and provided a forum for them to share their lived experiences with audiences. Through the act of letting the women tell their own stories, such films offered women a strong sense of agency both through their roles in the film, and through the role they play in the restoration of a previously untold history.
Lyn Goldfarb, a producer of feminist documentaries, has described the broader socio-political goals of such a project: "we felt we had to give working women back their history. Union women see this and say they've been given their roots and now they'll continue the struggle" (qtd. in Ogintz 5). For these filmmakers, the creation of archive-based films offered more than just a correction to the historical record; they also were a means of feminist expression that fostered a critical consciousness in the public by filling "the still-gigantic gaps in public awareness of women's past" (Michel 238). One form of these early feminist documentaries featured groups of women who explicitly conveyed, in feminist scholar Julia Lesage's words, "their frustrated but sometimes successful attempts to enter and deal with the public world of work and power" ("The Political" 222). One film, in particular, was intended to recover the history of women's participation in the widespread American labor movement of the 1930s: With Babies and Banners, which recalls the United Auto Worker's (UAW) 1936 sitdown strike in Flint, Michigan and features the stories of the Women's Emergency Brigade members who were integral to the strikers' eventual victory. To construct such a film, the director employed a simple "archival" format, including interviews with the women, collections of still photographs and newspaper clips, and snippets from contemporary newsreel footage. This combination of film forms functions as a rhetorical device to both capture a dramatic sense of the past and emphasize the significance of these women's contributions within the context of a critical historical moment. By raising issues that a number of women faced in their lives and careers nearly four decades earlier (such as sexual harassment in the workplace, women's burden of the "double shift," and the obstacles women had to overcome in order to enter the public realm of union organizing), films such as With Babies and Banners also spoke to the political arguments for women's rights that were circulating in the culture during the period of their production.
Upon its release in 1978, With Babies and Banners functioned rhetorically as a form of consciousness-raising, a popular feminist strategy that brought together groups of women to express their feelings and experiences in the name of creating greater awareness of gender oppression. (1) Yet, the rhetorical work of this feminist historical documentary continues to endure almost three decades later because it also functions as a counterhistory of the 1930s labor movement--a history spoken from the margins that acts as both a documentation of oppression and a revisionist standpoint on women's standing and potential power. Paula Rabinowitz notes that what is at stake in the political projects of radical documentaries is "the status, meaning, interpretation, and perhaps even control of history and its narratives" (7).
This essay analyzes how With Babies and Banners rhetorically employs representational strategies of realism and the documentary form to put forward a correction to the historical record that counters established versions of events. By visually constructing an oral history consisting of women's memories from the 1930s, this film challenged ideology in the 1970s within the context of second-wave feminism through an act of historical revisionism. For contemporary audiences, however, I argue that the film's production of a counterhistory of the 1936 General Motors Sitdown Strike also clearly demonstrates women's capacity, as early as the 1930s, to transgress the gender politics that often constrain and oppress them, all in the service of greater social and political consciousness. I also discuss how this film invites twenty-first-century spectators, who through their viewing experience become part of this revised history, to better understand and embrace feminist ideas about women's worth, accomplishments, and potential. Such rhetorical work also has the ability to call a contemporary audience into being who now, with a more inclusive view of their historical past, has the equipment necessary to continue these women's legacy. As such, the sacrifices and achievements demonstrated through these women's shared past becomes a historical foundation on which to build women's collective potential and future feminist action.
I begin with a discussion of the evolution of the feminist documentary as a strategy for representing women's issues and experiences within the second-wave women's movement. I then turn to the issue of how, despite feminist film theorists' intense criticism of the form, the strategies of the realist cinema function rhetorically as an ideal medium for recovering the voices of these radical activists. Within the context of these feminist debates over the politics of representation, I discuss how contemporary viewers are invited to interpret the formal aspects of With Babies and Banners and the way the film uses realism to emphasize the dramatic narratives of women's historical past and their radical views with regard to issues such as socialism and feminism. Finally, I demonstrate how the realist form influences film specatorship, and specifically how With Babies and Banners serves a consciousness-raising function within the feminist and labor movements by calling dominant ideologies into question and conferring a political call to continued collective action.
A New Medium for a Growing Movement
By the mid- to late-1960s, documentary film had become the chosen medium for a number of groups trying to advocate social change. Although at the time the second-wave feminist movement was divided into three distinct groups based on varying ideas about the most effective form of political action, each of them also was acutely aware of the media's potential for cultural influence. From its beginning, members of the women's movement were, according to Jan Rosenberg, "preoccupied with the role the mass media play in shaping social values, institutions, and attitudes" (9). The different approaches these women adopted in their social criticism of the media varied greatly, however, depending on the particular perspectives and agendas associated with the branch of the movement to which members were aligned. The reformists, also known as the "older" women's rights branch, represented the typically mainstream members of the movement, notably those feminists associated with the National Organization for Women (NOW). Tending to draw their membership from white, middle- and upper-class, upwardly mobile women, this arm of the movement saw their mission as "the integration of women into the existing system as the equals of men," and generally focused their energy on "bread-and-butter" issues, such as women's work, the legal system, religion, and women's educational opportunities (McCormick 523). This group also typically directed their media reform efforts at changes within the dominant institutions, with a particular focus on the images of women in mainstream television and film, and the status of working women in these media outlets.
A second category, women's liberationists (often referred to as radical feminists), were smaller in number and emerged out of various protest movements, such as the Civil Rights, New Left, and Anti-War movements. Often considered the "younger" branch of the women's movement, these activists received their political socialization and training in the sixties counter-culture where they acquired a contempt for "mainstream" politics (Rosenberg 10). These feminists viewed the oppression of women "as primary but far from exclusive in a system that also exploits the poor, minority groups, gay people, and children" (McCormick 524). As a result, these radicals saw no merit in reforming the system of mass culture from within (in the vein of the reformists), but rather tried to create alternative forms of media (such as underground media and abstract art) in order to challenge or replace the negative images found in mainstream publications, television, and films.
A third grouping of women within the larger feminist movement was closely related to the liberationists, but viewed women's oppression from a Marxist perspective. Considered the "politicos" of the movement, these activists emphasized the largely structural determinants of women's oppression. This focus distinguished the Marxists from the radical feminists' concentration on the psychological aspects of women's oppression, namely issues of identity and interpersonal relationships. Marxist feminists instead focused their critique on economic structures and believed that the woman question was inseparable from class oppression and the exploitative capitalist system. Working from a largely socialist framework, these women viewed alternative media as a way to …