Sister Acts: An Exhilarating Tribute to the Feminists of the 1970s, Writes Rachel Cooke
Cooke, Rachel, New Statesman (1996)
The first part of Vanessa Engle's fine three-part documentary series Women (8 March, 9pm) was dominated by what must have been one of the last interviews Marilyn French ever gave (she died, aged 79, last May). It was a piercing performance. Behind her Manhattan desk, the writer looked jaundiced and a little frail but her anger was undimmed; I pictured Engle, off screen, warming her hands on it.
Unlike some of the director's other feminist interviewees (this film, Libbers, was about the 1970s; in the next, Engle will tackle contemporary activists and mothers), French was unwilling to laugh at her former self. For her, liberation is anything but a giggle. "I am sick of it," she said, quietly, of violence against women. "I've always been sick of it."
In 1977, French published her bestselling novel The Women's Room, which posited the idea that many marriages were stultifying and many men rapists. Women readers fell on it in a kind of ecstasy of hunger. Engle asked French if it was pleasing to get letters from those who recognised their own lives in her book. "No," she said. "I felt anguished. I felt their anguish, and it was very painful."
It was worth watching Libbers for the sight of French alone, but the truth is that Engle served up an embarrassment of riches. I watched her film twice without feeling a single moment of boredom. They were all here: Susan Brown-miller, Ann Oakley, Robin Morgan, Sheila Row-botham and even the reclusive Kate Millett, whose book Sexual Politics celebrates its 40th birthday this year. (Millett, who as a young firebrand told the world that masculine rule was at an end, is now a whiskery old lady with a bent spine and a junk-filled farmhouse; I didn't notice any cats running about, but I felt sure I could smell them.)
I loved the way Engle set all these women in their domestic worlds: behind their desks, or in their kitchens. There was a lot of fun to be had using the pause button on your digital recorder, the better to examine the books on the shelves, the postcards pinned to the wall. …