Women March, the current exhibition in the Joyce B. Cowin Gallery of Women’s History, looks at 200 years of women’s activism, including a variety of strategies and tactics, from speeches and writing to fundraising and protests. It includes more than 80 film clips from 1915 to 2019 to create an immersive experience and highlight the relationship between the media and collective action: Activism requires an audience, and as technology changed over the 20th century, so too did activist methods. (Visitors will be able to view the exhibition again when we reopen on Friday, Sept. 11.)
The development of film in the early 20th century coincided with the fight for the vote for women. The pageants and marches organized by suffrage organizations had a symbiotic relationship with the development of newsreels. These short documentary films were distributed weekly to theaters nationwide (many no more than converted storefronts) where anyone could pay a nickel to see the news as well as silent, live-action short features and cartoons. But in addition to promoting the suffrage cause, it is quite possible that newsreels helped change attitudes about activism itself: as people saw footage of women marching, is it a surprise that marching for a cause became socially acceptable? In Women March, a large projection shows newsreel footage of suffragists parading down Fifth Avenue in 1915 and 1917, followed by a different clip of the men, women, and children who protested racial violence with the NAACP’s 1917 Silent March. Other footage shows women registering and voting for the first time in 1920.
Footage of activism differs widely depending on who is behind the camera. By the 1930s, organizations could make films for their own purposes; Women March includes two grainy reels of enthusiastic rallies and parades produced by the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Choirs sing, children chew gum, and signs in English and Yiddish demand education and denounce fascism. In the 1940s, smoothly produced government-produced newsreels with rousing soundtracks showed members of the women’s military auxiliaries marching in formation and “Rosie the Riveters” building airplanes. The narrator urged viewers to join the fight (the soundtrack does not play in the Cowin gallery) while assuring them that wartime industrial work wasn’t too difficult for women.
By 1955, more than half of the households in the U.S. had a black and white television, and network news programs soon eclipsed the newsreel. Faraway problems now arrived in American living rooms. One clip in the exhibition shows a demonstration for integrated schools at New York’s City Hall, belying the myth that segregation only happened in the south. Another clip shows a more metaphorical march, with mothers escorting their children to register at a newly desegregated elementary school in Louisiana. One child wears a lovely dress and a corsage: this was a big moment, and she was ready for her closeup. I would like to imagine that such sympathetic portrayals increased empathy towards these children.
By 1970, television prices dropped due to larger scale production and imports, and ninety five percent of American households owned a set. Social movements continued to use news coverage to bring their ideas to the dinner table, and the revolutions were, in fact, televised. Viewers who were paying attention could see how tactics used by one movement, such as sit-ins, were adopted by another. Clips in this section of Women March include the march to Selma, protests against forced sterilization, and a nation-wide demonstration for women’s equality. One of our favorite clips shows a sit-in at New York City Mayor John Lindsay’s office to protest cuts in day care: mothers nurse babies and children wearing hand-crocheted pants get cracker crumbs all over the carpet.
In the early 1980s, the technology for shooting broadcast quality video shrunk to accommodate hand-held cameras. Video became easier to produce and edit, allowing networks to have that day’s footage ready for broadcast on the six o’clock news. Moreover, satellite technology made it possible to capture video almost anywhere as long as a news truck with an uplink could send the video to a station. However, video from the 80s and 90s has a much lower resolution than film, making it impossible to project on a large scale. Instead, we used clips from this time in an installation that projected multiple clips projected at smaller size with their audio tracks, to give the sense that the speakers and marchers are talking with each other. For example, a 1982 film of a local Florida march for the Equal Rights Amendment needed to be shown at this smaller scale, but the upside was that viewers could hear the marchers’ chants. Likewise, ebullient marchers in the 1993 Dyke March were also captured on video and featured in our gallery.
In recent years, cell phones have made video easy to create and disseminate, disrupting the balance of power in the visual record of political activism. Several clips in Women March, such as vivid footage of the Indigenous People’s March in 2019, come not from network or cable news archives but from independent filmmakers, either through footage houses or licensed through individuals. Activists produce their own content for websites and fundraising; the Lakota Law Project, for example, was pleased that we wanted to use a segment from a piece they made with Madonna Thunder Hawk. Other groups use the ubiquity of video to convey their message, staging flash mobs, speak-ins, and marches with an eye to all those portable cameras and social media accounts. One such piece shows a group performing a performance piece against sexual violence that originated in Chile and has become a global sensation because of the power of social media.
The next time you watch news coverage of a demonstration or a protest video on social media, consider the role of the film. Who created it, and who is the consumer? What ideas are being broadcast, and how might the recording technology and method of dissemination affect how those ideas are broadcast and received? From their early role in rendering marching widely acceptable, to today’s activists, each with their own video camera and ability to stream their footage, moving images have had a great impact on social change.
Written by Sarah Gordon, Curatorial Scholar in Women’s History, Center for Women’s History