Artists & Activists: Second Wave Feminist Filmmakers

Barbican Centre

We look back through some of the defining films from the Second Wave feminist filmmakers that began to lead the way for a new generation of female filmmakers. 

The Women’s Movement of the 1970s empowered women to step behind the camera in larger numbers. Their pioneering work platformed voices, stories and issues previously ignored or misrepresented. We look at some of the ground-breaking directors that made films outside the mainstream industry, often through activist film cooperatives and collectives.

Presented in collaboration with The Women's Film Preservation Fund (WFPF), the only programme in the world dedicated to preserving the cultural legacy of women in the industry through preserving films made by women, 'Artists and Activists' looked back at the women behind some of these defining films.

Being a Woman
Despite the sea-change in women’s expectations that began in the early 1970s, marriage and motherhood were still the presumed goals for women. Opportunities for higher education and career paths existed, but the women who pursued them were not expected to continue a career once they started families. For those that bucked this trend, there was little if any public and private support. Daycare was not widely available, work hours were not flexible, and men were not expected to take on responsibility for parenting and housework.

Growing Up Female presents teachers, counsellors, advertising executives, and examples of popular culture influences that point young women to traditional marriage as the pinnacle of female success, while minimising other options and positioning women as competitors rather than supporters of one another.

It was widely used by consciousness-raising groups to introduce feminism to a skeptical society. It was an inaugural film of the still active distribution co-operative New Day Films, founded by Reichert and Klein, with Liane Brandon and Amalie R. Rothschild.

Women Finding Their Voices
Film played an important role in mobilising the Women's Movement, sparking discussion on how their needs and aims were often different from those prescribed by the male-dominated society around them. These documentary films were watched in consciousness raising groups to provoke discussion and thinking on new possibilities for women. As women learned how to assert themselves, they assessed their situation, their ‘oppression’, as a means to moving forward and liberating themselves. And by the mid-80s, it became clear to politicians that women had become a formidable voting bloc.

Women's Voices: The Gender Gap

Created as a ‘get out the vote’ piece to mobilise women, this film was featured at the 1984 Democratic National Convention, and screened at the National Convention of the Organization of Women the same year.

Live footage of a diverse group of women in discussion is punctuated with satirical animated scenes by the cartoonist Nicole Hollander.

The film was a product of Kartemquin Films, the Chicago filmmaking collective, and was made by a group of women in lead creative roles, at a time when women were underrepresented in film production.

Janie's Janie

’First, I was my father's Janie, then I was my Charlie's Janie, now I'm Janie's Janie.’ — Jane Giese.

After years of abuse, a working-class woman in Newark, New Jersey, comes to realise that she has to take control of her own life.

The filmmakers combined interviews and vérité material, to give creative visual form to feminist concerns.

Janie’s Janie was produced by The Newsreel collective, an activist collective founded in 1967, with chapters across the US that made films covering the important social movements of the time.

Desire, Beauty and the Gaze
Cinema has ‘looked at’ women since its dawn, but with women reclaiming their place behind the camera they began to present new ways of looking, at each other, at men and at themselves.The subjects of these short films lent themselves to a variety of innovative approaches to filmmaking. These films are a smorgasbord of genres: narrative, documentary, animated and experimental films, many of which utilised dreams, diaries, performance or other creative means of storytelling. With the advent of the birth control pill and the Sexual Revolution, women could now embrace sex as something for their own pleasure, not only for reproduction. As lesbians began to live openly, they voiced their desires. And as women began to ask why they were still judged by how they looked, love relationships between men and women also changed.

Hair Piece

A quick-paced inventory of relaxers, gels and curlers – all-too familiar to African American women – this animated film, 'Hair Piece' puts a racial spin on the issue of unrealistic and impractical beauty ideals - in this case, one promoted by the white society they live in.

Hair Piece affirms the importance of African American women acknowledging who they are and defining themselves on their own terms.

Barbara Hammer's film begins with a woman’s voice declaring: ’I had a dream of women where men used to be: building, working, growing strong, building their bodies into strength for self-defense.’ This film collage, a celebration of lesbians, features along with other images, footage of the Women’s International Day march in San Francisco and from the second Lesbian Conference where Family of Woman played.

Desire Pie

Explicitly and unabashedly erotic, this humorous, fantasy-filled cell animation, celebrates the joys of sex from a woman’s point of view.

Desire Pie is an illustration of how women at that time were beginning to own their own sexual pleasure and appetites, in contrast to the prevailing view of films made by men that a woman’s sexual place was solely to satisfy male fantasies.

With the advent of the birth control pill and the Sexual Revolution, women could now embrace sex as something for their own pleasure, not only for reproduction. As lesbians began to live openly, they voiced their desires. And as women began to ask why they were still judged by how they looked, love relationships between men and women also changed.

Determined Women at Work
Against all odds, some women succeeded in the workplace, often at great personal cost, whether this was denying themselves or having to battle daily for the same worker’s rights afforded to men. Female workers, including the few who followed career paths, had little power in the workplace. They were exploited by male bosses, expected to work for lower wages than men in parallel positions, and vulnerable to sexual harassment. And for African-American women, these problems were compounded by racism.


Set in 1942, at a fictitious Hollywood studio, this narrative film centres on a light-skinned black studio executive, Mignon Dupree, who hides her racial identity to pursue her career.

While focused on racial prejudice, the film also depicts the male-dominated workplace where men with power view women as fair prey and woman with ambition and vision face obstacles.

As events unfold, Dupree contends with an industry that doesn’t want to give Blacks visible roles and a society that perpetuates false images.

The Personal is Political
Personal stories from women across the United States – seemingly isolated experiences – point to shared feelings and broader truths about a society in the flux of change.A catchphrase of the Women’s Liberation Movement was, ‘the personal is political’. Using this belief to shape their films, women pioneered the sub-genre of personal documentary, painting vivid portraits of individual lives that reveal broader truths.

Woo Who?

Cast off by her husband after 40 years of marriage, May Wilson moves to New York City and embarks on a new, independent life in which her art — what her family considered a mere hobby — becomes central.

A seemingly off-beat personal story, the film gives dimension to women our society tends to write off, showing that older women can lead full and fruitful lives outside of marriage.

Credits: Story

Artists & Activists: Second Wave Feminist Filmmakers takes place in the Barbican Cinemas on 2 & 3 June 2018.

Part of The Art of Change

Artists & Activists was curated by Ann Deborah Levy and Kirsten Larvick, Co-Chairs, the Women’s Film Preservation Fund, with programming assistance from Susan Lazarus and Amy Aquilino

The Women's Film Preservation Fund (WFPF) is the only programme in the world dedicated to preserving the cultural legacy of women in the industry through preserving films made by women. Founded in 1995 by New York Women in Film & Television in conjunction with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), WFPF has preserved more than 150 American films in which women have played key creative roles. These include works by early feminists, women of colour, social activists and artists that represent unique and irreplaceable contributions to American cinematic heritage. Films already preserved range from those of early pioneers, Lois Weber and Alice Guy Blaché, experimental filmmaker, Maya Deren, animator Mary Ellen Bute, to more contemporary feature director Julie Dash; director and cinematographer Jessie Maple; documentarians Trinh T. Minh-ha and Barbara Kopple, and more. The WFPF is rewriting the film history books, one moving picture at a time.
More information can be found online

New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT) supports women calling the shots in film, television and digital media. NYWIFT energises the careers of women in entertainment by illuminating their achievements, providing training and professional development, and advocating for equality. The preeminent entertainment industry association for women in New York, NYWIFT brings together nearly 2,100 women and men working both above and below the line. NYWIFT is part of a network of 40 women in film chapters worldwide, representing more than 10,000 members.
More information can be found online at:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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