For many (maybe most) people born after, say, 1975, the words "women's liberation" conjure up slightly comical images of women burning their bras. It's hard for them to get their minds around how revolutionary and bitterly divisive a social phenomenon the women's movement was. In 1970, a standing-room only audience filled New York City's Town Hall for a...read more
For many (maybe most) people born after, say, 1975, the words "women's liberation" conjure up slightly comical images of women burning their bras. It's hard for them to get their minds around how revolutionary and bitterly divisive a social phenomenon the women's movement was. In 1970, a standing-room only audience filled New York City's Town Hall for a "dialogue on women's liberation" moderated by Norman Mailer. Harper's magazine had just published Mailer's contentious essay "The Prisoner of Sex," an impassioned response to Kate Millett's controversial cultural and social history Sexual Politics (1970), which included a chapter on Mailer. The evening's speakers were Jacqueline Ceballos, president of the New York Chapter of the National Organization of Women; English firebrand Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch; lesbian provocateur and Village Voice columnist Jill Johnston; and literary critic Diana Trilling, who had some 20 years on the next youngest panelist and represented a decidedly less confrontational brand of feminism. It's the sharp-tongued Greer who gives the film its title, hissing at one especially raucous juncture that she didn't attend so she could to field insults from hecklers at "town bloody hall." D.A. Pennebaker's record of the event is technically rough, but the material is fascinating if only because it's hard to believe that non-academics once counted "dialectic," "adumbration" and "sacerdotal" among their roster of fighting words. Ceballos quickly retreats into the background, leaving Greer, Trilling and Mailer whose youthful pugnacity had already hardened into defensive belligerence to duke it out over issues and questions posed by audience members ranging from novelist Susan Sontag, literary critics Elizabeth Hardwick, Anatole Broyard and Cynthia Ozick (who scores the evening's single direct hit against Mailer) to pioneering feminist theorist Betty Friedan. Johnston vanishes in a snit early on, after her rambling, free-associative opening statement is cut short by Mailer, who counters her protests by pointing out quite reasonably, his evident impatience aside that she's already five minutes over the ten-minute limit Ceballos and Greer had been good enough to respect. (Trilling hadn't yet spoken.) Johnston responds by inviting two friends in the audience to join her onstage in a group hug: Even the never-at-a-loss-for-words Mailer clearly doesn't know what to say when the three women wind up rolling around together on the floor. D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus's record of the event is an invaluable document, its technical limitations notwithstanding.
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