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Historical film documents Second Wave Feminism

When Harvard Russian scholar Rochelle Ruthchild participated in the Second Wave women’s takeover of the Harvard University building on 888 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, she never dreamed she would be producing a documentary film with fellow Brandeis University Visiting Scholar Susan Rivo of the Women’s Studies Research Center. On March 6, 1971, which was International Women’s Day, the event involved hundreds of women whose hopes and triumphs, conflicts and tensions highlighted what is now called Second Wave Feminism. Forty years later, the film “Left on Pearl” is in its final edits. Ruthchild is the executive producer. .As a result, the Cambridge Women’s Center, the longest continuously operating women’s center in the US, was born. Filmmaker Susie Rivo was barely a toddler. Her issues would become more of what is now known as Third Wave Feminism, which addressed a more diverse population.

The generation gap, as Ruthchild describes it, lies in the technological world of cyber space. She is one of a feminist collective formed to document this action in the feminist movement, states that “we found Susie because we needed technical assistance. There’s a generation gap here and younger women are much more comfortable with technology than Second Wave Feminists.” Perhaps it’s as much of a gap as Seneca Falls( the 1848 landmark suffragist event that began First Wave Feminism) is to Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique in1963. Friedan's book marked the beginning of Second Wave Feminism, the movement to establish legal, political, and sexual equality in the workplace and in family life.

Ruthchild is no stranger to controversy, even changing her name to acknowledge that she is the daughter of Ruth. Dropping out of her National Defense Scholarship to study Russian history, she become involved in the Vietnam anti-war movement. Resuming her studies later and armed with a Ph.D., she is now Professor Emerita of Graduate Studies at Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. Because she specialized in international issues of women’s equality, that she became part of the cohort of hundreds of women on March 6, 1971 to occupy a Harvard University owned building and declare it a Women’s Center. The demonstration began in the heart of Cambridge, but when it approached Pearl Street, it took a left and arrived at the building overlooking the Charles River at 888 Memorial Drive. The saga that followed epitomizes the hopes and conflicts that typified what is now called Second Wave Feminism. After the drama of occupying the abandoned building was played out with police confrontations, the enthusiasm remained and supporters raised enough money to buy a building at 46 Pleasant Street in Cambridge and found The Women’s Center. Its mission statement spelled out the idealism that was forming during the early 60’s and 70’s:

“ The goal of the Women's Center is justice. We celebrate the victories, voices, and the survival of women - individually and collectively. Our mission is:

To provide women with the resources and support they need to emerge from conditions of domestic violence, sexual abuse, poverty, discrimination, social isolation, and degradation. To challenge and change the attitudes, actions, and institutions that subjugate women”

The film Left on Pearl features the junction of women’s rights with other contemporary political movements of the time - civil rights, Women’s Strike for Peace, African-Americanpower struggles, and LGBT alternate life styles. According to the film’s website: “A key demand of the occupiers was for Harvard to build low- and moderate-income housing for neighborhood residents being displaced by Harvard’s rapid expansion.” Perhaps this was the first public awareness and protest about what we today call gentrification.

Ruthchild describes how she and others who were part of the "occupation" collected film interviews and naively thought that they could do the documentary by themselves. In time they realized that they had technical problems of lighting and sound. Professional film maker Susie Rivo was a natural for this collaboration because in her own words, she “grew up in the shadow of Berkeley in the 60’s. I was always interested in feminist ideas.”

The Free Speech Movement of 1964 and 1965 with leader Mario Savio at Sather Gatedemanding free speech and academic freedom, sparked emotions practically in her back yard.Rivo is an awarding-winning director/producer whose work has been broadcast on PBS stations and screened at Sundance, South by Southwest, and Women in the Director’s Chair film festivalas. Before Rivo’s involvement, Ruthchild’s group thought they could edit the transcripts of over 50 people interviewed, cut and paste them into an order, but didn’t take into account the flow of a film.

“You have to take into account many layers and levels when telling a story,” Rivo instructs. “It has to emerge. The film is almost an entity within itself and has an almost set trajectory. There is a sense that it is a living entity and that there is inevitability about things will turn out. Almost as if it was meant to be.” The story film tells is riveting. It takes place at a time when classified ads for employment specified the gender of the applicants, abuse and abortions were kept secret, and married women could not open their own bank accounts. Clips from 70’s television news, newspaper articles, and found footage, documented these dated attitudes and contrast with eyewitness accounts of the various sexual attitudes and adventures of the takeover. The interviews include women from various races, socio-economic families, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. There are humorous moments as well, highlighted in this documentation of one of the most significant historical movements of the 20th century.

The duo was asked about the experience of creative collaboration compared to individual art creation. where focus, timelessness, and researchers have reported even an ecstasy. Rivo describes focus, timelessness, and even as ecstasy as happening “with individual art creation, but not necessarily with collaboration. It’s a different kind of creativity than painting or singing.” Ruthchild describes the experience of writing her book, Equality and Revolution: Women's Rights in the Russian Empire 1905 - 1917, as a “way you get completely immersed.”

“Film is inherently a collaborative process,” according to Rivo. “It’s hard to do by yourself because of the diversity of skills necessary. For instance, at a certain point I stopped shooting and hired a another videographer to film because I wanted to focus more on content and what people were saying.” She left some technicalities to others so she could direct the content.

Left on Pearl received a spirited reception when it was shown in Cambridge in its early forms because many of the attendees were actually part of the building takeover. The enthusiasm was unparalleled. Now this enthusiasm has to be translated into fund raising. For more information see:http://www.leftonpearl.org/

Both Ruthchild and Rivo will be talking about their collaborative efforts at the Brandeis University’s Festival of the Arts on Thursday, April 24th at the Women’s Studies Research Center, 515 South Street,Waltham, MA. Admission is free.

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