‘MeJane’, ‘Refractory Girl’, ‘Scarlet Woman’, ‘Off Our Backs’, ‘Spare Rib’, ‘Common Threads’ and other magazines and samizdat newsletters of the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement gained enormous followings. Many collections remain in the papers of women activists who were not content to remain voiceless, in the background, unheard or unseen. Sit-ins, demonstrations, marches and take-overs of establishment buildings were characteristic of women’s activism. Women marched on parliaments and legislatures, took over microphones and disrupted establishment meetings and conferences where they had not been denied a place, rather had not been thought of at all.
‘Left on Pearl’ is a film project under the auspices of The 888 Women’s History Project with cinematographer Lynn Weissman and director/producer and filmmaker Susie Rivo. It documents the women’s take-over of 888 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, Massachusetts on 6 March 1971 (billed as International Women’s Day in the documentary project). The building, owned by Harvard University, was declared a Women’s Centre, the occupation ’highlighted the hopes and triumphs, as well as the conflicts and tensions, within what is now called Second Wave Feminism’. This action, by hundreds of women, founded the longest continuously running women’s centre in the United States, the Cambridge Women’s Center.
‘Left on Pearl’ sets the take-over centre-stage, with an exploration of:
… what led women of different class, racial, and ethnic backgrounds to join the Women’s Liberation Movement, how this movement fit into the broader social ferment of the 1960’s and early 1970’s, and how the Second Wave fit into the larger scope of women’s history in the 20th century.
1970s Women’s Liberation Movement activism not only brought together women of diverse backgrounds. It ensured women’s voices were heard in political struggles of the time which women saw as intimately connected with women’s drive for a new world where egalitarian ideals would be met and women’s independence, bodily integrity and empowerment would be central. The 888 action was determined that women’s space should be free for women to consciousness raise and engage with the antiwar movement, civil rights, black power, lesbian and gay rights movements on women’s terms. Consistent with past wmen’s movement struggles, affordable housing was one of the issues taken up – reminiscent of Jane Addams and the Chicago movement of times past, where women trade unionists and suffragists like Alice Henry and Miles Franklin took up the banner.
Unlike too many purported histories of the women’s movement, ‘Left on Pearl’ recognises the significant presence of women from all class backgrounds. Working-class women worked and demonstrated alongside middle-class women and university students. This was inevitable taking into account the location of Harvard’s 888 Memorial Drive building, for it was situated in the ‘predominantly African-American Riverside community’. This led to a ‘key demand’ being that Harvard should ‘build low and moderate income housing for neighborhood residents being displaced by Harvard’s rapid expansion’.
‘Left on Pearl’s filmmakers reveal that the film came out of a project documenting this history, begun in the lead-up to the 30th anniversary of the occupation. This developed into a massive undertaking of interviews, curating memorabilia, newsletters and other documents kept by some of those originally involved, hunting out women who had been amongst the original occupiers to seek their reminiscences. This in turn led to the documentary project which has been ‘more than ten years in the making’. The project:
… represents a true labor of love. It documents a collective action undertaken by hundreds of women that resulted in the founding of a vital women’s institution still in existence today. The film’s form and structure also mirror the collective nature of the events it documents. [The] narrative emerges through a multitude of voices, representing various perspectives, some contradictory, some complementary, many humorous – a testament to the chaotic and unpredictable way that collective action actually occurs.
Women were brave. Undaunted by Harvard University authorities, security services and police, they resisted efforts to have them relinquish this all-women’s space. They stuck to the principle that women should have somewhere secure, safe and ‘for women only’. They did not back down nor give up, kowtow or succumb to the pressures of authority and establishment diktat. Like women the world over, they developed manifestos, made links with Women’s Liberation groups around the country, and determined that this was an action and a decade that would not be forgotten.
‘Left on Pearl’ has a determined group of filmmakers and supporters following through on this expectation: that what women did on their own behalf and on behalf of women the country over and, indeed, the world over, would be remembered. The occupation of the 888 Memorial Drive building has its own standing monument – the continuing women’s centre. It now has in the offing – to be completed in 2014 - a documentary monument which will ensure that the energy and courage that went into the making of the women’s centre will keep the memory strong and visible.
Jocelynne A. Scutt (c) January 2014
With assistance from notes compiled by the filmmakers for raising post-production funds for ‘Left on Pearl’:
Filmmakers, Production Crew and Producers
Director/Producer: Susie Rivo - award-winning filmmaker and Visiting Scholar at the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. She holds an MFA in cinema production from San Francisco State University.
- Rochelle G. Ruthchild participated in the takeover of 888 Memorial Drive and later in the founding of the Cambridge Women’s Center. She is author of Equality and Revolution: Women’s Rights in the Russian Empire, 1905-1917
- Libby Bouvier - Head of Archives at the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and was the resident manager of the Cambridge Women’s Center from 1972 to 1986. In 1980, she co-founded The History Project documenting LGBTQ Boston.
- Susan K. Jacoby - member of the first core collective at the Women’s Center, and a founding member of its Emotional Counseling Group, which responded to women in crisis, and active in the Coalition to Stop Institutional Violence.
Editor: Iftach Shavit - award winning film and video editor with more than 20 years of experience in documentary, commercial and corporate projects. His work has screened at festivals around the world.
Director of Photography: Lynn Weissman - filming for documentaries, educational and non-profit media for over 15 years, her award-winning productions and camerawork broadcast on the web, and on public television in the US and Canada.
The ‘Left on Pearl’ facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/leftonpearl (accessed 11 January 2014)
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