Completed in 1973, by first time female filmmaker, Sandra Hochman (known primarily for her poetry and journalism), Year of the Woman documents various interviews, discussions, and interventions by members of the Women’s Movement in the 1972 Democratic National Convention—specifically focused around questioning the media’s limited coverage of African-American Democratic Presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm and examining the role of women in politics at large. This film that was made by an all-female crew celebrates the contributions of female filmmaking both in front of and behind the camera.
Viewing Year of the Woman in 2019, nearly half a century after its debut, brings fascinating new meanings to its message. In some ways, it is a striking view of how much progress society has made concerning women’s rights: the statistics on female representation in U.S. governmental bodies have improved dramatically from what Hochman quotes in 1972. In others, it shows how some changes are much slower to come: we see male politicians claiming none of their running mates were women because no qualified women were available, hedging on the practicalities of reproductive rights, and laughing over the idea that they could be sexist.
Part of Year of the Woman’s significance is how it manages to capture so exactly the sexism of its precise moment in history; however, the way that the film can resonate with presence can make approaching the film in this way challenging. An excellent way to gain context on the climate at the time of the film’s release is by examining the critical reception the piece received when it first screened in 1973. Since the film’s rhetoric is gender-oriented, looking at its reviews through the lens of gender is also helpful.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of the dismissive responses the film received came from male critics of Hochman’s time. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby calls the film a “silly, self-indulgent semidocumentary,” writing the film up negatively on two separate occasions. Even Variety’s piece by Gene Voskowitz, clearly intended to be a positive write-up, comes across as disrespectfully light-hearted about the film’s subject matter: he refers to presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, whose campaign’s lack of media coverage is an issue Hochman spearheads in the film, simply as a “black gal.”
Some of the negative reviews are so openly bigoted that it’s difficult to imagine a time when they would have been cleared for publication. The first sentence of the Steve Ditlea’s review in Andy Warhol’s Interview comes across as particularly self-assured in its expression of sexism: “One viewing of “Year of the Woman” should be enough to turn you into a misogynist, even if you’ve never considered the possibility before.” For as awful as that statement is, at least that particular critic does not appear to have had the chance to harass Hochman directly; Vincent Canby starts his review with an anecdote about heckling Hochman at the film screening. When Hochman said to him that oppressed people have fantasies, he fired back, “So do unoppressed people.” (Canby appears to have found this so witty that he had to take almost 9 lines of a 33-line review to recount the story.)
These criticisms provide cutting insight into the environment Hochman faced as she was creating the film. Rather than calling into question her rhetoric, her editing, or any of the other objective aspects of her piece, Hochman’s male critics go straight for personal attacks. They find it easier and more comfortable to cast her as a frivolous, selfish woman rather than to engage with her concerns or her technical abilities.
Female critics, on the whole, had much more nuanced and neutral takes. Cosmo’s critic, Liz Smith, described Year of the Woman as a “colorful crazy-quilt documentary,” lauding it for “lay[ing] bare the clownishly foolish, antiwoman atmosphere of the male-dominated political world.” Vogue features a write-up from Rosalyn Drexler with a more critical approach. She calls the film “a charming, funny, quasi-ego trip,” before immediately adding, “but so what? If you don’t understand ridiculous, you don’t understand politics.” Even though her overall review is not particularly positive – she ends with a quip about the admission price only being worth it if someone else is paying for your ticket – her approach is still a more accurate reflection on the actual contents of the film, and strikingly free from attacks on Hochman’s personal character.
Thanks to the film’s sporadic screening history – a story in its own right – these initial reviews are likely the best critical picture of the film we have. Reviews published in the years since tend to focus on the film’s impact as an experimental piece, or its scarcity, rather than engaging with its content like its contemporary viewers could. By reading what people thought about the film back in 1973, we can better understand how Year of the Woman would have screened to its original audience: the American people of the time, and particularly American women suffering under political inequality.
Year of the Woman will screen on Monday, April 22 at 7pm at Indiana University Cinema. A post-screening discussion will follow the film.