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It's finally the 'Year of the Woman'

Published January 16, 2004

This time, the revolution wasn't televised. That's odd since several famous network newsmen felt the heat of a flash point in American culture.

Dan Rather ducked out fast. Mike Wallace and Roger Mudd looked indifferent. Walter Cronkite hid behind Mudd. Their producers never ordered the crew to turn on their cameras and microphones to record the moment. They were too busy making wisecracks, anyway.

Mainstream media didn't take the feminist movement seriously in 1972. Certainly not those button-down CBS News reporters who tried to ignore a contingent of women loudly complaining about the network's lack of coverage on abortion, Shirley Chisholm's presidential campaign, and any other issue concerning women.

"We are not freaks. We are dignified human beings," the women chanted in a nearly empty Miami Beach convention center where on the previous day Democrats had nominated Sen. George McGovern as their candidate. Tempers flared. The women stood at the podium tossing dollar bills at the newsmen: "Money for the media whores," they yelled, while a few crew members scrambled to pick up the cash.

The impromptu protest never made it on the evening news. Only one camera was rolling. It belonged to an all-female film crew led by poet, author and first-time filmmaker Sandra Hochman. The confrontation became a highlight of her 1973 documentary, Year of the Woman, yet few people saw it there, either.

After a weeklong engagement at a Fifth Avenue theater in New York, Hochman's feminist documentary was banished to a Manhattan warehouse, the result of being too inflammatory, perhaps too strange, for any film distributor to handle. Only once did it emerge, for a screening benefiting Harvard University's Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America in 1985. Then the only print was stashed away.

Until now.

On Jan. 25, Hochman will visit the Sarasota Film Festival to introduce the first public showing of Year of the Woman in nearly two decades. She hopes the 6:45 p.m. screening (with an encore Jan. 27) will finally lead to a distribution deal.

"It may not be the best, but it's the only," Hochman insists. "It's as if you had a documentary made during the Civil War. It's the birth of the women's movement."

* * *

Sandra Hochman is now 67, divorced and living alone in a Manhattan apartment. She smokes Benson & Hedges cigarettes, which didn't sit well with her last dating companion, a devout Zen Buddhist. "That just made me want to smoke more," she says, lighting another, the hiss of burning tobacco audible through the telephone.

Last week, Hochman watched a run-through of a stage production of the musical fable Timmy the Great - "It's about a children's revolution," she says - based on a children's book she co-wrote. In 1972, Hochman was a gender revolutionary, a rare literary voice for feminism whose poems had earned a Yale Younger Poets Award. The former actor produced a weekly poetry program on local public radio and conducted live stream-of-consciousness readings. She ran a visible but unsuccessful campaign to be a Chisholm delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, which interested an aspiring film producer named Porter Bibb. He met Hochman under the guise of buying her apartment and sold her on a proposition instead.

Bibb offered to raise the money if Hochman would take an all-female film crew to Miami Beach and document the convention from a feminist perspective. She would have complete creative control, a $15,000 budget and no promise of distribution. Hochman says she was fearless.

"People who are very knowledgeable about film don't know how to make a film," Hochman says. "I approached Year of the Woman as if nobody would ever see it. The whole male world we lived in didn't know (anything) about the women's movement.

"Everybody took it for granted that a mule was a mule and we were second-class citizens. They talked all day about Vietnam but didn't see this battle being played out right under their noses."

Hochman's plan was to rub male society's nose in feminism while inspiring women to dedicate themselves to the cause. Her crew included future two-time Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple (Harlan County, U.S.A.; American Dream) and future directors Claudia Weill (Girlfriends) and Martha Coolidge (Lost in Yonkers, Rambling Rose). Her strategy was to catch delegates, politicians and celebrities off-guard to expose their sexism.

Warren Beatty looks befuddled when his charm doesn't work on Hochman. "You would like to have males without a voice," he said. "You're a female chauvinist. Isn't that more destructive to the women's movement?"

In another scene, Hochman needles a Virgin Islands official wearing what she considers a sexist tourism button urging readers to "Try a virgin" in large letters and, in smaller ones, "island." McGovern campaign manager and future disgraced presidential candidate Gary Hart tries to defend his candidate's stand on feminism.

Washington Post columnist Art Buchwald comes off most piggishly, eagerly spouting sexist ideals over a billiard game ("It's the first time that girls aren't being used to keep men happy at a convention. Except the girls in the bar, of course."). Then there's a bizarre role-playing game, with Buchwald peering through a telescope and imagining he's exiled on the moon looking back at an Earth run by women. "They messed it all up," he said.

"None of the people wanted to talk to me," Hochman says. "I was this uppity poet putting them on the spot, and they made fools of themselves when they were on the spot."

Meanwhile, Hochman showed the 1-year-old National Women's Political Caucus making waves at its first national political convention. "You must understand that much of our agenda is already accomplished simply by being here," Chisholm said during a caucus meeting. Forty percent of the convention delegates that year were women who, as Hochman tried, were elected or appointed through grass roots involvement that women had never attempted before.

"Thirteen-hundred women," feminist icon Betty Friedan declared before Hochman's camera. "(Party leaders) may have tried to appoint wives and daughters of the bosses instead of the women that really are running to get a voice. But those wives and daughters want a voice, too."

Some women didn't even realize it. Hochman spends a few segments with stripper Liz Renay, who wrote a book about going to prison for taking the rap for her boyfriend. "Talk about standing by your man," Hochman cracks. "She couldn't even pronounce the word (feminist). I'd never met a stripper, and she had never met a poet."

Renay's mascara-lined eyes were opened when Hochman escorted her onto the convention floor, the stripper's shapely figure tightly sealed in a glittery gown. She had changed from the men's clothing she and Hochman wore to sneak into the auditorium with smuggled passes. The camera catches every leer as Renay causes a sensation, a walking experiment in sex overshadowing politics, getting more attention than any female delegate.

"We absolutely stopped the convention," Hochman says. "She was so beautiful, so bizarre. Some people weren't sure if she was a transvestite. We ended up running away from the police."

At the same time, it's easy to see why distributors and New York Times film critic Vincent Canby coldly dismissed Year of the Woman in 1973. Hochman's style often veers toward counterculture absurdity that seems quaintly nostalgic today and was probably off-putting then. Her poetry and animated drawings inspire film passages that are the stuff of hippie parody today. Year of the Woman is defiantly nonlinear, a likely reason why the message was garbled.

Yet there is no doubting the film's passion or its historical importance despite the filmmaker donning a papier-mache crocodile head or tap-dancing in front of the White House to make an absurdly accurate point.

"There's never been a film like it, and probably never will again," Hochman says proudly. "It's not only the first film about the women's movement, it's the only one."

* * *

The Quasha family of New York, specifically young Jill and her two brothers, saw Year of the Woman during its one-theater run in 1973 and considered it a masterpiece. They offered $65,000 for the film, intending to find a distribution deal.

"I was stupidly advised by my lawyer to sell it because she wasn't a feminist," Hochman says. "Then it sat in a warehouse for 33 years. It's really a miracle that this film is going to have a second life."

Jill Quasha gave permission, with tight security, for that Harvard screening in 1985. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote Hochman a letter of thanks - now framed in her kitchen - for making the film and making it available for a million-dollar benefit. Schlesinger wrote that he hoped the showing would help Year of the Woman get widely distributed.

That hasn't happened, but the Quashas are ready to try again. Sarasota is the only festival so far to book the film. But it only takes one pair of eyes with the right connections to know this is a film that audiences should see, in theaters or television.

"There isn't one young woman in the whole world who wouldn't want to see this history," Hochman says. "Third World countries, nations like Poland and Japan, women all over the world need to see how this happened.

"When I grew up I studied only male history, male art. I even wrote in the "he.' I was part of a historical movement.

"Now my daughter's world is a thousand times different than mine. Go to Barnes & Noble and shelves are filled with books by women: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, instructional, anything. That did not exist when this film was made. Women are lawyers, doctors. We have come into everything.

"Shirley Chisholm was a token candidate. Now Hillary Clinton is likely to be a presidential nominee in four years. Hey, Eve is equal to Adam. She didn't just come out of a man's rib. She's as important."

[Last modified January 15, 2004, 09:59:40]

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