(The documentary, Women of ’69, Unboxed, about women from the Skidmore College class of 1969, will air on public television stations WNED in Buffalo, N.Y. and WBFO in Toronto on March 29, 2016. Below is an article Next Avenue published when the film originally aired on PBS in 2015. The producers believe the film is especially timely since Hillary Clinton, a 1969 graduate of a women’s college, is mounting a campaign for the presidency. The film is available for streaming via iTunes, Google, Amazon and Xbox.)
In the fall of 1968, Skidmore College yearbook editor Kristine Ford Herrick decided that instead of a traditional, bound volume of posed headshots, the class of 1969 would have a “yearbox” — cardboard boxes stamped with their names containing loose black-and-white pictures and pages about them.
Each senior at the Saratoga Springs, N.Y., liberal arts school — then a women’s college — would be the keeper of her own memories. The pages of the “yearbox” could be sorted, arranged and rearranged.
Forty-five years later, filmmaker and journalist Liz Roman Gallese (one of the Skidmore ’69 seniors) returns to the “yearbox” with Women of ’69, Unboxed, a documentary that focuses on 19 of the women in that senior class. The film airs on PBS affiliate MPBN-TV (Maine Public Broadcasting Network) at 2 p.m. on Sunday, July 5, 2015. It will be screened at the Woods Hole Film Festival on Cape Cod on July 27 and premiere on the West Coast in Los Angeles in September. All screening information is on the website.
The film was shown at the Women’s International Film and Arts Festival in Miami in early June, and won Best Documentary Feature at the Queens World Film Festival in March.
“I’ve always thought of the box as an artwork in and of itself,” Gallese says. Through this film, the lives of these women and their classmates become art — and artifacts of a woman’s college in a tumultuous time.
The narrative unfolds through interviews with the women and a few men who had been instrumental in creating the yearbox. Notable are the yearbox advisor, Bob Reed, who had been a young professor at the time, and the yearbox photographer, Sedat Pakay, who had been working on his MFA at Yale. The women in the senior class, Gallese remembers, were encouraged to pose in groups or unusual places. The yearbox photos reflect the beauty, joy and hopefulness of a graduating class of 370 about to set off into the “real world.”
“The photography captured women at a time and a place when things were coming apart in the United States,” Gallese explains. “When I began thinking about the documentary, I decided now would be a good time to go back and examine the photographs and to record the thoughts from my classmates on our four years in college, on their lives now and on their forthcoming journey into their ‘new’ old age.”
The photography captured women at a time and a place when things were coming apart in the United States.
— Filmmaker and journalist Liz Roman Gallese
The photos indeed are remarkable. In one, five women wear barrels that cover them from their armpits to the tops of their knees: their obvious nakedness underneath seems provocative, and yet safe. Another woman poses solo on a motorcycle. Two friends, clad in nuns’ habits, hold a sign that says “new york city or bust,” and stand by the side of the road, their thumbs out to signal they’re hitching a ride.
In a group portrait where the women clutch small placards announcing their post-graduate destination, one graduate-to-be has donned her wedding gown. Another photo shows two women wearing extreme Victorian dress and standing, unsmiling, outside of an era-appropriate mansion.
During the course of the film, Pakay mentions that he has learned that one woman had her portrait framed, and it hung above her fireplace. Indeed, the photographs shown in the documentary are all frame-worthy, and the film sets out to provide a vehicle that will take the portraits out of the box and display them in a more public venue.
The World Outside
The first part of the film focuses on the women’s memories of their four years of college, from the day they arrived through graduation. An African American woman, now a noted lawyer, recalls the look of relief she saw pass between her parents when the “big sisters” tumbled out of the dorm to welcome her. Another woman still seems amazed recollecting the conversation a floormate had over the payphone in the hall with her boyfriend, who was a soldier in Vietnam.
The women speak of the tumult in the outside world. “Every day you got up and there would be another wham,” says one woman of her four years in college. While reminiscing, these women discuss the effects that a series of political assassinations, the growing movement against the war in Vietnam and the rise of feminism had on their day-to-day lives.
Indeed, Gallese says, “We were in college at a special time. Those events had to have altered our thinking and the how we would live our lives.”
Universal Women’s Issues
And yet, the concerns the women express in the various segments of the documentary are universal to all women who grew up in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s — and even reverberate among today’s Millennials.
To marry or not to marry; to have a career or not to have a career; to have children or not to have children — these are the issues the woman speak of on camera, the issues that seem to have remained a constant in women’s lives since the 1960s, the decade when it became “normal” for women to pursue careers outside the home.
One woman in the film, who admits to affairs with two male professors, is now gay; another woman says the kind of man she likes has evolved over the years; one characterizes herself as an “impatient” mother, but says her daughter is the best thing she has done with her life. An MIT professor, winner of many awards in her field, seems to be the model for the well-known cartoon of a woman whose thought bubble reads: “Oops. I forgot to have children.”
The saddest lines in the film come from a woman who is single, with no children: “Not having children makes me weep; there are times when having nobody to help me but me makes me weep,” she tells the camera.
The Past And The Present
For the filmmakers, the “focal point” (to use Gallese’s words) of the film is the present, where these women are now. The yearbox opens to show how and why they got there. Both projects combine as a legacy to the next generation. The interviews are terrific, and some of the musings about turning 65 are inspirational. (The African American lawyer, for instance, would like to study Hebrew. Who could see that coming?)
But the real legacy of the film is opening up that yearbox. The Skidmore class of ’69 attended the same women’s college from which their mothers and grandmothers might have graduated. That world is gone: Skidmore has been co-ed since 1971, and the “new” campus away from the Victorian mansions that housed the original students was functional by 1968. The freedoms these women fought for — that they had to even fight for things like the right to drink alcohol on campus — is the lesson of the film.
Watch this clip from Women of ’69, Unboxed.