March is both a time to recognize the achievements of women and to plant yourself on a couch or bar stool for three weeks and obsess about college basketball. In recognition of both events, the Virginia Historical Society will screen four films as part of the 2014 Richmond International Film Festival: “Political Bodies” and “This is Normal” on Friday, February 28, at 6:30 p.m. and “Unbelievable is Believable, Here” and “The Goldfish” on Sunday, March 2, at 1:00 p.m.
Soon after the schedule was announced, I received a call from K. N. Bentley about one of the films. “Political Bodies” documents the ongoing debate over women’s reproductive rights in Virginia, and specifically the 2012 demonstrations against proposed House Bill 462 requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before receiving an abortion. You might remember that the debate over the bill and the public reaction made national news. Bentley was one of the organizers of the February 20 (known as F20) and March 3 (known as M3) demonstrations at the Virginia State Capitol. As a participant in a historic Virginia event, I asked her if she had any items related to her participation in the demonstrations. A few days later she arrived at the VHS with handmade signs, flyers, newspaper articles, and other items that she saved from the event. Earlier this week she donated those items to the VHS as part of a new collection of items associated with the group “Speak Loud with Silence.”
One of the items that Bentley showed us was the January 2, 2013, issue of Style Weekly. The photograph on the cover features a young woman, eyes closed, mouth agape, and body hanging limply in the arms of a Capitol police officer. In a photograph that is otherwise colorless, her red slacks seem to jump off the page. I talked with Camille Rudney, and she agreed to donate the slacks she was wearing that day to the VHS collection. I know, it sounds strange that we’d be interested in preserving a pair of red denim trousers (c. 2012), but their appearance in the media turned an otherwise ordinary pair of pants into an iconic symbol of that day’s event.
Bentley also introduced us to Molly Vick, who told us that the 2012 women’s rights debate turned her into an activist. Because the F20 demonstration was a silent protest, Molly ironed slogans onto a pink cotton shirt. Known as the “pink shirt girl” to those who didn’t know her, she continues to remain involved in the movement. Molly is the representative voice for “Speak Loudly With Silence” in the film, and she and her shirt are featured on the movie poster.
I was struck by a number of things during my interactions with these women over the past few weeks.
1. The F20 and M3 demonstrations are part of a long history of political activism in Virginia, and our right to peaceably assemble is at the heart of the republic that Virginians were so instrumental in creating.
2. 21st-century demonstrations are far more organized than I imagined. Among the items donated to the VHS were maps identifying key rally points, prepared media statements, and detailed instructions for participants. Modern demonstrations even use legal observers and media liaisons who wear armbands so that they could be easily identified. Having just watched the 2013 remake of Les Miserables, I wondered if the people behind the barricades in Paris had legal observers.
3. Anyone can become an activist when their core beliefs are challenged. I’m not sure what I imagined, but the three women I had the pleasure to meet didn’t really conform to the stereotype I have of “activist.” They are mothers, wives, and daughters; social workers, data analysts, and care givers united in a cause. When you think about it, were Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Mason, and Henry so different? Did they fit the stereotype of political activists in colonial America? Perhaps not.
4. None of these women were previously supporters of the Virginia Historical Society, but now they are united with our cause to collect, preserve, and interpret Virginia’s history. That probably wouldn’t have happened had we not decided to screen the film as part of the festival.
Molly’s shirt and a number of other items related to “Speak Loud with Silence” will be on display on Friday, February 28, before the screening of “Political Bodies.” I’m looking forward to meeting current and future VHS supporters at the movies this weekend.
Limited seats are available free for VHS members and reservations can be made by contacting Matt Weber, senior officer for donor and visitor services, at email@example.com. Non-members can pre-order tickets through the Richmond International Film Festival. Tickets will also available for sale at the door for $10.00.
Andrew Talkov is head of program development and coordinator for Virginia’s Civil War at the Virginia Historical Society.