The emergence of the women's liberation movements in the late 1960s and early 1970s had a profound impact on scholarship as well as on society. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) set the stage for liberation movements by detailing middle-class women's isolation, even oppression, within the suburban household. Women's roles in the antinuclear movements, such as the Aldermaston marches in the United Kingdom or SANE (Students Against Nuclear Energy) in the United States, further served as catalysts in the mid-1960s within diverse social sectors. For example, women within the male-dominated Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) began to resist their relegation to food preparation and child care, and to argue for women's rights to be included in the SDS agenda. In NUC (the New University Community), a faculty wing of SDS, pressure increased in regard to addressing women's issues, such as discriminatory employment practices, unfair divorce laws, and attention to medical and biological issues specific to women. Independent Marxist-feminist groups emerged along with so-called radical feminists, often linked to lesbian-centered groups. Protests and demonstrations on behalf of women's rights regarding sexual choice, day care, and equality in the workplace pushed women's liberation into the public spotlight. Gradually public awareness and involvement in debates about feminist issues increased. Meanwhile, female perspectives, long neglected in mainstream academic research, began to gain the attention of historians and literary and film scholars. Indeed, these two faces of feminism can hardly be separated: Academic women were often actively involved in working for social change on a range of women's issues, while activist women often enjoyed the support of universities in furthering their ends.

Women film scholars were among the first to reject the traditional male-centered perspectives in academia and, with Copernican force, to reverse the position from which texts were approached to engage a female-centered one. With Sexual Politics (1970), a forceful critique of misogyny in the male modern novel and of Freud's male-centered psychoanalytic theories, Kate Millett burst on the literary scene and was soon followed by other (less vitriolic) feminist literary critics. Women film scholars, too, eagerly took up the baton. Meanwhile, male film theory (especially in England) introduced structuralist approaches in the wake of research by scholars such as Louis Althusser, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Lacan. In this context, some feminist film theory also turned to neo-Marxism, structuralism, and psychoanalysis in ways not so common at the time in feminist literary analyses. Feminist critics began to look at the ways in which women were represented on film as well as to expose the utter neglect of female directors in male scholarship; in the wake of these initiatives, film scholarship was never again the same. Three main strands (in practice, often mixed) emerged early on in feminist film theory: "archival" and historical approaches, sociological role-focused approaches, and what has been called cine-psychoanalysis. A certain coherence within the limited frame of 1970s and 1980s feminist film research can be demonstrated, built around the concept of the gendered gaze of the camera; but in the 1990s, as a result of changing political, social, and intellectual contexts, including the waning of feminism as a widespread activist movement, several alternate perspectives developed. There was the flood of research by minority and women of the Third World (itself a problematic and much-debated term). Masculine studies, inspired by feminist theory, emerged, as well as queer studies, which severely challenged some of the concepts basic to feminist film theories. Finally, the introduction of new interdisciplinary fields like visual studies and digital media, related to film studies, had the effect of broadening the somewhat narrow gaze-related theories to consider historical, technological, and institutional contexts given short shift in cine-psychoanalysis. Second-wave feminist theorists have further revised gaze theories.

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