Taking stock of the “unfinished revolution”
There are those pioneers who are out to change the world—think Betty Friedan, whose book The Feminine Mystique, 50 years after its publication, continues to spark conversation and debate about women’s roles. And then there are those “accidental” groundbreakers, who set out to attain a personal goal and end up taking down barriers along the way—think Kathrine Switzer, who was surprised to spark major controversy when she became the first woman to officially enter the Boston Marathon in 1967 and who responded to the press with the simple explanation “I’m just trying to run.” One of the compelling aspects of “MAKERS: Women Who Make America,” a new documentary on the women’s movement that will premiere on PBS February 26th (and begins with Switzer’s story), is its demonstration that both types of pioneers have played essential roles in transforming women’s opportunities in American society.
In part, this narrative emerges from the film’s attempt to address the waxing and waning of the social movement of feminism, which has faced predictions of its demise more frequently than any other movement I can think of. Internally, too, feminism has had to grapple with lingering negative stereotypes of feminists and with the challenges born of success, such as younger women who don’t feel as angry or moved to action as their mothers’ generation. Through rich archival footage and a wide range of interviews with familiar and unknown women, “MAKERS” tells the story of feminism’s successes and its unfinished business, its leaders, its “rank and file,” and its detractors. Ultimately, it argues that even in times when the movement has been disorganized or under attack, social change has continued through individual achievements and changing perceptions of women’s roles.
Similarly, the film demonstrates that social change includes both institutional victories and personal freedoms. Judy Blume, for example, describes how her decision to write during the day when her children were at school and to divorce her husband were part of “my own little feminist movement inside me.” Though she did not publicly identify with the movement and says “I’m not sure anyone knew I was part of the movement except myself,” she understood her personal experiences and choices in the larger context of the changes taking place around her.
Though the film covers some well-trod ground, including historical events I’ve lived through or studied extensively in graduate school, the larger synthesis is a useful recap and reminder of the big picture. Even painful episodes—such as the backlash against Hillary Clinton in the 1990s—were interesting to revisit in the context of 21st century realities (in this case, Clinton’s newfound political power and acceptance).
I also particularly enjoyed the footage of Letty Cottin Pogrebin (co-founder of Ms. Magazine and an author of Free To Be… You and Me) and her daughter Abigail Pogrebin—not only because Letty is a great friend of JWA (and a former JWA “Making Trouble/Making History” honoree). Their reflections offer one take on the generational issues at play in the women’s movement today; the film could have used more younger voices, and I found myself wishing they had brought in more of the young women featured in the interview collection on the MAKERS.com website, such as Shelby Knox (who does appear briefly in the film), Amy Richards, and Courtney Martin.
Whether you’re a fiery activist, a reluctant change-maker, or a regular person seeking to understand the changing role of women in America, you’ll find new stories and challenging perspectives in this film and the companion website. I hope MAKERS, despite its long running time, will be used to spark discussion in classrooms and living rooms around the world.