“Women Who Make America”
For the past year, I’ve enjoyed paying regular visits to MAKERS.com, a growing online collection of video interviews with an impressive array of women who have made a mark on the last half century of American history.
Many of the stories told by well-known figures like Judy Blume, Marlo Thomas, and Katie Couric about how and why they became feminists are moving but familiar. Even more compelling are the stories that were new to me (although they shouldn’t have been): Aileen Hernandez, who helped start N.O.W. after quitting the EEOC when it did nothing about the case that Dusty Roads filed—and eventually won—overturning the airline industry’s policy of firing stewardesses on their 32nd birthday; Brenda Berkman, a young lawyer who brought a sex discrimination case against the New York City Fire Department and became one of the first women to join its storied ranks; and Linda Alvarado, a Hispanic woman who founded and runs a multi-million dollar construction company based in Denver and is co-owner of the Colorado Rockies baseball team.
A partnership between PBS and AOL, the MAKERS project has also produced a three-hour documentary, “MAKERS: Women Who Make America,” which will have its premiere on PBS two weeks from tonight—February 26th at 8:00. Most of the key players behind the film were involved in making “Gloria Steinem: In Her Own Words,” HBO’s excellent 2011 documentary. Steinem plays a leading role in the MAKERS film, too, as she did in the women’s movement itself. As always, she is an articulate, likeable spokesperson for feminism (and one of about a dozen Jewish women featured on the website or in the film).
Along with a half dozen other stories on which the film focuses, Steinem’s provides a narrative spine for the film. The early footage—of “women only” ads in the employment pages of newspapers, the protest at the 1968 Miss America Beauty pageant, the takeover of the Ladies Home Journal editorial offices—seems like ancient history, and the last 10 minutes bring the story almost to the present, complete with a growing anti-abortion movement, ambivalence towards combining motherhood and career, and controversies over the birth control pill. In between are “firsthand accounts of the leaders, opponents, and trailblazers who,” as the project’s website says, “created a new America in the last half-century.”
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While much of the archival footage is riveting, the scholarly experts engaging, and Meryl Streep’s narration easy to listen to, it is the personal stories that made me stick with the film for three hours. The struggles against sexism of Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Billie Jean King, and Geraldine Ferraro are no less admirable for being well known. What I will remember, however, are the so-called “ordinary” women—the telephone operator who insisted she could do a man’s job and be paid a man’s wages, the West Virginia woman who saw coal mining as a way to finance nursing school and ended up waging a long legal battle against sexual harassment, and the young Arizona mother who made public the fact that she was forced to go to Sweden for a therapeutic abortion. (It’s unfortunate that a number of the “ordinary” women in the film are not in the video archive.)
The film traces the backlash of the 1980s and provides an honest appraisal of where the movement fell short. It ends on a hopeful note: Susan Brownmiller says, “We changed the way people think about women and how women think about themselves.” In its final few minutes, the film fulfills its original purpose—“to express the goals of the Women's Movement and lay the groundwork for moving forward.”