Tuesday night, PBS debuted MAKERS: Women Who Make America, a three-hour documentary on the women’s movement. It was complemented online by a robust Twitter conversation. For feminists sick of turning to social media in response to sexism on the screen this season (hello, Super Bowl and the Oscars), the evening was—even with a handful of justifiable criticisms—basically a warm cookie with marshmallow sauce and jam slathered on top.
But the history of the women’s movement isn’t just fun for feminists—it’s a history of social justice that needs to be taught in schools to everyone, not just women and girls.
The documentary, which for some reason did not start with Alice Paul, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the struggle for suffrage, began in the heart of 1950s suburbia, with an examination of upper-middle-class white women who were bored to death by the discrepancy between their education and skills and their actual activities and duties. Feminist author Judy Blume, who was interviewed in the film, put it this way: “There wasn’t one woman in any of those houses who worked. And when I wanted to write, they laughed at me.”
Kudos to the filmmakers for featuring Blume before even getting to Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, which would come to detail the “problem that has no name:” the bored and wealthy white suburban housewife. From there, the film moved full-tilt into the second-wave women’s movement that followed.
For a time it appeared the voices featured in MAKERS would be disproportionately white women, which made me wonder if that was indicative of what the “official” women’s movement looked like at the time, or if it was an issue of historical whitewashing; I suspect it was a mixture of both.
Fortunately, after a slow start, more women of color began to be featured on screen. As now-Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton explained, the women’s movement of the time “associated white women with white men, and that meant white privilege.”
The film also discussed the prominent role of consciousness-raising, or how the personal was political for the rise of the second-wave women’s movement. It wasn’t just about building a movement or political power, according to health-care activist Byllye Avery. “Consciousness-raising was how we learned about our lives,” she said.
Consciousness-raising took place in person, but it also corresponded with a variety of print media created by feminists, some targeting the movement and others the general public. (The unmentioned parallels to the role of the internet today are uncanny.) Enter Gloria Steinem and the creation of Ms. Magazine. What a thrilling story! The men in the media at the time said it would fail. Boy, were they wrong.
The rift between Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, who founded the National Organization for Women, was discussed at a higher level than the usual personality-focused, cat-fight crap the media tends to serve up. As Steinem explained it, she believed the more established movement Friedan represented was concerned with having women join society, whereas “the slightly younger parts of the movement were trying to transform society. And those were two different goals.” In 2013, the shorthand for where you can find similar sentiments is online, under the #youngfems hashtag on Twitter.
From there continued a discussion of the long—and ongoing—struggle to make “feminism” more inclusive of lesbians and broader conceptions of gender and sexuality, women of color, and the kind of working women who are often too busy delivering food or mopping floors to think about going into the boardroom.
The discussion about abortion and birth control was one of the more depressing segments of the film, if only because so little has changed. Footage from 40 years ago of only men discussing abortion conjured up images of last year’s zero-woman Congressional panel on contraception. And that gender disparity isn’t just symbolic; the number of abortion providers has fallen by some 40 percent over the past two decades. The violent harassment outside clinics from the 1980s, as showed in the film, continues today.
From a historical perspective, it was good to hear reproductive rights strongly situated within the context of women’s rights and the backlash against treating women as equals. Today, opponents of abortion and birth control will go to great pains to claim they support women, in a futile attempt to iron out the ugly wrinkle they occupy in the arc of human rights history.
The film also featured a strong round-up of the unrealized struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, featuring none other than anti-women’s rights crusader Phyllis Schlafly. Before MAKERS aired, some feminists had raised concerns about her inclusion in a film featuring women’s movement leaders, but it was clear in watching the documentary that she was featured more for context, as an influencer in the as-yet unsuccessful effort to guarantee women’s equality in the U.S. Constitution.
Only one time did I scream at the television, and that honor was reserved for Clarence Thomas. “What the [bleep] is he doing on the Supreme Court?” I yelled. Of course not all justices came straight out of the women’s movement, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg did (her cameos in the film were precious), but a sexual harasser?
It seems most people in the country believed Anita Hill when she made her sexual-harassment charges against Thomas and was vilified in return. It was our lawmakers who failed us in that case, and no subsequent “Year of the Woman” election will resolve that discrepancy between policy and the general public—not, at least, until the “Year of the Woman” means we actually have proportional representation of women in all levels of government.
All in all, MAKERS was a good overview documentary, and I’m glad it exists. But unfortunately, it ended with a thud. Rather than showing an intergenerational, diverse slice of the modern women’s movement as it exists today, a few older women were quoted in a tired, clichéd, and incorrect way claiming that young women don’t care about feminism and that they take the older feminists’ work for granted. The documentary only spotlighted one young feminist, Shelby Knox (who did a great job).
This was disappointing because there are tons of other young feminist voices that could and should have been featured in addition to Shelby to show the intergenerational range of activism taking place all over the country, and not just the coasts.
Alas, one of the last people featured in the documentary was Michelle Rhee, a right-wing activist who is relevant primarily for eviscerating teacher’s unions that serve primarily underpaid women and operating a PAC that supports candidates opposed to reproductive rights.
Today’s women’s movement is vibrant and alive. There is history we must know, but it’s a changing, dynamic field filled with diverse activists and leaders. We could have seen more of the inter-generational work happening today during the closing discussion of MAKERS—what a missed opportunity in an otherwise helpful film on a few powerful decades in the larger progression for women throughout history.