There’s a renaissance proverb that contends that the dual importance of literature—which can be construed to apply to the arts more generally—is to “teach and delight.” MAKERS: Women Who Make America accomplishes both these humanist tasks, making it an extraordinary documentary. I found myself—a person with a degree or two in women’s studies and who, more than any other social category, identifies as feminist—intellectually stimulated and moved to tears throughout the three hour film. I felt the struggle, I felt the pride, and I had an overwhelming desire to tell my very conservative mother and grandmother, either who I rarely converse with, about this film. I did not expect to experience this simultaneous intellectual and emotional stimulation from a PBS documentary—but I did. I know many people think last week’s Beyonce
MAKERS is the first comprehensive documentary about how women have transformed the political and cultural landscape of America, with a particular focus on the last fifty years of the feminist movement, from the transformational publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique in 1963 to the current “ambiguous” feelings about the movement by some 21st century women. (Why, yes, these feelings, expressed by a handful of prominent 21st century business women like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, turned my stomach, but I should note these non-feminist and “ambiguous-feminist” voices were rightly given the opportunity to be vocalized in this film — because that’s feminism!)
MAKERS actually began as a series of short web-chronicles about inspirational women in February 2012, in which a handful of queer women were featured, including Charlotte Bunch, Barbara Smith, Alice Walker and Anu Bhagwati. The full feature documentary, narrated by none other than Meryl Streep, incorporates many of the women featured in the chronicle series in commentary scenes that are interspersed within the larger narrative of the feminist movement in order to provide a kind of intimate, personal insight into a particular historical moment. First-person accounts are offered by a range of feminist (and anti-feminist) icons, including movement leaders such as author and feminist activist Gloria Steinem and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton; opponents such as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly; celebrities including media leader Oprah Winfrey and journalist Katie Couric; political figures such as former U.S. Secretary of State (and our next President) Hillary Clinton; business leaders such as Linda Alvarado, president and CEO of Alvarado Construction, Inc., and a co-owner of The Colorado Rockies; and many “ordinary” women who confronted the dramatic social upheaval in their own lives.These commentary reflect the movement’s motto, “The personal is political,” as well as the film’s objective: to demonstrate the diversity of women’s history as its foundational substance.
“The Women’s Movement, broadly defined, impacted every aspect of American life,” said filmmaker Dyllan McGee, the founder of MAKERS, in a press statement. “It is a very moving, dramatic, and often funny story that we have produced in a way that will appeal not only to women, but to men as well—we want it to be ‘must see TV’ for the whole family.”
As one of the project’s advisors and featured subjects, Gloria Steinem also lauded this cinematic achievement, saying, “I’m so happy that we’re finally hearing the stories and voices of women who make America. … We do what we see, not what we’re told, so an incomplete story of this country damages everyone. MAKERS will not only change our picture of the present, but release talent for the future.”
Steinem, a seminal leader of the feminist movement, is position as a central figure within this documentary. Lesbian author Rita Mae Brown perhaps most succinctly (not to mention hilariously) articulates how Steinem changed the feminist movement in the 1970s: “She had all these media skills that were so superior to anything anyone else had. Plus, she’s drop dead gorgeous. She transformed the movement. All of the sudden we had a face—and it wasn’t an angry face.”
Before Steinem, before Ms. Magazine, the failed ERA, and the feminist movement as we now know it, “women’s liberation” was largely a middle-class, white woman enterprise. As Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton explains, “Black women were perplexed about how to respond” to the women’s liberation movement, because they perceived it as a movement concerning “white women’s work” that they should “stay away from, because [it] would not help the black community.”
Ironically, the bridge between was crossed when white women turned to black women—who had gained leadership experience during the Civil Rights Movement of the late ‘50s and early-to-mid ‘60s—for strategic advice regarding their emerging movement. I wish that this difference—between the traditional feminist movement associated with white women and the black and POC feminist movement—was delved into a bit further in this documentary. Because this difference, this schism, still exist today—my POC friends in their 20s and 30s feel little affinity toward “feminism.” Beverly Guy-Sheftall is right: we need to expand the notion of what is a “woman’s issue” in order to take into account racial and class oppression.
As for lesbians, we get somewhat short-changed. Lesbians are cited as the reason why the feminist movement in the ‘70s split, and why the ERA failed; with the exception of Rita Mae Brown and Charlotte Bunch, the lesbians interviewed and/or alluded to in the documentary (like Barbara Smith and Sally Ride) are never identified as lesbian; and, surprisingly, there’s no mention of Audre Lorde or Adrienne Rich or Shulamith Firestone or any other “lavender menace.” “Lesbians,” as Streep states, “found their voice in the feminist movement.” I just wish that, in this brilliant documentary, they were given a little more recognition.
MAKERS: Women Who Make America will air February 26 at 8 p.m. EST on PBS. Visit MAKERS.com to access more than 1,000 videos of remarkable stories of groundbreaking women. For more information, visit MAKERS.com/press and pbs.org/MAKERS, follow @MAKERSwomen on Twitter and visit Facebook.com/makerswomen on Facebook.