PBS’ “Makers Women Who Make America” a strong introduction to modern women’s movement

Makers Women Who Make America

“In my textbook, in college, it had one sentence [about women’s history] that said, ‘Women were given the vote.’”

In our interview, legendary social justice activist and key figure in the women’s movement Gloria Steinem recalls the early days of that movement, when she and others, perhaps naively, thought that changes to a gender inequality that had existed for centuries — and even been written into law, in some cases — were going to be easy and quick.

“If you don’t know how change is made,” says Steinem, “you assume that freedom or privileges or the vote or equality or equal pay was just given to you from above. So the very fact that I imagined just explaining injustice would be enough was part of the evidence that we had no women’s history. … Part of the reason we need this film is that I and others thought that change was easy.”

The film to which Steinem is referring is Makers Women Who Make America, a three-hour documentary debuting on PBS just before Women’s History Month. It’s a complement to an online project that launched roughly a year ago at makers.com, where short video interviews with groundbreaking women have been compiled for an oral history of the modern American women’s movement over the last 50 years and beyond. Some of the online interviews have found their way into the documentary, which is divided into three sections. While the site launched about a year ahead of the documentary’s broadcast, it was in development well ahead of that, according to Dyllan McGee, co-executive producer of the film and one of the forces behind makers.com.

“It began in 2005,” McGee tells me. “I actually went to Gloria Steinem in the hopes of doing a film on her life. I’m 42 years old and very much grew up in the generation of feeling like I’m not a feminist but I believe in women’s rights. And so I was intrigued by the whole subject, and thought, well, Gloria’s story would be a great way to tell this whole story. So I went to her, and she, in her Gloria, egoless way, declined. I think her point was, there’s a bigger picture here. [That her] story is part of a collective of stories. And she didn’t want all of the attention to be on her. So I went back to the drawing board.”

What McGee came back with led to makers.com, and, ultimately, now, the Makers documentary. McGee did eventually work with Steinem on a film about her life, and Steinem was involved both on-camera with Makers Women Who Make America, offering insights about her experiences in the movement, and also as an adviser.

“I offered suggestions of interviewees and also scholars and activists who could suggest more interviewees,” says Steinem. “Because in my own life, for instance, I certainly learned about feminism disproportionately from African-American women, and because the press has not always portrayed it that way, it’s important that we be realistic and that we look at the country as if everyone matters.”

Unfortunately, time was against the project regarding some of the interviewees. Sadly, key women who were scheduled to be interviewed for makers.com passed before having the opportunity, such as Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, and Native American activist Wilma Mankiller.

“Literally, she was going to be one of the very first interviews that we did,” says McGee of Mankiller, “and she passed away. … Missed opportunities have been the most difficult for us.”

Perhaps not quite as difficult, but challenging nonetheless, might have been the fact that this project was in uncharted territory of sorts. Like Steinem had been before her, co-executive producer Betsy West, a veteran journalist and associate professor at Columbia Journalism School, was surprised that nothing comprehensive had been done to cover the women’s movement.

“Dyllan approached me early on in the [Makers] project,” West says, “I think about six years ago. I was really surprised when she told me that there really hadn’t been a kind of definitive look at the women’s movement. I was shocked, actually. I thought, ‘Well, we’ve looked at the civil rights movement.’ I just assumed it had been done. When I heard that it hadn’t, and I started thinking about it, I really jumped at the chance to get involved.

“I’m a little older than Dyllan, and I really came of age right after many of the changes that were sparked by the women’s movement took place. … So I was part of that first generation in the mid to late ’70s that came into the workplace in many of the professions, and I think that for many of us it really — we weren’t looking backwards. I always knew that I was benefitting from what had been done by the women’s movement, but I wasn’t really looking backwards; I was just very busy looking forward and working on my career. … Personally, the opportunity to look back and actually fill in the details of what happened was really gratifying and totally illuminating. I kind of thought I knew the story, but I didn’t really know the details of the story and the amazing courage that it took for some of these women to stand up to what had been centuries of tradition. And also kind of the really amazing tactics that they used; the humor and the creativity that these women showed. It’s just been a wonderful experience to talk to them and to learn about this history.”

Watch MAKERS: Women Who Make America Trailer on PBS. See more from Makers: Women Who Make America.

The film should prove illuminating for audiences, as well, often using the same sort of humor and creativity in its presentation that West references from the movement itself. Ironic and satiric use of old 1950s (and even 1980s and ’90s) advertisements, songs and other pop culture relics especially serve to set off the mindset of a society that existed really not all that long ago.

“I think it’s a great, tantalizing beginning,” says Steinem of Makers, “because we’re in a country where textbooks carry very little about movements in general and less about the women’s movement. So this is designed to be informative in itself and tantalizing so you want to know more.”

In that respect, if Makers is like a textbook, it is like a very good 101-level class, and should make viewers interested in more. And more is likely to be on the way, at least online, according to McGee.

“We’ve been so fortunate that our sponsor has committed to another year of content,” she says. “So I think that the launch of the documentary is just the beginning. We are committed to adding at least a hundred stories every year.”

Makers Women Who Make America premieres on PBS Feb. 26 at 8pm ET (check local listings).

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National Women’s Convention, 1977: AP Photo/Greg Smith

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