For girls born after women were appointed to the Supreme Court, sexual harassment is not tolerated in the workplace, and females always competed in school sports. So for them, “Makers: Women Who Make America” is a history lesson.
The three-hour special that airs Tuesday, Feb. 26, on PBS (check local listings), is naturally not just for younger women. It is for everyone – those who relished victories whenever women won higher office, experienced fury when colleagues made sexual advances or were frustrated when schools allocated money only for boys sports.
It’s for males and females — those who suffered the indignities and fought to change the world and those for whom the ERA is only a baseball stat. Meryl Streep narrates the film, which should be required in any course about 20th-century America. Additional information is available at http://www.MAKERS.com.
The program features the accounts of famous leaders of the women’s movement such as Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas as well as interviews with the first woman on the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and lesser-known women including Barbara Burns, one of the first female coal miners.
“Amazingly, the stories of these groundbreaking women have never been woven together in a single film until now,” PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger says.
This film, eight years in the making, reminds us how many strides have been made in the past 50 years when popular culture reinforced that women existed to serve men. Women were expected to use their education – until they married.
“I was pregnant by the time I graduated and hung my diploma over the washing machine,” author Judy Blume says on camera.
Ruth Simmons, former president of Brown University, says, “I had one goal. If only I could one day work in an office because every woman I knew was doing housework, and by that I mean they were maids.”
Interviews reveal chapters in the not-so-distant American past, such as this chilling one from retired Justice O’Connor.
“At the law school there was a bulletin board, and it had notices on it from many law firms. ‘Stanford Law graduates give us a call.’ I called every phone number on the bulletin board, and they said, ‘Oh, we didn’t mean women. We don’t hire women.’ “
When airlines did, stewardesses, as they were then called, had to be between 21 and 28 years old, 5 feet 2 to 5 feet 6 inches tall, and show their legs to get the job. At 32, they were handed roses and retired. Not surprisingly, in 1965, the stewardesses became the first case of the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
By the next year, where the second part of the film picks up, the movement was growing, and TV showcased its first single woman, Marlo Thomas, in “That Girl.”
In 1974, Thomas produced “Free to Be … You and Me,” a seminal film that taught children they could be whatever they wanted when they grew up.
This special was so critical because, says Thomas, “there is so much misinformation about what the women’s movement was, what feminism is. Erma Bombeck used to say the words of the ERA were the most misunderstood words since ‘one size fits all.’ “
The 24-word Equal Rights Amendment fell two states shy of ratification.
Reflecting on where the movement is today, and some politicians’ stance on rape and their failed attempts at subjugating women, Thomas says, “I don’t think we are sliding backward. Some conservatives are terrified about women having power. It is an almost barbaric attempt. Why not bind our feet? How about a burqa, bound feet and no contraception?”
In a separate interview, Steinem says, “When you consider that women are the biggest source of unpaid and underpaid labor in the country, you begin to see equal pay would put $200 billion a year into the economy. The average white woman would get $150 more a week, and the average woman of color would get $300 more a week. It is good for the whole country, but the forces against it are huge.”
As for what people can do to keep hard-won rights, Steinem recommends speaking out. “If we have had an abortion, say so. One in three American women have. Demonization is only possible in the presence of silence. Express our support to providers. Reproductive freedom is the right to decide when and where to have children. It is a fundamental right – not a single issue, a fundamental right – and we would not vote for someone against freedom of speech.”
Filmmaker Dyllan McGee is determined that the dialogue for equality continue.
“I think we have to make sure media projects and people are focused on understanding how far we’ve come,” she says.
The documentary takes us from the days when it was scandalous for a woman to run in the Boston Marathon. It includes that promise of power, when Geraldine Ferraro became the first woman to run for vice president on a major party ticket, and shows setbacks in women’s health care.
Ultimately, though, Thomas says, “What comes through loud and clear is it is about fairness. No matter the color, the gender. The world is a large enough place to embrace everyone, to have the freedom we want. The Bill of Rights is about happiness, and it seems we have forgotten that, because what makes you happier than the pursuit of dreams?”