A man’s eye view of “Makers: Women who Make America”
I recently watched the excellent documentary “Makers: Women who Make America” produced by Dyllan McGee, Betsy West, Peter Kunhardt and Barak Goodman, and narrated by Meryl Streep. The three-hour documentary focuses on the women’s movement in America in the last 50 years. The documentary concept began as a website www.makers.com, which features videos by groundbreaking women.
So why is a guy writing about a feminist documentary? Well, because I have s significant other who has a vagina and I have sisters-in-laws and a granddaughter and my closest friends are women. The subject should be as important to men as it is to women.
The documentary begins with the story of Kathrine Switzer, a junior at Syracuse University in 1967, who decided to enter the Boston Marathon even though at the time the marathon was off limits to women. During the race, the race organizer Jock Semple actually grabbed Switzer telling her to get the hell out of the race. Switzer’s boyfriend, who was running with her, threw a shoulder block that knocked Semple away and Switzer finished the race as the first registered female entrant. The marathon agreed to allow women to run in 1972.
I was riveted by the story. The appearance of Judy Blume, my favorite childhood author, seized me next. From there it was just a parade of who’s who in feminist American history with Betty Friedan, Erica Jong, Gloria Steinem, Susan Brownmiller, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin describing how they woke up, grabbed contemporary male-dominated American society by the balls and demanded to be invited to the party.
As a child I remembered seeing the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) on the news and while I may not have understood the great societal changes taking place I knew “equal rights” was a good thing. And young people today, who take notions of racial and gender equality for granted, would be shocked to know that such an amendment couldn’t pass in the United States. The ERA simply stated “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” How is it even controversial?
It’s amazing how far we’ve come in that one of the fears among those opposed to the ERA was that women would end up in combat roles in the military. In January of this year the military officially lifted the ban on women in combat (though truthfully, women have been in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan) and there was absolutely no outcry.
Watching women in the documentary talk about apartment rentals being off limits to them or having to have a husband co-sign for a credit card made me think of my best friend Pam. In the 70’s she applied for her first credit card, a JC Penney card, and was declined. She wrote them a scathing letter telling them she had good credit and felt she had been rejected because she was a single woman. JC Penney reversed their decision and issued her the card.
From Shirley Chisholm to Geraldine Ferraro to Pat Schroeder to Patty Murray to Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the documentary does a great job of showing how grassroots protests drove political change at the highest levels.
We can see the benefits today. My granddaughter plays high school basketball and talks about playing college ball, something that would not have been an option for her without the feminist movement and Title IX.
The women’s movement benefits all of America because it’s expanded our workforce and made us 50 percent smarter, more efficient and more compassionate. The women’s movement has helped bring issues that had been swept under the rug like domestic violence, rape, child abuse and sexual harassment to the forefront to be dealt with. That can only make us stronger as a nation.
As a man watching the documentary, I was struck by how the documentary tells the story of the feminist movement without bashing men. This was no easy task because I remember feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon whose ideas could leave a man feeling like a rapist just because he was born equipped with a twig and berries. The focus is on women asserting themselves, raising the consciousness of women and empowering themselves to fight for equality and opportunities.
If I have any quibble with the documentary, it’s that men are almost invisible in it. For instance, while you couldn’t do a documentary on women’s impact on America without including Oprah Winfrey, I was struck that Phil Donahue, husband of featured speaker Marlo Thomas, wasn’t included. Not only did Donahue’s show pave the way for Winfrey’s, Donahue championed women’s issues on his show and was responsible for raising the consciousness of men to accept, embrace and understand the woman’s movement. As a big Donahue fan, it’s where I came into contact with women’s issues as a teen and heard from feminist voices.
In all movements there is this partnership of like-minded people on the “other side,” such as whites who participated in the Civil Rights Movement and white politicians who climbed out on a limb to help blacks. The same is true for women (and the documentary does show men marching with women even if it doesn’t directly reference it) just as it’s true for gays today, as many straight folks embrace and help advance the movement.
I can understand that the makers of the documentary wanted the focus of the film to be women telling the story of women.
The ending is the most important part of the documentary as it focuses on today’s girls and young women who don’t have the same anger and passion as their mothers. The fear is without such passion, hard fought rights can be rolled back. We’re seeing that in pushback against contraceptives, abortion and other women’s health issues. The Violence Against Women Act was just passed by the House with the majority of Republicans voting against it. The fights aren’t over.
That same charge of complacency can be leveled at young blacks that haven’t had the struggle of their parents and think once change has occurred that inertia will keep it in place. Blacks are seeing it now with the Voting Rights Act in peril in the Supreme Court. Progress isn’t always a straight line.
Girls (and boys) across America should see this documentary. It’s important that they know that someone fought and sacrificed to help provide the opportunities that are theirs. And that torch, that baton is being passed to them to continue the struggle.
If you missed the documentary on PBS, it can be viewed on the website as well as interviews by over 140 awesome women who make America what it is today.