Makers: A Movie Review


So I just watched Makers:  Women Who Make America, the PBS documentary about the American women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s and its’ far-reaching effects.  If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, I highly recommend it—the movie is well-made and packed with information.  It’s also an emotional experience, watching this film:  hearing the stories of the women who made history, often in their own voices, and seeing footage of women awakening to their potential is both humbling and empowering.

The film, which is three hours long, is presented in three segments:  Awakening, Changing the World, and Charting a New Course.  We get to hear and see all of the major milestones of the movement: the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1968 protest of the Miss America pageant (at which no bras were burned), the sit-in at the Ladies’ Home Journal office, the August 1970 march in New York to commemorate the 50th anniversary of suffrage, the passage of Title IX in 1972, the groundbreaking tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, and the 1973 case of Roe vs. Wade.  But the film doesn’t only chronicle the high points of change—it is honest about the fractures in the movement, including the frustrations of women of color and lesbians, who were marginalized by the white, middle-class nature of mainstream feminism.

As we progress through history, we also hear where, how, and why the movement stalled.  Phyllis Schlafly, who spearheaded the movement to stop the states’ passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and kicked off the 1980’s conservative religious movement in favor of patriarchy, appears in footage both old and new to condemn feminism.  We also see progress in the 80s, however, from the rise in consciousness about sexual harassment (with emphasis on Clarence Thomas’ sexual harassment of Anita Hill) and domestic violence—and laws against them—to the continued progress women made in business and government.  Finally, we are left in the present, with a very clear picture of how we got here, and what is still left undone:  the pay gap, the burden of poverty and work for women of color, insufficient childcare options, and a workplace structured for the 1950s.

History comes alive in this film because of the women who made it:  we hear from so many admirable women.  There are appearances by Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Aileen Hernandez, Ruth Simmons, Sandra Day O’Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Erica Jong, Rita Mae Brown, Billie Jean King, and Oprah Winfrey.  One of my favorite things about this movie is the way it focuses on the importance of everyday women and the decisions they make.  For example, the film opens with the story of Kathryn Switzer, who caused quite a stir as the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967.  She knew—everyone knew, by the time that marathon was over—that she wasn’t just running it for herself.  She was running it for all women.  Again and again we hear that theme throughout this film:  ordinary women did extraordinary things that made life better for all women.

There are two areas I wish the film had developed more:  the activism by African American women and other women of color, and the role of third-wave feminism in our current culture.  Although the film discusses the tension between white, middle-class feminists and women of color at several points, it doesn’t highlight the major players in this part of the movement to the degree it could have.  For example, although the film discusses Shirley Chisholm (the first African-American woman in Congress), there is no mention of Fannie Lou Hamer or Ella Baker, African American women who were very prominent in the Civil Rights movement and played a role in advancing the rights of all women, or Alice Walker and her use of the term Womanist.  And although the film includes Amy Richards, the founder of Third Wave Foundation, it could have discussed current activism to a greater degree, including Slutwalk and the energies of feminist bloggers and writers such as Jessica Valenti.

Although these areas could have been developed more, the film does recognize the vital contributions of both women of color and of young women, and the work we still have left if we are to give every woman the opportunities that the feminist movement made possible for some.  Makers is a film that leaves you with a sense of both pride and restlessness:  American women have accomplished much, but we are still living in a half-changed society.  If you need some inspiration for figuring out how to push the boundaries in your own life, check out the lives of the ordinary, extraordinary women in this wonderful film.

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