New MAKERS Documentary is a Must-See on the Women's Movement

Nostalgia for the 1960s never seems to fade. It was, we’re told, an era that reshaped the American political landscape and empowered millions of people to challenge cultural norms. It rallied a generation. Its energy was palpable. If you were part of it, you should feel damn lucky. Some of us who weren’t born until long after the sixties still feel cheated at the ostensible apathy of our current crop of radicals.

But ’60s nostalgia is often concentrated in the anti-Vietnam War effort. Diverse interests coalesced around the anti-war movement: civil rights, gender equality and justice for the working class. But the story of the sixties, after the millionth telling, feels recycled: Abbie Hoffman, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Woodstock, LSD, The End.

MAKERS: Women Who Make America a new three-part documentary airing February 26 on PBS, will do little to abate this misty-eyed view of sixties-era activism. What it will do, however, is build a new appreciation for the heady nature of the women’s movement.

Mirroring the feminist maxim that “the personal is political,” MAKERS revisits the last 50 years of the women’s movement, or what’s commonly known as its second wave, through the personal stories of participants and witnesses.

Unlike many documentaries that sideline the women’s movement in favor of a broader view of the era (with lip service to the fair but reductive point that the Pill enabled women to have more sex), MAKERS stays true to its subject through reminiscing about visions of revolutionary social change and the radical, sometimes provocative, rethinking of institutions. 

“What we wanted to get at was the truth,” explains MAKERS executive producer Betsy West. “And get to it in a way that people could relate to it, to the story of these women who were resourceful and courageous.”

Interspersed with period music and hilariously retro, sexist ads, interviewees come from across the participatory spectrum. Political titans like Hillary Clinton join organizers and movement leaders including Aileen Hernandez and Gloria Steinem. Opponents such as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly share screen time with ordinary women who may not have physically marched or organized, but were nevertheless affected deeply by the movement’s message.

The movement’s equation of marriage with unpaid labor (or “slavery”) will seem outdated and divisive today. But variations on that sentiment still inform modern-day feminist discourse.

Interviewees touch on the obvious (Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique), the comical (faked orgasms, Murphy Brown baby drama), the heartbreaking (the persistence of domestic violence) and the infuriating (abortion opposition, the Anita Hill hearings).

And the discussion of oral contraceptives is helpfully advanced beyond sexual freedom to the larger and more revolutionary point that women could now control their reproduction.

Yet MAKERS doesn’t gloss over the movement’s shortcomings, especially its exclusionary tendencies and lack of concern for marginalized groups of women. “Here we were unable to raise our families if two people didn’t get out and work… what [did] we have in common with [white women]?” says D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. As Meryl Streep narrates, “The preoccupations of white women seemed a world away.”

Work on MAKERS began eight years ago. Originally, the documentary was intended to focus on Gloria Steinem, but Steinem advised producer Dyllan McGee to expand the project’s scope. It is also just one part of a much larger project that includes the ongoing, online archival site, which hosts thousands of videos of influential women and stories relevant to the movement .

“It’s designed to be the largest collection of women’s stories online for anyone who wants to see them,” says West. “We figured that after a half century, it was a good time to look back. And we didn’t just want a documentary. A video archive could better capture the stories that were involved before it was too late.”

Even with a three-hour run time and a companion database online, MAKERS still misses a lot (like, say, the passage of the Hyde Amendment). But how could it not? As West points out, the women’s movement is “the biggest transformation of the 20th century.” Feminism itself has so many branches with conflicting approaches to solving problems important to women. But what’s most important is that the conversation is alive and that feminists have a robust platform like to record how the movement will evolve.

So let’s not be sad we missed the sixties. There’s still plenty of work to do.


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