The XX Factor

PBS Gives Feminist History Its Due in Three-Hour Documentary, But Skimps on Today

Last night, PBS aired a three-hour documentary, “MAKERS: Women Who Make America;” which chronicled how the past 50 years of feminism remade our social and political landscape. All three parts can be viewed streaming here, and I can’t recommend it enough.

The filmmakers do a marvelous job of covering the wide expanse of feminist change without smoothing over some of the conflicts that have plagued feminist organizing from the beginning (over class, race, and sexual orientation) or ignoring the movement’s failures. I particularly loved the first two-thirds, which covered the ‘60s and ‘70s, an era that is sadly misunderstood not only by ordinary Americans but often by many feminist activists themselves. The stereotype of “women’s libbers” as humorless prudes is particularly well-debunked—humorless prudes simply don’t crown a sheep Miss America or run around the streets of New York City groping and cat-calling men to put lie to the claim that men would love it if the tables were turned. Just as revealing is the footage showing what feminists of that era were up against, as male anchors of news programs weighed in on events like the launch of Ms. Magazine with the kind of dismissive, sexist condescension that these days tends to be reserved for blog comment sections (or elections).

Just as the filmmakers smartly chose not to gloss over feminism’s missteps, they also give plenty of space to the anti-feminist backlash that led to the end of the Equal Rights Amendment in the late ‘70s. This means interviewing Phyllis Schlafly and other conservative activists who invariably want you to believe they’re nothing but simple housewives. Much as it must have been tempting to ignore Schlafly, the filmmakers were right to cover her here—after all, she invented the conservative strategy of stealing liberal organizing principles and using them to defeat liberal ideas. Schlafly rapidly organized her army of anti-feminist housewives by promising them the same things that Betty Friedan extolled: an opportunity to get out of the house, do real work, and make a difference in the world instead of simply pass the time wiping butts and making dinners. (The irony of this appears lost on these women to this day, but the movie doesn’t make fun of them for that—the tone of this section is actually more one of quiet admiration for Schlafly’s tactics, even if her ideas are deplorable.)

Most of the last hour explores the expansion of women into the workplace and the fight against domestic violence, rape, and sexual harassment. Things start to fall apart towards the end of the film, which is occupied with the tedious question of “having it all.” To their credit, the filmmakers at least address what most discussions of “having it all” ignore, which is the role that men play in sharing domestic duties, but overall the segment failed by spending more time interviewing famous women than covering policy fixes that were first proposed in the ‘70s and still haven’t come to pass. The filmmakers also missed an opportunity to cover what feminists are up to these days, inexplicably ignoring the explosion of online feminism and actions like Slutwalk. Watching the movie, one might get the impression that while the ‘70s had a glut of fashionable, passionate young feminists riled to action, the past decade has mostly gone without. From my feminist adventures in New York City, I can assure you that this is definitely not the case.