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'Makers' Hits the Mark on Feminist History but Misses on the Movement Today | The Nation

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Katha Pollitt

Katha Pollitt

Politics, feminism, culture, books and daily life.

'Makers' Hits the Mark on Feminist History but Misses on the Movement Today

Three hours is a long time for a TV program, but Makers, the much-heralded PBS documentary about the last fifty years of American feminism, could have been twice as long and it still would have felt short to me, given the immense, dramatic and complex story it tells. The Feminine Mystique, NOW, consciousness raising, the ERA, Roe v. Wade, Gloria Steinem, the movement of women out of the home and into the workforce, the overturning of one legal and social barriers after another (sex-segregated job ads, quotas in medical school, police indifference to violence against women), the lavender menace, Anita Hill, Gloria Steinem, the Pill, the (alas, ongoing) fight for birth control and abortion and look, there’s Gloria Steinem again. Even if you are familiar with most of the material presented here, most of which can be found in other popular histories like Gail Collins’s delightful When Everything Changed, it’s thrilling to see it on screen: the director of the all-male Boston Marathon trying to shove Katherine Switzer out of the race in 1967 (she had sneaked in by registering under her initial); Billie Jean King borne aloft to “the match of the century” by costumed boy toys on some sort of Egyptian palanquin; Shirley Chisolm delivering a fiery speech with utter calmness and assurance, feminists sitting in at the Ladies Home Journal; best of all, the everyday women who made history by standing up for their rights, as workers, as battered women, as wives who had just had it up to here. There are plenty of ads and articles and talk show clips to remind us of how trivialized women were, and how exhilarating were what seem today like very modest steps—could it be that That Girl was the first TV show centered on a woman who was not an appendage to a man? That 1992, the much-celebrated Year of the Woman, brought the number of female senators up to five?

Makers is resolutely centered on pop culture—Erica Jong and wonderful Judy Blume are there, but no mention of Adrienne Rich, Sandra Gilbert, Susan Gubar, Ellen Willis, Audre Lorde, Andrea Dworkin, bell hooks, among the many writers the have given the movement artistic and intellectual heft. It also hews to a particular mainstream narrative that makes Steinem central and scants other strains—black feminism and womanism, the zine movement, Riot Grrl. Still, Makers captures the excitement of the Second Wave—the huge marches, the demonstrations, the meetings, the heady joy of victories coming thick and fast. Everyone was so young! They had such fun! And so much sex! (Betty Dodson, who made masturbation respectable, although the film doesn’t actually mention that, says after she left her sexless marriage and fell in love at 35, “We stayed in bed for a year”). Is nostalgia just an inevitable part of historical documentaries? Even Phyllis Schlafly, who gets quite a bit of airtime as the slayer of the ERA, looks fresh-faced and trim and cheerful as she marshals her reactionary troops, if hardly the ordinary housewife she pretended to be. (“I used to tell her, I think I cook dinner more often than you do, says former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder.)

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The last hour, bringing us up to date, is much less satisfying. The filmmakers are committed to their optimistic storyline but have to deal with the various ways women’s progress has been stymied and the movement has splintered. We enter the land of “choice feminism,” where Abigail Pogrebin’s leaving her high-powered TV job for a quieter life as a part-time working mother is somehow both perfectly fine (no judging!) and the fault of her feminist mother Letty Cottin Pogrebin, who did not fix the world fast enough. Responding to the familiar charge that young women are apathetic, we hear briefly from younger feminists Amy Richards and Shelby Knox (both Steinem protégées), who argue that young women are activists even if they don’t identify as feminists. We get no sense of the intense, vibrant, combative nature of online feminism. Where are Jessica Valenti, Amanda Marcotte, Latoya Peterson, the Crunk Feminist Collective? Where’s Med Students for Choice and the National Network of Abortion Funds? There are plenty of contemporary counterparts to the coal miners and “stewardesses” and battered wives whose fight for justice ignites the earlier sections—think of the brave women soldiers coming out about rape in the military. Instead, Makers claims that young feminists are focusing on the even greater oppression of women in the developing world, which implies that global feminism is America’s gift to the world, and gives the impression that feminism in the US has reached a natural stopping point. As right-wing commentator Monica Crowley puts it, feminism today means whatever you want, including choosing not to be a feminist.

From the problem that has no name to the movement that, according to Makers, has no identity. What will the next half-century bring?

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