Makers: The Women Who Make America

Makers: The Women Who Make America

Makers: The Women Who Make America debuts tonight on PBS at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Makers: The Women Who Make America is a three-hour monster of a documentary on the women’s movement that, despite its length, falls a bit short. Feminism is a collection of many people and many voices, with as many empowered women these days rejecting the label as embracing it. The struggle for each individual woman’s empowerment is fought in private as much as in public, at times despite feminism, not because of it. 

Ironically enough Makers seems to be invested in trying to depict the multifaceted nature of the modern feminist movement, from its theoretical nascence with Betty Friedan’s Feminist Mystique to today. But Makers is telling one story of American feminism, and an incomplete one at that, even with three hours of work. Which is to say, it’s pretty heavily biased towards feminism, and that’s coming from a reviewer that leans hard left (and would be a card-carrying feminist if there were in fact actual cards).

This is a documentary rather narrowly focused on the feminist movement that gathered heft and momentum starting in the early 1960s and mostly ended with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, when the conservative backlash against Roe v. Wade began (though Makers extends its lens through the 1990s and today in its final act). It necessarily must elide much of what the feminist movement has meant to Americans across the years, but it feels like too much is lost in the self-congratulation.

Makers relies on the viewer already knowing a great deal about the feminist movement—and, indeed, sympathizing with it. A documentary subtitled “Women Who Make America” on PBS can easily be assumed to be three hours of left-leaning feminists patting themselves on the back. It’s unfortunate that the assumption is borne out. Most of all it’s a disservice to the documentary itself, and the many incredible women who sat for interviews in it. 

It’s not all bad—in fact, it’s not bad at all. It is in fact an excellent exploration of this very specific feminism, at this very specific time: The women who fought their way to executive positions typically held by men or campaigned for their right to have abortions in the face of withering sexism. Especially for anyone who was born after the bulk of the movement’s work, this is a very educational refresher course on just how difficult it was to be a woman before feminism. The interviewers and case studies reveal botched abortions, domestic abuse, job discrimination, rampant objectification, pressure to marry, and the continued message that women were nothing more than a uterus and a pretty face.

But it’s not until the middle of the third hour that Makers acknowledges just how complicated the question of women’s rights can be. It’s not until late in the third hour that Makers acknowledges the women’s movement had a few possible flaws. Karen Nussbaum, a labor organizer, points out how feminism failed working-class women in particular; a daughter of a Ms. magazine cofounder admits that she was deeply ambivalent about making the choices between motherhood and her career. And this is after a second hour that focuses almost entirely on how the early blush of the feminist movement fell apart catastrophically in the late 1970s. Surely there is more to be said about how the feminist movement could have done better, but if there is, we don’t hear it. The end of the documentary in particular is engages in some confusing handwringing over the state of feminism today, lamenting that women don’t even want to call themselves feminists anymore, and forgetting that maybe the label isn’t the point.

Makers functions better as a celebration of certain feminists than as a history of feminism. The best moments by far are the interviews, with Gloria Steinem, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Billie Jean King, Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and many others, recognized and unrecognized women who advanced the cause for female empowerment in whatever way they could. Those interviews bring to life the documentary’s segments on various elements of the drive for equal rights for women—whether that is the section on tennis’ war of the sexes or with the woman lawyer who successfully argued Roe v. Wade against the Supreme Court.

Indeed, the strength of this documentary is in the individual woman’s story—the interviews and the stories that build up around them. Ruth Bader Ginsburg discussing her first appearance at the Supreme Court (as a lawyer arguing a case for the ACLU) is far more interesting than the later extended bit about Anita Hill’s sexual harassment—a segment that is conspicuously missing Hill herself.

Makers even goes out of its way, in its second hour, to interview the opposition. It’s a flawed but ambitious decision. Following the push to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed, Makers depicts the rise of anti-Equal Rights Amendment and anti-abortion sentiment in the run-up to President Reagan’s election in 1980. Phyllis Schlafly is also interviewed, along with several other conservative activists opposed not just to abortion and the ERA, but also to feminism as a movement. The documentary largely lets the women on both sides of the debate speak for themselves, and the result is an upsetting 20 minutes that ends up proving most successfully why we need feminism than the rest of Makers combined.

More than anything, Makers reminds the viewer that the women’s movement was a pivotal moment in American history—one that changed the way most women lived in this country, whether that was through legislation, mainstream media, restructuring the family, or creating consciousness. But in reveling in that importance, Makers loses its grasp on context. There is almost no sense of the struggle continuing today until the very end of the documentary; especially considering that some of the efforts that were introduced in the 1960s are still ongoing.

This documentary does a good job describing feminism as it was, but it fails to frame them for the modern viewer—or the modern feminist, for that matter. The end of the documentary tacks on a sloppy idea of advancing feminism abroad (a very controversial issue) and plays Alicia Keys’ “Girl On Fire” over images of young women today saying they’re still fighting the good fight, and then concludes with a montage roping in everyone from Tina Fey and Amy Poehler to Katie Couric, Nancy Pelosi, and Venus and Serena Williams. It’s sloppy—and trying way too hard to put everyone in the same category. Which is in essence what all of Makers is guilty of.

Stray observations:

  • This documentary was narrated by Meryl Streep! That is all.
  • Three hours is just too many hours.
  • Now that I know That Girl was a groundbreaking television show, I expect to see it reviewed in this space shortly.
  • I was expecting at least a little bit of love for Susan B. Anthony, but nope: DENIED.