The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fifty years of feminism in ‘Makers: Women Who Make America’

Betty Friedan. Gloria Steinem. Sandra Day O’Connor.  Not much introduction needed for these trailblazers who in the 1960s and ‘70s  wrote the “The Feminine Mystique,” co-founded “Ms.” magazine and broke the Supreme Court gender barrier.

But Katherine Switzer? Lorena Weeks? Barbara Burns? Not so famous, yet also key players in the women’s rights movement, making 20th century history by storming very disparate male bastions.

Switzer was the first woman to run in the Boston Marathon despite a mid-race attempt by the director to physically remove her (he was body-blocked by her boyfriend and she finished in 4:20). Weeks was the Georgia phone operator who won a gender bias suit against Southern Bell, which barred her from seeking a better-paying switchman’s job because she’d have to lift 30-pound equipment (the single mother had no trouble hoisting her three children). Burns, who came from a long line of West Virginia coal miners, waged a 13-year battle to win a sexual harassment suit against the company owner (who falsely accused her of seducing him).

These six women, and dozens of others appear in “Makers: Women Who Make America,” a sweeping documentary covering 50 years of feminism, pro and con, from the days when highly educated women were expected to live happily ever after as wives and mothers.

Author Judy Blume, who wed while in college, said, “I was pregnant by the time I graduated [in 1960] and hung my diploma over the washing machine.”  Fast forward to Hillary Clinton, 65, who married after law school, and whose post-nup resume includes running for president, running the State Department (and publicly yearning for a grandchild.)

Yes, baby, we’ve come a long way—even to the front lines of military combat— but we haven’t completely arrived yet, not with only 20 percent of House and Senate seats held by women, and the earnings gap currently at 77 female cents to every male dollar.

For activists of a certain age, “Makers” is a sentimental journey back to the days of big ideas, big dreams, big hair and big glasses. For GenX and Millennial women who still may not know that single “girls” of yesteryear could not get credit cards, birth control or even an apartment lease, “Makers” is a crash course in, pardon the expression, herstory.

In the show airing Tuesday on PBS, executive producers Dyllan McGee, Betsy West and Peter Kunhardt examine the (r)evolutionary role of women who earned their chops fighting for civil rights, reproductive rights and gay rights, and those who opposed them along the way.

“Makers” gets its heft from those myriad voices explaining everything from spousal housework debates to ideological splits along economic and sexual orientation divides.

Minority women felt marginalized by their white middle-class sisters who seemed only to want out of the typing pool or the car pool and into the executive suite.

Ruth Simmons, a former Brown University president, would have been grateful for one of those sneered-at secretarial jobs.  “I had one goal: If only I could one day work in an office because every woman I knew was doing housework, and by that I mean they were maids.”

“A woman who’s living in public housing in urban Atlanta had a very different notion of what constitutes a woman’s issues than a privileged white woman trying to break the glass ceiling,” noted Beverly Guy-Sheftall, who created a black women’s study program at Spelman College.

There was also a sexual split between some straight women and the often more militant lesbians—whom Friedan once derided as the “lavender menace.”  But by 1975 there was apparent unity when 20,000 women—including First Lady Rosalynn Carter and predecessors Betty Ford and Lady Bird Johnson–gathered in Houston for the National Women’s Conference, to promote, among other issues, the Equal Rights Amendment. First introduced in Congress in 1923 it had, by 1973, cleared the House and Senate and seemed well on its way to ratification.

Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly — wife, mother of six, lawyer, author, lecturer and thus to her opponents, the quintessential feminist — wasn’t having any of it. She founded STOP ERA in 1972, and 10 years later, having mobilized the religious right, was credited with killing it.

Schlafly ally Shirley Curry, a minister’s wife, believed “the fight against ERA had to be fought and won by women.”  At nationwide strategy sessions, she recalled Schlafly teaching women how to lobby their legislators, down to suggesting “what kind of earrings to wear” and “always keep a smile on your face.”

Sex—recreational and procreational—also was very much a part of the feminist debate, stoked by the advent of birth control pills. That reproductive great leap forward, said, Ruth Westheimer, meant “it was now women who decided if they wanted to be pregnant.”

Sex educator Betty Dodson spoke of her passionless marriage. “Did I ever fake an orgasm? You bet I faked an orgasm. Oh. Oh. Oh.”  In her 30s, she divorced and went on the pill. “For five years I was immersed in America’s sexual revolution. It was the best time on the planet.”

But where there is sex, there will be unwanted pregnancy and abortion, which remained illegal until 1973. At the extremes, Steinem tells a pro-choice rally, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament,” and antiabortion protesters marched on a firebombed North Dakota abortion clinic, whose owner has received death threats for years.

At a time when some of the “Makers” lament the ongoing erosion of reproductive rights, others criticize the movement for failing to do more for the working poor and struggling middle class.

Labor leader Karen Nussbaum, founder of the 9-5 Secretaries Union, said feminists should have pushed harder for a reliable safety net of day care, community services and after-school care to keep families afloat financially.

It’s no surprise that “Makers” ends with several prominent younger women chewing over the work life/home life balancing act, and defining 21st century feminism as whatever they want it to be.

Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg talks longingly of a world “where being a parent is not a fulltime job for a woman and a parttime job for a man.”

Hmmm. Sounds like documentary fodder for another day.

Annie Groer is a former Washington Post and writer and columnist whose work has also appeared in More, Town & Country and the New York Times. She is at work on a memoir.