MAKERS Tells the Story of 50 Years of Progress for Women in the U.S.

Among the many thousands of items in my newsfeed yesterday, three popped out and stuck with me: First, a conservative panel called Independent Women’s Forum convened to discuss their sense that “conservative leaders and funders… don’t take women’s issues seriously.” Panel moderator Christina Hoff Sommers joked, “I’m not sure what’s worse: conservatives ignoring women’s issues or conservatives addressing them.” The tone was light, but the sense of frustration these women feel with their male colleagues was very clear.

Secondly, a UK comedian, Michael J. Dolan published a soul-searching piece much discussed stateside in which he admits he was “a misogynist comedian.” Dolan claims that, like racist comedians of old, “Those peddling misogyny, homophobia or other varieties of hate to drunks who don’t know better are going to find themselves out of favour.” And finally, former president Jimmy Carter wrote an editorial to announce that he is severing his six-decade-long ties with the Southern Baptist Convention because of their view that women should be “subservient” to men. “It is simply self-defeating,” wrote Carter, “for any community to discriminate against half its population.”

I mention these examples because they seem to be part of a general trend of cultural reassessment, after several dismally low points in the discussion of gender equality this past year, about the continued institutionalization—in politics, religion, the workplace, and entertainment—of damaging attitudes toward half of the human species. While it sometimes seems that social change takes place at a glacial pace, with several steps back for every step forward, there are always strong undercurrents of progress that aren’t readily apparent until someone takes the time to organize them into narratives.

This is precisely what the filmmakers of MAKERS aim to do. A “multi-platform video experience” from AOL and PBS, the project showcases “hundreds of compelling stories from women of today and tomorrow… both known and unknown.” Unlike worldwide, policy-based efforts like the just-ended 2013 Global Maternal Health Conference, MAKERS restricts its focus to women in the U.S. and, it seems, relies primarily on individual women with prominent public roles—journalists, activists, writers, and celebrities, or at least that’s the sense one gets from their introductory video (above), which might open them up to charges of elitism. But there is more to the project than celebrity profiles. In their own words, the producers of MAKERS describe the project thus:

MAKERS originated from a very clear premise: over the last half century, the work of millions of women has altered virtually every aspect of American culture. MAKERS features groundbreaking women who have sparked change, been first in their fields and paved the way for those that followed. This initiative also extends to profile hundreds of stories of women who are driving social change today.

Delve into the wealth of short documentary videos on the MAKERS YouTube channel and you’ll see that there are dozens of women profiled who aren’t celebrities in the conventional sense. Sure, we’ve got stars of the screen and the power centers of government and the corporate world, e.g. Ellen DeGeneres, Hilary Clinton, and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, but there are also lesser known “makers,” like 15-year-old Tavi Gevinson, founder and editor-in-chief of webzine Rookie. Gevinson is a prodigy who has built her own online media empire, beginning at the age of 11, when her fashion blog Style Rookie became one of the most popular of its kind. Watch her (below) discuss her own approach to typical teenage insecurities in an excerpt from her longer profile.

Another maker with a deeply inspiring story that you won’t hear in the daily news cycle is Katherine Switzer, the first woman to enter the Boston Marathon in 1967. She did so by signing the form with her initials, making marathon officials think she was a man. Below, Switzer recounts the curiosity, bile, and disturbingly violent harassment she faced during the race. It wasn’t until five years later that the race was officially opened to women. By that time, Switzer was an activist for female runners.

The MAKERS project profiles dozens of other women—like civil rights lawyer and founder of Children’s Defense Fund Marian Wright Edelman—who normally fly under the mass-media radar, but whose presence in the culture has an enormous impact. Keep your eye on PBS listings—on February 26th, they will air a three-hour documentary called MAKERS: Women Who Make America, which promises to tell the “remarkable story for the first time” of the sweeping progress American women have made over the last half-century.

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him @jdmagness.

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