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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