Analysis Media

MAKERS: A Good Women’s History Lesson, But Misses Younger Feminists

Erin Matson

MAKERS was a good overview documentary, and I'm glad it exists. Unfortunately, it ended with a thud by ignoring many of the vibrant, young feminists working today.

Tuesday night, PBS debuted MAKERS: Women Who Make America, a three-hour documentary on the women’s movement. It was complemented online by a robust Twitter conversation. For feminists sick of turning to social media in response to sexism on the screen this season (hello, Super Bowl and the Oscars), the evening was—even with a handful of justifiable criticisms—basically a warm cookie with marshmallow sauce and jam slathered on top.

But the history of the women’s movement isn’t just fun for feminists—it’s a history of social justice that needs to be taught in schools to everyone, not just women and girls.

The documentary, which for some reason did not start with Alice Paul, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the struggle for suffrage, began in the heart of 1950s suburbia, with an examination of upper-middle-class white women who were bored to death by the discrepancy between their education and skills and their actual activities and duties. Feminist author Judy Blume, who was interviewed in the film, put it this way: “There wasn’t one woman in any of those houses who worked. And when I wanted to write, they laughed at me.”

Kudos to the filmmakers for featuring Blume before even getting to Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, which would come to detail the “problem that has no name:” the bored and wealthy white suburban housewife. From there, the film moved full-tilt into the second-wave women’s movement that followed.

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For a time it appeared the voices featured in MAKERS would be disproportionately white women, which made me wonder if that was indicative of what the “official” women’s movement looked like at the time, or if it was an issue of historical whitewashing; I suspect it was a mixture of both.

Fortunately, after a slow start, more women of color began to be featured on screen. As now-Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton explained, the women’s movement of the time “associated white women with white men, and that meant white privilege.”

The film also discussed the prominent role of consciousness-raising, or how the personal was political for the rise of the second-wave women’s movement. It wasn’t just about building a movement or political power, according to health-care activist Byllye Avery. “Consciousness-raising was how we learned about our lives,” she said.

Consciousness-raising took place in person, but it also corresponded with a variety of print media created by feminists, some targeting the movement and others the general public. (The unmentioned parallels to the role of the internet today are uncanny.) Enter Gloria Steinem and the creation of Ms. Magazine. What a thrilling story! The men in the media at the time said it would fail. Boy, were they wrong.

The rift between Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan, who founded the National Organization for Women, was discussed at a higher level than the usual personality-focused, cat-fight crap the media tends to serve up. As Steinem explained it, she believed the more established movement Friedan represented was concerned with having women join society, whereas “the slightly younger parts of the movement were trying to transform society. And those were two different goals.” In 2013, the shorthand for where you can find similar sentiments is online, under the #youngfems hashtag on Twitter.

From there continued a discussion of the long—and ongoing—struggle to make “feminism” more inclusive of lesbians and broader conceptions of gender and sexuality, women of color, and the kind of working women who are often too busy delivering food or mopping floors to think about going into the boardroom.

The discussion about abortion and birth control was one of the more depressing segments of the film, if only because so little has changed. Footage from 40 years ago of only men discussing abortion conjured up images of last year’s zero-woman Congressional panel on contraception. And that gender disparity isn’t just symbolic; the number of abortion providers has fallen by some 40 percent over the past two decades. The violent harassment outside clinics from the 1980s, as showed in the film, continues today.

From a historical perspective, it was good to hear reproductive rights strongly situated within the context of women’s rights and the backlash against treating women as equals. Today, opponents of abortion and birth control will go to great pains to claim they support women, in a futile attempt to iron out the ugly wrinkle they occupy in the arc of human rights history.

The film also featured a strong round-up of the unrealized struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, featuring none other than anti-women’s rights crusader Phyllis Schlafly. Before MAKERS aired, some feminists had raised concerns about her inclusion in a film featuring women’s movement leaders, but it was clear in watching the documentary that she was featured more for context, as an influencer in the as-yet unsuccessful effort to guarantee women’s equality in the U.S. Constitution.

Only one time did I scream at the television, and that honor was reserved for Clarence Thomas. “What the [bleep] is he doing on the Supreme Court?” I yelled. Of course not all justices came straight out of the women’s movement, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg did (her cameos in the film were precious), but a sexual harasser?

It seems most people in the country believed Anita Hill when she made her sexual-harassment charges against Thomas and was vilified in return. It was our lawmakers who failed us in that case, and no subsequent “Year of the Woman” election will resolve that discrepancy between policy and the general public—not, at least, until the “Year of the Woman” means we actually have proportional representation of women in all levels of government.

All in all, MAKERS was a good overview documentary, and I’m glad it exists. But unfortunately, it ended with a thud. Rather than showing an intergenerational, diverse slice of the modern women’s movement as it exists today, a few older women were quoted in a tired, clichéd, and incorrect way claiming that young women don’t care about feminism and that they take the older feminists’ work for granted. The documentary only spotlighted one young feminist, Shelby Knox (who did a great job).

This was disappointing because there are tons of other young feminist voices that could and should have been featured in addition to Shelby to show the intergenerational range of activism taking place all over the country, and not just the coasts.

Alas, one of the last people featured in the documentary was Michelle Rhee, a right-wing activist who is relevant primarily for eviscerating teacher’s unions that serve primarily underpaid women and operating a PAC that supports candidates opposed to reproductive rights.

Today’s women’s movement is vibrant and alive. There is history we must know, but it’s a changing, dynamic field filled with diverse activists and leaders. We could have seen more of the inter-generational work happening today during the closing discussion of MAKERS—what a missed opportunity in an otherwise helpful film on a few powerful decades in the larger progression for women throughout history.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to Philly.com, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.