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 Human Rights

What’s Driving Women’s Skyrocketing Incarceration Rates?

Michelle D. Anderson

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

Local court and law enforcement systems in small counties throughout the United States are increasingly using jails to warehouse underserved Black and Latina women.

The Vera Institute of Justice, a national policy and research organization, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge initiative, released a study last week showing that the number of women in jails based in communities with 250,000 residents or fewer in 2014 had grown 31-fold since 1970, when most county jails lacked a single woman resident.

By comparison, the number of women in jails nationwide had jumped 14-fold since 1970. Historically, jails were designed to hold people not yet convicted of a crime or people serving terms of one year or less, but they are increasingly housing poor women who can’t afford bail.

Eighty-two percent of the women in jails nationwide find themselves there for nonviolent offenses, including property, drug, and public order offenses.

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Overlooked: Women and Jails in an Era of Reform,” calls attention to jail incarceration rates for women in small counties, where rates increased from 79 per 100,000 women to 140 per 100,000 women, compared to large counties, where rates dropped from 76 to 71 per 100,000 women.

The near 50-page report further highlights that families of color, who are already disproportionately affected by economic injustice, poor access to health care, and lack of access to affordable housing, were most negatively affected by the epidemic.

An overwhelming percentage of women in jail, the study showed, were more likely to be survivors of violence and trauma, and have alarming rates of mental illness and substance use problems.

“Overlooked” concluded that jails should be used a last resort to manage women deemed dangerous to others or considered a flight risk.

Elizabeth Swavola, a co-author of “Overlooked” and a senior program associate at the Vera Institute, told Rewire that smaller regions tend to lack resources to address underlying societal factors that often lead women into the jail system.

County officials often draft budgets mainly dedicated to running local jails and law enforcement and can’t or don’t allocate funds for behavioral, employment, and educational programs that could strengthen underserved women and their families.

“Smaller counties become dependent on the jail to deal with the issues,” Swavola said, adding that current trends among women deserves far more inquiry than it has received.

Fred Patrick, director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute, said in “Overlooked” that the study underscored the need for more data that could contribute to “evidence-based analysis and policymaking.”

“Overlooked” relies on several studies and reports, including a previous Vera Institute study on jail misuse, FBI statistics, and Rewire’s investigation on incarcerated women, which examined addiction, parental rights, and reproductive issues.

“Overlooked” authors highlight the “unique” challenges and disadvantages women face in jails.

Women-specific issues include strained access to menstrual hygiene products, abortion care, and contraceptive care, postpartum separation, and shackling, which can harm the pregnant person and fetus by applying “dangerous levels of pressure, and restriction of circulation and fetal movement.”

And while women are more likely to fare better in pre-trail proceedings and receive low bail amounts, the study authors said they are more likely to leave the jail system in worse condition because they are more economically disadvantaged.

The report noted that 60 percent of women housed in jails lacked full-time employment prior to their arrest compared to 40 percent of men. Nearly half of all single Black and Latina women have zero or negative net wealth, “Overlooked” authors said.

This means that costs associated with their arrest and release—such as nonrefundable fees charged by bail bond companies and electronic monitoring fees incurred by women released on pretrial supervision—coupled with cash bail, can devastate women and their families, trapping them in jail or even leading them back to correctional institutions following their release.

For example, the authors noted that 36 percent of women detained in a pretrial unit in Massachusetts in 2012 were there because they could not afford bail amounts of less than $500.

The “Overlooked” report highlighted that women in jails are more likely to be mothers, usually leading single-parent households and ultimately facing serious threats to their parental rights.

“That stress affects the entire family and community,” Swavola said.

Citing a Corrections Today study focused on Cook County, Illinois, the authors said incarcerated women with children in foster care were less likely to be reunited with their children than non-incarcerated women with children in foster care.

The sexual abuse and mental health issues faced by women in jails often contribute to further trauma, the authors noted, because women are subjected to body searches and supervision from male prison employees.

“Their experience hurts their prospects of recovering from that,” Swavola said.

And the way survivors might respond to perceived sexual threats—by fighting or attempting to escape—can lead to punishment, especially when jail leaders cannot detect or properly respond to trauma, Swavola and her peers said.

The authors recommend jurisdictions develop gender-responsive policies and other solutions that can help keep women out of jails.

In New York City, police take people arrested for certain non-felony offenses to a precinct, where they receive a desk appearance ticket, or DAT, along with instructions “to appear in court at a later date rather than remaining in custody.”

Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice As Healing and a leader within the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, said in an interview with Rewire that solutions must go beyond allowing women to escape police custody and return home to communities that are often fragmented, unhealthy, and dangerous.

Underserved women, James said, need access to healing, transformative environments. She cited as an example the Brookview House, which helps women overcome addiction, untreated trauma, and homelessness.

James, who has advocated against the criminalization of drug use and prostitution, as well as the injustices faced by those in poverty, said the problem of jail misuse could benefit from the insight of real experts on the issue: women and girls who have been incarcerated.

These women and youth, she said, could help researchers better understand the “experiences that brought them to the bunk.”

News Health Systems

The Crackdown on L.A.’s Fake Clinics Is Working

Nicole Knight

"Why did we take those steps? Because every day is a day where some number of women could potentially be misinformed about [their] reproductive options," Feuer said. "And therefore every day is a day that a woman's health could be jeopardized."

Three Los Angeles area fake clinics, which were warned last month they were breaking a new state reproductive transparency law, are now in compliance, the city attorney announced Thursday.

Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer said in a press briefing that two of the fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, began complying with the law after his office issued notices of violation last month. But it wasn’t until this week, when Feuer’s office threatened court action against the third facility, that it agreed to display the reproductive health information that the law requires.

“Why did we take those steps? Because every day is a day where some number of women could potentially be misinformed about [their] reproductive options,” Feuer said. “And therefore every day is a day that a woman’s health could be jeopardized.”

The facilities, two unlicensed and one licensed fake clinic, are Harbor Pregnancy Help CenterLos Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

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Feuer said the lawsuit could have carried fines of up to $2,500 each day the facility continued to break the law.

The Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act requires the state’s licensed pregnancy-related centers to display a brief statement with a number to call for access to free and low-cost birth control and abortion care. Unlicensed centers must disclose that they are not medical facilities.

Feuer’s office in May launched a campaign to crack down on violators of the law. His action marked a sharp contrast to some jurisdictions, which are reportedly taking a wait-and-see approach as fake clinics’ challenges to the law wind through the courts.

Federal and state courts have denied requests to temporarily block the law, although appeals are pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Some 25 fake clinics operate in Los Angeles County, according to a representative of NARAL Pro-Choice California, though firm numbers are hard to come by. Feuer initially issued notices to six Los Angeles area fake clinics in May. Following an investigation, his office warned three clinics last month that they’re breaking the law.

Those three clinics are now complying, Feuer told reporters Thursday. Feuer said his office is still determining whether another fake clinic, Avenues Pregnancy Clinic, is complying with the law.

Fake clinic owners and staffers have slammed the FACT Act, saying they’d rather shut down than refer clients to services they find “morally and ethically objectionable.”

“If you’re a pro-life organization, you’re offering free healthcare to women so the women have a choice other than abortion,” said Matt Bowman, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represents several Los Angeles fake clinics fighting the law in court.

Asked why the clinics have agreed to comply, Bowman reiterated an earlier statement, saying the FACT Act violates his clients’ free speech rights. Forcing faith-based clinics to “communicate messages or promote ideas they disagree with, especially on life-and-death issues like abortion,” violates their “core beliefs,” Bowman said.

Reports of deceit by 91 percent of fake clinics surveyed by NARAL Pro-Choice California helped spur the passage of the FACT Act last October. Until recently, Googling “abortion clinic” might turn up results for a fake clinic that discourages abortion care.

“Put yourself in the position of a young woman who is going to one of these centers … and she comes into this center and she is less than fully informed … of what her choices are,” Feuer said Thursday. “In that state of mind, is she going to make the kind of choice that you’d want your loved one to make?

Rewire last month visited Lost Angeles area fake clinics that are abiding by the FACT Act. Claris Health in West Los Angeles includes the reproductive notice with patient intake forms, while Open Arms Pregnancy Center in the San Fernando Valley has posted the notice in the waiting room.

“To us, it’s a non-issue,” Debi Harvey, the center’s executive director, told Rewire. “We don’t provide abortion, we’re an abortion-alternative organization, we’re very clear on that. But we educate on all options.”

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