I watched The Makers: Women Who Make America on PBS last week with a conflicted eye. No doubt, the documentary about the last 60 years of activism and social change on behalf of women reminded me of just how much my own life was shaped by the feminist movement. My first act of political engagement was knocking on doors in support of Pat Schroeder’s first run for Congress. I was twelve. I wrote my first women’s history paper in 9th grade, in part because I was angry that the textbook said so little about the woman suffrage movement. I learned about domestic violence, women’s health, and activism from Ms. magazine. In college, I marched to take back the night and hosted the weekly feminist collective radio show. I went to the University of Minnesota for my PhD because I wanted to study women’s history with Sara Evans. A decade after anti-feminist women activists killed the ERA, I was trying to make sense of their views by writing a dissertation about an intelligent, independent nineteenth-century woman who opposed the idea of woman suffrage. My dissertation committee had one “token” man. In other words, I benefitted in specific, concrete ways from the battle for equal rights and the expanded choices it secured for women.
But the movement was also geared to women like me, as The Makers reminded me. As a white child of a progressive, privileged household, I had the cultural and economic capital to view my life as full of opportunity. I could be proud of my father for hiring the first female commercial airline pilot without thinking about the consequences of his regular contract negotiations with stewardesses, as we called them then. Like many feminists of my generation, I sang along to songs about women wanting to be engineers but had no interest in that option. I knew that all women were not the same, of course, but I didn’t think much about whether the movement that had empowered me was doing much for working-class women.
Eighteen years in Working-Class Studies has changed that perspective, and while I appreciated much of the documentary, I was also keenly aware of what was missing. The stories of key battles and strategies, video clips from protests, and even the interviews with women who were put off by feminism all resonated for me. I was glad to see at least a few stories about working-class women and women of color – a couple of examples of women who sued for workplace rights (including flight attendants), a coal miner’s tale of fighting sexual harassment, Barbara Smith’s explanation of the goals of the Kitchen Table Press. Yet the film’s primary narrative about women and work, especially, involved the gains women had made in professional jobs – establishing a construction business, becoming a dot-com CEO, working as a television producer – and, ultimately, the struggles white middle-class women face in balancing work and family.
While The Makers does include comments by several women of color and acknowledges the movement’s difficulties with recognizing or advocating for issues facing women who were not white or middle class, it also replicates the movement’s tendency to focus on the needs of women whose goals and expectations reflect their race and class privileges. Like the women’s movement itself, the film largely ignores the concerns of working-class women. When traditional types of women’s work are mentioned, as in a reference to the growth of the typing pool in the 1950s, the implication is that service work was a temporary way-station, not the type of work that most women still do – perhaps not with typewriters but with computerized cash registers or blood pressure cuffs. The solution to a telephone operator’s low pay, the film suggests, was not to organize and advocate for better pay for that job but to fight to get a few women access to higher-paying jobs that had been reserved for men. As Karen Nussbaum, founder of 9 to 5, the National Association of Working Women, notes near the end of the film, the women’s movement should have focused “more on the economic issues of working people. It should have been about creating an alternative that worked for most women, and that alternative would have included child care, it would have included community services, it would have included after school care where your kids could get cared for by adults. None of that happened, and I think that’s the great failure of the women’s movement.” As Nussbaum’s comment suggests, the problem with The Makers may not be the filmmakers’ view but the real history of the women’s movement.
On the other hand, the film leaves out many examples of activism by working-class women and women of color. Where was Angela Davis, who offered a radical vision that linked race, class, and gender? Or bell hooks? How about Roseanne Barr, whose hit show started in the same year as Murphy Brown, a show the film celebrates, but provided a funny, realistic, and very political look at ordinary life in a working-class family? How do we talk about the fight for women’s rights without recognizing the efforts of 9 to 5 or any other labor union that advocates for the rights of women in the workplace – not just the right to a seat in the boardroom but the right to better working conditions in all jobs?
The Makers reminds us of how much our expectations for and assumptions about women have changed since the 1950s. It also highlights the threats to women’s rights and opportunities, including the danger that if younger women take those rights for granted, we could well have to fight all over again. It’s an inspiring film, and the history matters. It’s also an important reminder that both the movement and the media need to pay more attention to working-class women. As narrator Meryl Streep acknowledges, “As long as so many women are falling through the cracks, some argue, the feminist revolution will remain unfinished.”