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Making the Historical Documentary "Makers"

Professor Betsy West on the set of Makers. Credit: Columbia University School of Journalism.

Each time a woman stands up for herself,
without knowing it possibly, without claiming it,
she stands up for all women.

--Maya Angelou

This past February marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s now classic The Feminine Mystique, a study of what Friedan called “the problem that had no name” -- the widespread unhappiness of many women who felt stymied by traditional female roles and had few options for meaningful work outside the family.  

Friedan’s trailblazing book, with her call for educational and occupational reforms, has been seen as inspiring the modern women’s movement, and the ensuing conversation led Friedan to found the National Organization for Women.

This past February also saw the public television premiere of Makers: Women Who Made America, the first major documentary on the history of the women’s movement and how it has transformed the nation over the past half century. The film recounts the struggle for fairness and opportunity for women from the “Betty Crocker Era” of post-World War II America to the present day as women make gains in the workplace and political culture yet still earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man earns and continue to face complex issues from balancing work and family to making difficult personal health choices.

Makers features dozens of interviews with women from diverse racial, cultural, political, social, and occupational backgrounds: from Oprah Winfrey on finding she was paid half as much as a man who did the same job in her early work as a broadcast journalist, to Ellen DeGeneres on her career and increasingly public personal life, to Hillary Clinton’s reflections on her life as an accomplished female leader, to coal miner Barbara Burns’ successful sexual harassment suit, to Facebook Chief Operations Officer Sheryl Sandberg on her struggles in the corporate world, and to several other women who accept more traditional female roles.

The documentary is part of a larger multimedia project on women’s history produced for PBS and AOL that includes an Internet platform. The film may be accessed on the Internet at makers.com

Prof. Betsy West, executive producer of Makers, graciously discussed the making of this historical (and historic) documentary on recent women’s history from her office in New York City. Prof. West and fellow executive producers Dyllan McGee and Peter Kunhardt oversaw production of the film that was directed by senior producer Barak Goodman.

Betsy West is an associate professor of professional practice at the Columbia Journalism School and a trailblazing broadcast journalist in her own right.

Prof. West began her career in the 1970s at ABC News as a field producer at Nightline and World News Tonight and as a senior producer for Nightline and PrimeTime Live. She was an executive producer from 1994-1998 of the documentary series Turning Point, which, among other honors, won two Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Awards. From 1998 to 2005, she served as senior vice president for CBS News, where she oversaw 60 Minutes, 60 Minutes II, and 48 Hours, and she was the executive in charge of 9/11, winner of the Primetime Emmy Award for Best Documentary. She joined Storyville Films in 2006, and served as co-producer of Constantine's Sword, an acclaimed 2007 feature-length documentary film.

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Robin Lindley: Can you talk about the Makers project and role of the documentary Makers?

Prof. Betsy West: Basically, about eight years ago, my partner in this project, Dyllan McGee, approached Gloria Steinem about doing a documentary on her life. Gloria pointed out to Dyllan that nothing had been done on the women’s movement, and Gloria felt it was time. Dyllan took that idea and it evolved into an initiative that would start with an online video archive and take advantage of digital technology to capture the stories of women involved in the movement and affected by the movement before it was too late.

I came on board seven years ago. Dyllan and I work with an academic advisory board to come up with criteria on how to approach this topic. The end goal was to do a documentary, but we wanted something that would live longer than a documentary and it seemed that, with the online platform, we could reach more people over a greater scope of time and in many different ways. The website makers.com is the result of that effort, and it was launched a year in advance of the documentary.

PBS partnered with us, and then AOL came in and partnered with PBS to sponsor the project. AOL got us an advertising sponsor, which was Simple Skincare, plus we had foundation support as well. 

Did your advisory board include historians?

Yes. At the beginning we set up an advisory board with Nancy Cott, who is the chair of the board of the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and there were other historians on the board [including] Paula Giddings from Smith, William Chafe and Nancy MacLean from Duke, Mary Ting Yi Lui from Yale, Linda Gordon from NYU, and New York Times columnist Gail Collins who wrote a popular book on the movement. And Gloria Steinem also served on the advisory board.

We met and they came up with criteria for the kinds of women we should be looking for and with the marching orders that we should make this project as broad-based as possible in every aspect of diversity -- not just racial diversity but diversity or experience, generations, professions, and occupations.

It must have been challenging to decide on subjects to talk with about the last five decades of American women’s history. Didn’t you do much of the interviewing?

Yes. I did a lot of interviewing of the groundbreaking women -- the first one hundred. I worked with a team of people who were also interviewing.

With Dyllan, we came up with a template for the questions we would ask. We would talk with each woman about the scope of her career, but obviously with every woman we came up with specific questions about turning point moments of her life.

Coming up with a list [of interview subjects] was challenging if only because there are so many women with fascinating and important stories. Some names that were obvious. Of course, we have to interview the first female [Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O’Connor. We had to interview Hillary Clinton, Billie Jean King and, of course, Gloria Steinem.

But there were many others not so well known whose stories were equally important. Barbara Burns, one of the first female coal miners who pursued an important sexual harassment case; Maria Pepe, the girl who made Little League possible for girls; Malika Saada Saar, who has pioneered the fight against trafficking of young girls.

You and your colleagues have won praise for the depth and sweep of the story you tell of five decades in a three-hour documentary.

It is a sweeping story. Doing the 100 interviews first in advance of the documentary gave us a huge advantage because we were able to see what stories resonated. Then, when we began working on the documentary with director Barak Goodman, he looked at everything we did. We discussed which stories to focus on. The documentary is more narrowly conceived as the story of the women’s movement and the aftermath of the movement, so we did additional interviews.

In the course of making the documentary, was there discussion of the importance of knowing the history of the women’s movement and the need in particular to convey this story to younger people?

That was central. 

I was stunned when Dyllan first asked me to be involved in the project and said no documentary had been done on the women’s movement. The more research I did, the more surprised I was because the women’s movement had such a tremendous impact on all of us.

Even for those of us who lived through it -- and I was a teenager when it started -- I realized I didn’t know the history. Many women like myself went into the work force and benefitted from what the women in the movement did by opening up opportunities for us, but we were busy looking forward and trying to prove ourselves in our jobs. We knew we stood on the shoulders of other women, but we didn’t have a chance to look back and assess what had gone on. And then the generations after us take these opportunities for granted and have no idea that these changes are recent history. 

The urgency of telling these stories was brought home to us when we were doing the initial development and had an event to tell people about the project. On the day of the event, Wilma Mankiller died. She was the female Chief of the Cherokee Nation. We had hoped to interview Wilma Mankiller. And Geraldine Ferraro, whom I interviewed originally during the initial development stage, passed away before we began the documentary. Then we realized Shirley Chisholm isn’t here. Betty Friedan is gone. We did have a sense of capturing these stories before it was too late.

Did you intend that the documentary would air during the same month of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique?

Not really. It happened and worked out well, but I wouldn’t say that in 2005 when Dyllan was beginning this that she was thinking eight years from now will be the fiftieth anniversary of The Feminine Mystique. As the project became more ambitious and it took longer to pull off, we were getting closer to that anniversary, and at some point we recognized that this was happening.

Stephanie Coontz, a historian in our area [the West Coast], wrote a book on Betty Friedan and she was also a part of your documentary.

Yes. We interviewed her. And for the documentary, we interviewed historians and journalists to put the movement into a context. And she was an interviewee on how the role Betty Friedan played in sparking the movement.

It seems that the women’s movement began as a reaction to what the documentary called “the Betty Crocker Era,” and occurred during a virtual perfect storm of activism with the civil rights movement and Vietnam war protests combined with the frustration voiced by Betty Friedan and the advent of the birth control pill.

Yes. And I didn’t realize how many women were working in the fifties, but they were working in very low-compensation jobs. This helps explain the reaction to The Feminine Mystique. There were a lot of educated women who were privileged enough to stay at home and were frustrated at home and not doing anything to engage their intellects. But also women in the workplace were stymied and couldn’t go that far. There were jobs they couldn’t apply for and promotions they couldn’t get. And Betty Friedan hit on a lot of pent up frustration. 

Before I did this, I didn’t understand the evolution and the inspiration of the civil rights movement and the women who had leadership positions in the civil rights movement, and the white women who went down South and were working with the movement and working for and with African American women. And there was also the issue of whether the women’s movement spoke to African American women and the evolution of black feminism, which we address in the film.

I have an 18-year-old who goes to a girls’ school and I’ve shown the documentary to her school and to other younger audiences. They are dumbstruck, especially by the Katherine Switzer story -- the idea that in 1967 that women couldn’t run marathons. It wasn’t acceptable for women to run marathons based on some totally unscientific, unfounded idea that it would be harmful for a woman to run that far. These girls see that, and they can’t believe it. Not only that a woman couldn’t run a marathon, but if she tried to do it, that a man would be so angry about it that he would actually run into the race and attack her. 

That opening segment of Makers is stunning. You have the race official on film attacking Katherine Switzer, and she and her boyfriend push him off the racecourse, and then she finishes the race. It’s so dramatic and vivid and I didn’t know about it.

I was in high school at the time, fifty miles away from the Boston Marathon, and I didn’t know about it. But it is the pictures that make the story. When you look at Eyes on the Prize and other stories about the civil rights movement, many horrible things happened that were covered by reporters and you could see the violence and see the ugly face of racial discrimination. Often, the face of discrimination against women was not so visible, and the Katherine Switzer story is one example where you see it right before your eyes. It’s extraordinary that the race official did that right in front of a press truck. We have to be grateful that it was captured. We know many more horrible and demeaning things happened that were never recorded, and attitudes and the way society was structured were very hard to visualize. But there it is.

You began your career in the 1970s. This history must have a great deal of personal resonance for you. Do you recall facing discrimination based on sex or sexual harassment in your work life?

As I said, I entered the workplace in the mid-1970s, and by then employers were on notice that discrimination was no longer allowed. The women at Newsweek, like Lynn Povich whom I had the pleasure of interviewing, and the women at the New York Times in the early '70s, had sued these organizations for blatant discrimination.

By the time I was looking for a job as a journalist, media organizations were on notice that they had to consider women. In many ways, I was a beneficiary, so I’d go into these jobs, often as the only woman or one of a handful of women. I was so busy trying to prove myself that I wasn’t looking backward and I didn’t necessarily feel discriminated against. 

But now that I look back my experience, the casual sexual harassment that was taken for granted in these places is a little shocking.  We didn’t have a name for sexual harassment in the '70s. Nobody used the term until the late '70s and it didn’t really gain currency until the Clarence Thomas [confirmation] hearings in the nineties.  But during the 1970s and 1980s, every woman I know who was working as a reporter or producer in broadcast journalism faced situations that would be embarrassing or annoying and you would just work through it.

At ABC Radio, whenever my boss wanted to talk with me about a change in my schedule or some other thing, he’d put a note in my mailbox saying “My little pumpkin, please come see me in my office.” It never occurred to me say to him, “Excuse me, but that’s inappropriate language.” You’d roll your eyes and take it. 

And it was pretty much an all-male newsroom at ABC Radio with only a few women here and there. It was a jocular atmosphere in the newsroom and there was a lot of kidding and joking with everybody and, in some ways, you want to fit in and be one of the guys.

About a year into my job there, I looked up as some of my colleagues wheeled in a birthday cake and I thought it’s so nice: they remembered my birthday. I got closer and was horrified when I saw what the birthday cake was.  It was from a nearby erotic bakery. I was actually given a penis cake for my birthday and everyone laughed hysterically. I was mortified but just went along with it and laughed along with everybody.

For many of us in the job, we faced this kind of harassment. And, as you get higher up in jobs, you saw fewer and fewer women. We joked that, on weekends at ABC Radio, everybody there was a woman. We were all working the weekend shift. As you got higher up, there were fewer women. And that’s actually still the case.

Can you talk about some of the tools that were used by women to achieve progress such as the law and the media?

Progress was made in many different ways. One thing I didn’t understand was the role that Ruth Bader Ginsberg played. You could say she was the legal architect or the Thurgood Marshall of the women’s movement. She had gone to Harvard Law School, made law review and was at the top of her class. She transferred to Columbia because her husband moved to New York, and was again at the top of her class. She got out and could not get a job. She interviewed with [Supreme Court Justice] Felix Frankfurter after she was recommended by the dean of the law school. Frankfurter said to her face that he wasn’t ready to hire a woman. This was in the late 1950s. 

She went onto do a project for the ACLU where she very strategically tackled gender discrimination and not just discrimination against women, but also discrimination against both men and women. She brought a series of cases that changed the law of the land and challenged practices and laws and other discriminatory tools that were used to keep women as second-class citizens. She was our second female Supreme Court justice, and I didn’t understand the role she had played in changing the landscape for women.

Obviously, the women who were brave enough to sue their bosses, like the women at Newsweek, or the women who had the chutzpah to go in and take over the Ladies Home Journal offices showed the different ways that the message got out there. It was a new day and women could see a new future for themselves.

It was striking that the women used the sit-in tactic of civil rights activists when they took over the Ladies Home Journal.

I know. I’m not sure that I would have had the nerve to do that. But, as Robin Morgan said, they realized that these public actions like the demonstration at the Miss America Pageant would get coverage, and the coverage would get attention for the movement.

It seems that many common-sense proposals to advance fairness and expand opportunity weren’t adopted, like the Equal Rights Amendment. And equal pay for equal work has been on the radar for decades, but the Lily Ledbetter Equal Pay Act was only passed last year. And the Violence Against Women Act was just recently renewed -- and it faced opposition.

The defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment was a huge setback for the women’s movement, but it didn’t stop the women’s movement. Some may think historically that it was the end, but the grassroots efforts that were going on in the 1970s and 1980s created huge changes, especially on the issues of violence against women and recognition of police policies in the handling of domestic violence. It used to be that, when a woman was beaten up by her husband the cops would come and, if they were married, it was her tough luck. The cops would say to the guy, “Go walk around the block,” and nothing would happen. 

So there were huge changes in domestic violence, rape laws and the understanding of sexual harassment. Obviously, failure of the Equal Rights Amendment was a setback, but the progress didn’t stop there.

Why do you think conservatives and women like Phyllis Schlafly on the right so threatened by the Equal Rights Amendment?

I think Phyllis Schlafly was effective in organizing women on the right and especially women from different religious traditions -- Catholic women, Protestant women and Jewish women. There was a sense that their place in the world was threatened: that their daughters would be sent to war in the era then of the draft and we’d have same-sex bathrooms. 

Now, of course, women are allowed in combat and we have same-sex bathrooms, and the Equal Rights Amendment didn’t pass, and it’s not the end of the world. There was obviously a backlash in parts of America that didn’t like what it was seeing. 

It seems that conservative women now are almost more strident than in the era of Schlafly in terms of their opposition to measures that expand women’s rights such as reproductive rights.

It is surprising that, forty years after Roe v. Wade, there’s still an issue about reproductive rights. Obviously, the issue is just not settled in this country and that’s a reality apart from the issues the Equal Rights Amendment would have addressed.

In many ways, some of the blatant and obvious unfairness has been addressed by court rulings, which make it harder to discriminate but don’t get at everything. 

I was struck that the documentary mentioned the heartbreaking postmortem photograph in Ms. of a woman who had died after a back alley abortion, sometime before the Roe v. Wade decision. Similar images and stories had to affect attitudes on the legality of abortion.

I think they did. And the earlier Sherri Finkbine story in the 1960s had an impact. She was a married woman with children who had taken the drug that turned out to cause birth defects and, didn’t feel she could bring a severely disabled child into the world. And yet, she had to go out of the country for an abortion. That was a powerful story that resonated for many women, including Republican women.

People forget that a lot of Republican women were involved in this issue and Planned Parenthood. My mother is a Republican so I remember in the '60s and '70s the more conservative women who were very in favor of reproductive rights and the right of a woman to decide when to have children.

And the documentary stressed the bipartisan support for the Equal Rights Amendments with First Ladies from both parties backing the amendment.

Yes. I think we forget about that. It’s become polarized. And we forget how many people favored reproductive rights.

This year’s election campaign and some of the issues have reawakened people and some have thought, “Wait a minute. Maybe some of these gains aren’t forever.” 

I was surprised in doing the research on [former Supreme Court Justice] Sandra Day O’Connor of the role her vote played in maintaining Roe v. Wade in a case in the 1990s, Casey v. Pennsylvania I think. It’s a case that would have struck down Roe v. Wade had she not come up with a compromise opinion with other justices that carried the day. I didn’t know we almost lost Roe v. Wade about twenty years ago.

There have been several significant threats to reproductive rights. And, just last summer, you had a couple of conservative candidates share a view of  “legitimate rape” that sounded medieval.

Yes, but people reacted against those comments very strongly.  And there were gains in the last election, and women played a huge role in the past election. Not that all women feel the same way about abortion, and abortion is still a contentious issue.

But attitudes about women and violence and the right to birth control and other issues are much less debated and certainly played a big role in the election with a record number of women in the Senate, although only 20 percent does seem surprising in this day and age. 

Another thing I want to say about this project is that it was important to us that we represent all points of view. It was important that we talk with Phyllis Schlafly and really represent her point of view and the women who followed her. And it was important that we talked with Republican women as well as Democratic women and women who don’t believe in abortion and other feminist ideas. They’re part of this history as well. 

Initially, the women’s movement was led by white, educated, middle-class women, and the documentary also brings in the stories of working-class women and women of color who had been working all along and facing the issues of balancing home and work.

Yes. Ruth Simmons said as a child everyone she knew was working and her dream was to be an office worker as opposed to a maid. That was very important and our advisors felt very strongly that we needed to include women of color and acknowledge the role they played in the movement as an inspiration for the movement and how they helped broaden the movement. 

And we wanted to get working-class women into the film and show the influence the movement had on them and that they had on the movement. Loretta Weeks in bringing her case against the phone company had a huge impact. And the coal miner [Barbara Burns] who brought her sex harassment case.

Didn’t Loretta Weeks seek a promotion with the phone company so she could work with equipment and they refused to consider her -- and other women -- because she’d have to lift 30 pounds?

Yes. They said it was for her own benefit. She’d have to lift 30 pounds or over, and her lawyer picked up a heavy typewriter that weighed over 30 pounds. Her lawyer was a very tiny woman, and she said, “Look. Any woman who’s ever taken care of a toddler can lift over 30 pounds.” That [requirement] was clearly designed to keep women out of these jobs. 

Is the Makers project now continuing? 

Yes. The fantastic thing about the partnership between PBS and AOL and the support of our sponsor Simple is that we’re continuing to have resources to do more interviews on makers.com, so it’s a growing archive. AOL calls it the largest collection of women’s stories online, all of it designed to be accessible to the general public.  PBS is doing a phenomenal history curriculum that’s available to anyone who wants it, and [it’s designed for] high school teachers and college curricula. I like the project because it’s not just a one-off, but also a living archive that will be increasing.

My wife went to nursing school -- one of the obvious options for women at the time. She didn’t like history in school because it seemed to focus on only male leaders and war, and ignored women and social issues. There must be something profound now about the emergence of stories about women and their role in history.

The study of women’s history is one of the exciting developments as a result of the women’s movement. There are programs in colleges all over the country. And so we are finally learning this women’s history. 

We were intending to interview Gerda Lerner who pioneered the field of women’s studies.  Unfortunately, she fell ill and died last year.

When we first met with Gloria Steinem, she told us she was taught that women were given the right to vote in 1920 -- not that women fought a seventy-year battle for suffrage.

It is also important to remember that the dramatic changes that have happened in women’s lives in the past fifty years are the result of the courageous actions of women themselves. It’s been a privilege to talk to some of those women and to bring those stories to life.