MAKERS and Beyond: The History and Future of Feminism

27 Feb

Last night, PBS aired MAKERS: How Women Made America, a three-hour look at the history and evolution of the women’s movement in the United States. If you missed it, the whole thing can be viewed online.

It’s difficult to distill 50 years of diverse, rapidly evolving, and (necessarily and often productively) contradictory feminist history, work and ideas into a documentary format at all, even if given an almost unprecedented amount of airtime to do it in. It’s important to note, right off the bat, that MAKERS relied heavily on stories told by and about the women whose identities and concerns — white, cisgender, documented, and able-bodied — have and continue to be privileged by mainstream feminism. While the film featured noted women of color and queer identified activists, their role was mostly presented as “challengers” to racism and homophobia within the mainstream feminist movement, rather than as an integral part of building that movement, now and then, to serve more people better. And it is outright shameful that MAKERS eliminated trans* folks from the history of feminism, especially since the movement and some its leaders both borrowed from trans* women’s organizing in their tactics while at the same time tearing down those women and their organizing.

But here is why I am grateful that MAKERS exists, not as the definitive version of feminist history but as a first step toward reappearing women into mainstream history: the film was, without a doubt, a more comprehensive and thoughtful look at the history of the women’s liberation movement than most US students ever learn in school — and now it exists as a resource to be used by educators who’ve either been unable to use existing resources (“too radical” or “not approved”) or simply did not know about them. There is a tremendous opportunity for the film to be paired with additional resources in classroom settings at all levels that expands upon the content in the film and introduces some of the work and leaders who were not featured on the screen.

I’m also pleased with how MAKERS contextualized the work of the women’s movement specifically as organizing. One of the most annoying forms of backlash is the myth that the feminist movement consisted of a bunch of women getting ragey and their collective rage just magically changed the world. Yes, women got ragey en masse, but many of those enraged women were organizers, coming out of the labor, civil rights, trans and queer liberation movements and there was (lots of) strategy that led to the changes, alongside raw emotion. It’s important for younger feminists to see that we are part of a long line of strategists who were also figuring out when to act, when to hold your fire, how to deal with the media narrative, and how to most effectively message the work.

The most disappointing part of MAKERS, to me, was, well…me. The final hour focused on the younger waves of feminism and its tone was epitomized by anti-labor leader Michelle Rhee speaking about her desire to cook and do laundry as an example of how younger women don’t believe they need feminism anymore. I was the sole “young feminist” — as in, under 35 — featured in the broadcast and my one line was about not caring if young people call themselves “feminists” or “turtles” as long as they are doing pro-equality work, which we are. The segment also featured Letty Pogrebin providing the tired “if they lose their rights, then they will wake up” warning about and to younger women.

First, I’m not the face of young feminism. Not that there can be one, or that one representative of a movement is ever an effective strategy, but literally, I — a white, cisgender, middle class, documented, able-bodied, educated woman living in New York — am not representative of the wonderful, broad, diverse and complicated movement of my generation that I call the Forth Wave. The younger feminist movement that I know and love is being led by radical women of color, indigenous, queer, and trans* folks of all genders, in all parts of the world and we must insist that these leaders, not those that look like me and have my privilege set, are centered in conversations about the current state of and future of feminism.

Secondly, my praise of the film’s coverage focus on the organizing of the 2nd Wave is what was missing from its look at young feminism. As Jill Filipovic points out at The Guardian, there is an entire generation, ours, that’s been radicalized, working, and movement building online. Blogs and social media are our consciousness raising groups and the spaces in which we are hashing out the diverse ideologies and strategies we use to win gender justice. But to focus solely on the online aspect of young feminism misses the other radical work that’s being done, like abortion funds run by young feminists literally fulfilling Roe’s promise of the right to abortion with access to it, and young people using their bodies to shield patients from anti-abortion protesters as clinic escorts.

Yet, for all its flaws, I liked MAKERS because for the first time I was watching a historical film in a mainstream space and thinking, “THIS. This is my history. This is my legacy, my work, and my responsibility.” It was an “I’m not alone!” moment comparable to when I discovered feminism and that’s the reaction of a women’s history nerd who honestly didn’t learn much new history — I can only imagine what it meant and might mean to people who don’t know most of that history at all.

I’m also comfortable supporting MAKERS because it’s not the end, but the beginning. The press, viewership and online conversation around the premiere demonstrated a hunger for more explorations of women’s history and a mainstream audience for them. In light of this, we should and must push for more historical women’s programming that centers the stories marginalized, minimized, and erased in this one.

We must also, as young feminists, start intentionally recording the history of our own work as history. It took 50 years to get this one made and a lot of what influenced this movie is who is still around to tell the story and who has enough power and privilege to decide what matters and how much time it gets. I’d like to see my generation not make that mistake. As a start, Steph Herold and I co-founded the Feminists of Generation Now pinterest board to highlight the broad scope of organizing being done by young feminists. I’ve already seen and taken part in conversations since the film aired last night about films, books, and shows focused on and led by the Forth Wave and I can’t wait to see where those projects go.

If the measure of a successful television is viewers asking, at the end, “what’s next?’ then MAKERS was a success. And it’s the young feminists who are here, angry, and organizing that are living out the answer.

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