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“Makers: Women Who Make America”: New Film Chronicles Past 50 Years of Feminist Movement

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We look at a major new documentary that tells the story of how women have shaped the United States over the last 50 years through political and personal empowerment. It’s called “Makers: Women Who Make America,” and it premieres tonight in a three-hour special on PBS. Narrated by Meryl Streep, the film explores the women’s movement from the publication of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” published 50 years ago this month in 1963 to the Anita Hill v. Clarence Thomas hearings in 1991. “Makers” shares the story of legendary figures such as Gloria Steinem and Oprah Winfrey, to lesser-known pioneers such as Kathrine Switzer. In 1967, Switzer became the first woman to officially enter and run the Boston Marathon. Her run made headlines when a top race official tried to forcibly remove her from the race. She finished the race. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to a major new documentary that tells the story of how women have shaped the U.S. over the last 50 years through political and personal empowerment. It’s called Makers: Women Who Make America, and it premieres tonight in a three-hour special on PBS.

PAT FOOTE: Every place I went for interviews, the only thing they wanted to know was: Can you type?

GUIDANCE COUNSELOR: Your high score on the Scholastic Aptitude Test indicates that you can become a good secretary.

GLORIA STEINEM: Landlords felt single women couldn’t earn enough to pay for the apartment. And if you could earn enough, you must be a hooker.

MARLO THOMAS: It was like a tsunami. It was like something was boiling under the earth, and we could bring it up.

ALIX KATES SHULMAN: It was as if a great floodlight had gone on, and it illuminated everything.

BARBARA SMITH: We were so idealistic. We were so energetic. We were so in-your-face. And there were so many of us.

UNIDENTIFIED: We had to change the system—everything in the workplace, everything in the political sphere, everything in the domestic sphere.

GLORIA STEINEM: What we are talking about is a revolution and not a reform.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s part of the trailer for Makers: Women Who Make America. The three-hour film about the women’s movement premieres tonight on PBS. And tonight we’re joined—right now we’re joined by the executive producer, Betsy West, veteran of ABC and CBS News, earned 22 Emmy Awards for her works on, oh, programs like 60 Minutes.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

BETSY WEST: Thank you so much, Amy, Aaron.

AMY GOODMAN: So tell us about this project.

BETSY WEST: Well, this project has been eight years in the making. When my partner, Dylan McGee, came to me, she had already been working on it for about a year. She had gone to Gloria Steinem and said, “Hey, I want to do a story about your life, a documentary about your life.” And Gloria said, “Look, nobody has really done anything on the movement. Somebody needs to do the story of the women’s movement.” So, Dylan set about looking into that. She came to me a year later. And I was kind of stunned that the story hadn’t been done, but in a way I was also happy, because it was an amazing opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: The stories that are told in this, talk about—share some of them.

BETSY WEST: Well, you know, we really look at the whole—the movement, some of the well-known people, like Gloria Steinem, who of course was a major figure in the women’s movement, and some of the unknown stories. The coal miner, who was one of the first coal miners, and then she was subjected to sexual harassment by her boss, so she took her boss to court and fought a 13-year battle and won. The telephone operator, who in the '60s just—she was a switchboard operator, and she wanted to make a little more money, and so she tried to work on the equipment. And, of course, the argument was, oh, no, you know, women couldn't do that because couldn’t carry that heavy equipment, you know, could be as heavy as 30 pounds, when, of course, any woman who’s ever carried a baby could carry 30 pounds. So she fought a legal battle with the help of NOW. So, it’s a range of stories.

We open—maybe this is the one you’re thinking about—we open with an amazing story of a woman who really wasn’t an avowed feminist. She was a runner, and she was a junior at Syracuse University.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go—

BETSY WEST: And yeah, her name is—I think where you’re coming into the clip. Her name was Kathrine Switzer, junior at Syracuse University. She decided to enter the Boston Marathon.

AMY GOODMAN: The year was 1967.

MERYL STREEP: The 1967 Boston Marathon was run in some of the worst conditions in race history. While most of the crowd was focused on the front of the pack, another runner was making a stir far behind.

KATHRINE SWITZER: The idea of running long distance was always considered very questionable for women, because, you know, an arduous activity would mean that you’re going to get big legs and grow a mustache and hair on your chest, and your uterus was going to fall out.

MERYL STREEP: In 1967, Kathrine Switzer was a junior at Syracuse University. Because Syracuse had no women’s track team, she began training with the manager of the men’s team, a part-time mailman named Arnie Briggs.

KATHRINE SWITZER: It was Arnie who told me about the greatest day in his life every year, which was the Boston Marathon. And we were out running, and Arnie began telling me another Boston Marathon story. And I said, “Oh, Arnie, let’s just quit talking about the darn marathon and run it.” And my dream then became to prove that I could run 26 miles, 385 yards.

MERYL STREEP: For 70 years, the Boston Marathon had excluded women. But Switzer entered using just her initials.

KATHRINE SWITZER: We walked to the start, and the gun went off, and down the street we went. So there we were, Arnie Briggs, the 50-year-old mailman, and me, the 20-year-old college student, and my boyfriend, Tom Miller, an ex-All-America football player. When other runners would come by, they would say, “Oh, it’s a girl!” and they were so excited.

And all of a sudden, the press truck is in front of us, and they’re taking, you know, pictures of us. On this truck was the race director, a feisty guy by the name of Jock Semple. He just stopped the bus, jumped off and ran after me. And he just grabbed me and screamed at me: “Get the hell out of my race, and give me those numbers!” He had the fiercest face of any guy I had ever seen. And all of a sudden, Big Tom, my boyfriend, came with a streak and gave Jock the most incredible cross body block and sent Jock flying right through the air and landed on the curb. And all of this happened in front of the press truck. The journalists got very aggressive: “What are you trying to prove?” You know, “Are you a suffragette? Are you a crusader?” whatever that is, you know. And I said, “What? I’m just trying to run.”

Then it got very quiet. Snow is coming down. Nobody is saying anything. And I turned to Arnie, and I said, “Arnie, I’m going to finish this race on my hands and my knees if I have to. If I don’t finish this race, then everybody is going to believe women can’t do it. I’ve got to finish this race.” I finished that race in four hours, 20 minutes.

It wasn’t until we stopped on the thruway to get an ice cream and some coffee that we see the newspapers and the coverage, front and back, of all the different editions with the pictures. And I realized that now this was very, very important, and this was going to change my life, and it was probably going to change women’s sports. There is an expression in a marathon that you do go through sort of a lifetime of experience. And I often say that I started the Boston Marathon as a girl, and I finished the Boston Marathon as a grown woman.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Kathrine Switzer. The year was 1967, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. And for radio listeners who didn’t see the photographs and the video of this, you’ve got to watch PBS tonight for the premiere of Makers. Betsy West?

BETSY WEST: Yeah, I mean, it’s very rare that you actually get a photograph of discrimination in action, really. To have—to have that race official, who was just so angry that his rules had been violated, that he ran out there and attacked her, I mean, that’s unusual to actually see discrimination. You may recognize, by the way, the narrator; the voice of the narrator is the wonderful Meryl Streep, who’s the narrator of the documentary.

AMY GOODMAN: I went to the opening of this at Lincoln Center last week, and you played the first hour there. In it, you had the coverage, the media’s coverage of women and the role the media has played.

BETSY WEST: Yeah, I mean, it was surprising to me to see how dismissive the media was about the women’s movement. I mean, we interviewed Barbara Walters, who was so funny, and she had really fought her way into the boys’ club. She, at one point, wrote a memo to her boss at NBC News as the women’s movement was heating up, and she said, “Hey, let’s do a story on the women’s—how about doing a story on the women’s movement?” Her memo came back to her: “Not enough interest.” I mean, there’s example after example in the documentary of the kind of dismissive tone and coverage of the movement. I don’t think that the media really understood what was going on in the mid to late ’60s with women from all walks of life who were kind of fed up with the restrictions that they were facing.

AARON MATÉ: You have a section in the movie where you talk about women of color and, of course, the criticisms that second-wave feminism was ignoring their concerns.


AARON MATÉ: How did you broach that topic with your film?

BETSY WEST: Well, we broached it directly. I mean, we really tried very hard to include this debate in the film and the fact that many African-American women, women of color, were working. Here were these, you know, middle-class white women saying, “Hey, we want to have careers. We want to have jobs,” and women of color had been working for a long time. As Ruth Simmons, who was the president of Brown University, said to us, she said, “My dream when I was growing up was to work in an office, because everybody I knew, every woman I knew, was working as a maid.” And so, that was a tension. But we also talked about how some of that tension was resolved as leaders like Gloria Steinem and others began to understand that the interests of black feminists were sometimes different than the interests of white feminists. They had different issues. So, we did address that.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Betsy West, your own story as a media maker?

BETSY WEST: Well, you know, I came into the business kind of in the wake of the movement. I lived through the women’s movement in high school and college, and then I realized that, in 1975, media companies were willing to consider women, because they kind of had to. They had no choice. They had been sued. There had been suits at The New York Times and at Newsweek. And so, suddenly they were actually open to women coming in.

I think, as I went along, I would often be the first woman in the room. And, you know, looking back on it, I realize there was widespread sexual harassment and, you know, comments all the time, inappropriate behavior. I mean, I once had—for my birthday, I was very excited. I had been working at ABC Radio for about a year, and I was kind of—really wanted to be one of the guys, and I was very excited that someone had remembered my birthday. They brought in a cake. And as I got closer, I thought the shape of this cake looks really odd. And I won’t tell you exactly what it was, but it came from the erotic bakery, my cake. And then we were all just—you know, I was supposed to laugh and just joke about this. And as Gloria Steinem says in the documentary, we didn’t have a word for sexual harassment back then; it was just called “life.” And, of course, as the women’s movement went along in the ’80s, then I think the understanding of that increased.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to link to Makers at our website, I was involved with the web aspect.


AMY GOODMAN: And it’s interesting, this AOL-PBS collaboration that you’ve done—


AMY GOODMAN: —both what’s going to show tonight on PBS and then what you have on the website.

BETSY WEST: Yes, it was the first time that AOL—that AOL and PBS had partnered on a project. And it’s been very exciting, because it has allowed us to not only do this great documentary that’s on tonight that we’re all very excited about, but also to have a huge platform of stories, like your story, Amy—I interviewed you—for And so, we set about interviewing groundbreaking women, basically, and telling their stories in smaller chunks—two, three, four minutes—which really is the way people are looking at video these days often. And we think it’s also going to be great for schools, for curriculum, that they’re going to be able to see these stories. And that was made possible by this partnership with AOL and PBS.

AMY GOODMAN: And it’s particularly exciting for us because it’s our 17th anniversary at Democracy Now! So check it all out at We link to the AOL-PBS web platform. And also check out the documentary tonight on PBS as it premiers. It’s called Makers: Women Who Make America. Betsy West, executive producer.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to look at another film, but not just a film. We’re going to the Middle East to find out what’s happening in the West Bank. Stay with us.

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