Billie Jean King. Condoleezza Rice. Ellen DeGeneres. Hillary Clinton. Barbara Walters. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
We see their names and instantly picture their faces. We know their achievements and have grown to admire them. We think of them as "doers."
But they're more than that, actually. They are "Makers" -- those who, early in their careers, had the determination and intuition to survey the cultural landscape and recognize not only what was there, but what wasn't. And then they helped provide that missing piece.
This evening (7:00 to 10:00 PM), PBS will premiere "MAKERS: Women Who Make America," a television special that tells the compelling saga of the American women who led the march to equality over the past half-century. It is inspiring to watch their stories on the special -- and on the Makers website -- and discover how their wildly different trajectories would eventually converge in the crucible of the women's movement -- whether they were reporting from a battlefield overseas, like Christiane Amanpour, or waging a different kind of war here on the home front, like Gloria Steinem.
I attended a screening of the film earlier this month, and, well, here's a spoiler alert: You will be moved to tears, as many people in the audience were.
When my pal Nancy Armstrong -- a tireless force behind Makers -- asked me to be part of the project, I was honored, flattered and instantly in -- because I knew that the project would mean so much to today's younger women, as they witnessed the battles that were waged -- battles that paved the way for the rights they now enjoy. And even more, I knew they would be inspired to discover how they needed to be ever vigilant to protect those rights, just as we must be with our democracy.
I have vivid memories of those exciting days: Gloria leading us on marches down city streets and through the great mall in Washington, her fist in the air, her ponytail whipped by the wind, a megaphone to her mouth as she announced to the gathered crowds that our nation was squandering half its resources -- its talent, its productivity, its humanity -- by not recognizing the equality of women.
I remember the wit and wisdom and steely determination of Bella Abzug, and how her anti-war organization, Women Strike for Peace, helped catapult her to the House of Representatives -- and to President Nixon's enemy list. (I don't know which she was prouder of.) Her feminist zeal -- and hilarious word-spin -- never waned. It was Bella who said, "True equality will come not when a female Einstein is recognized as quickly as a male Einstein, but when a female schlemiel is promoted as quickly as a male schlemiel." Classic Bella.
And I remember the smarts and dynamism of child actor-turned-adult activist Robin Morgan, whose political and theatrical savvy inspired a headline-grabbing demonstration against the Miss America pageant on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1968. Live sheep were paraded about and crowned in mockery of the pageant, as protestors tossed artifacts of women's oppression -- false eyelashes and mops and bras -- into a large "Freedom Trash Can." In her Makers interview, Robin notes that no bras were actually burned -- that became a media-made myth, she says -- but she credits the high-profile demonstration as a turning point in the women's movement. And she's right.
Looking back on it all, you might wonder: What did all of us have in common? At face value, not a whole lot. Gloria was from Toledo, and spent much of her childhood as a caretaker to her mother, who suffered bouts of mental illness. Caretaking became a skill that Gloria has called on time and again throughout her life, as she has met other women in need.
Bella grew up in a strict Jewish community in New York, where women weren't recognized. When her father died, she was forbidden from saying the mourner's Kaddish for him in synagogue, because that privilege was reserved only for sons. But because her father had no son, Bella defied the law and said the sacred prayer for her dad. It was this sense of right that she brought to the women's movement.
Me, I was a Beverly Hills kid raised in the spotlight of show business. But I came from a family of Lebanese immigrants -- a rich culture, to be sure, but one in which marriages were arranged and women had no say in their lives. It was this need to be heard that inspired me to create a TV series, "That Girl." The concept of the show -- an independent working girl living in New York, with absolutely zero interest in marriage -- rattled the male execs at the network; and I was given a green light on the project only after loaning my copy of Betty Friedan's feminist manifesto, "The Feminine Mystique," to the executive who made the decision --convincing him that change for women was inevitable.
And so all of us arrived at the women's movement not because of where we'd come from, but because of what we carried inside of us -- our stories, our histories. And though they were very different histories, they somehow made us the same.
And so my question to you is: What is your story? What is your history? What do you carry inside you -- from your mothers and grandmothers and great aunts -- that made you who you are? Because the real and most exciting point of this Makers project is, yes, to celebrate how we got here, but more important, to aim at where we're going.
And it's up to you to seize the work that lays before us -- like claiming an equal voice in our political system, or demanding equal pay for equal work, or taking leadership roles in big business. You are among the mighty group of Makers just ahead who can help make new history.
I truly hope you'll watch the film on PBS this evening. In the meantime, here's a slide show of a few of the inspiring women you'll learn about. Many of their names may not be as familiar to you as Steinem and Billie Jean, but each and every one of them has provided their own chapter in a rich and evolving story. I can't wait to hear from you.
("MAKERS: Women Who Make America" was produced Kunhardt McGee Productions, Storyville Films, and WETA Washington, D.C. in association with Ark Media. MAKERS.com is a dynamic digital platform developed by AOL.)
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