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posted: 2/25/2013 6:00 AM

PBS' 'Makers' explores the women's movement

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  • The fight for the failed Equal Rights Amendment is part of the history in the PBS documentary "Makers: Women Who Make America."

    The fight for the failed Equal Rights Amendment is part of the history in the PBS documentary "Makers: Women Who Make America."
    Associated Press

  • Feminist Gloria Steinem is featured in PBS' "Makers: Women Who Make America."

    Feminist Gloria Steinem is featured in PBS' "Makers: Women Who Make America."
    Courtesy of PBS

By Jacqueline Cutler

For girls born after women were appointed to the Supreme Court, "Makers: Women Who Make America" is a history lesson.

The three-hour special that airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 26, on PBS is naturally not just for younger women. It is for everyone -- those who relished victories whenever women won higher office, experienced fury when colleagues made sexual advances or were frustrated when schools allocated money only for boys sports. It's for males and females -- those who suffered the indignities and fought to change the world and those for whom the ERA is only a baseball stat.

Meryl Streep narrates the film. It features the accounts of famous leaders of the women's movement such as Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas as well as interviews with the first woman on the Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and lesser-known women including Barbara Burns, one of the first female coal miners.

"Amazingly, the stories of these groundbreaking women have never been woven together in a single film until now," PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger says. This film, eight years in the making, reminds us how many strides have been made in the past 50 years when popular culture reinforced that women existed to serve men. Women were expected to use their education -- until they married.

"I was pregnant by the time I graduated and hung my diploma over the washing machine," author Judy Blume says on camera.

Interviews reveal chapters in the not-so-distant American past, such as this chilling one from retired Justice O'Connor. "At the law school there was a bulletin board, and it had notices on it from many law firms. 'Stanford Law graduates give us a call.' I called every phone number on the bulletin board, and they said, 'Oh, we didn't mean women. We don't hire women.'"

When airlines did, stewardesses, as they were then called, had to be between 21 and 28 years old, 5 feet 2 to 5 feet 6 inches tall, and show their legs to get the job. At 32, they were handed roses and retired. Not surprisingly, in 1965, the stewardesses became the first case of the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

By the next year, where the second part of the film picks up, the movement was growing, and TV showcased its first single woman, Marlo Thomas, in "That Girl." In 1974, Thomas produced "Free to Be ... You and Me," a seminal film that taught children they could be whatever they wanted when they grew up. This special was so critical because, says Thomas, "there is so much misinformation about what the women's movement was, what feminism is. Erma Bombeck used to say the words of the ERA were the most misunderstood words since 'one size fits all.'"

The 24-word Equal Rights Amendment fell two states shy of ratification. Reflecting on where the movement is today, and some politicians' stance on rape and their failed attempts at subjugating women, Thomas says, "I don't think we are sliding backward. Some conservatives are terrified about women having power."

In a separate interview, Steinem says, "When you consider that women are the biggest source of unpaid and underpaid labor in the country, you begin to see equal pay would put $200 billion a year into the economy. The average white woman would get $150 more a week, and the average woman of color would get $300 more a week. It is good for the whole country, but the forces against it are huge."

Filmmaker Dyllan McGee is determined that the dialogue for equality continue. "I think we have to make sure media projects and people are focused on understanding how far we've come," she says.

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