While students learn about the United States’ founding fathers in history courses across the country, Betsy West ’73 set out to investigate the women who shaped the nation in a new documentary, “MAKERS: Women Who Make America,” which will premiere Tuesday at 8 p.m. on PBS. The film features interviews with 100 influential women — including former President Ruth Simmons — and tells the story of women’s advancement in America over the past 50 years.
“They’re very brave women who stood up for their rights,” she said. “These are amazing stories that nobody knew.”
West added that she is “surprised that no one had done a definitive story on the women’s movement.”
West and Dyllan McGee, two of the documentary’s executive producers, worked together to convene a scholarly board to determine criteria for which “makers” would be interviewed for the film.
Sara Wolitzky ’04, co-producer for Kunhardt McGee Productions, a company behind the film, said narrowing the field of candidates was “torturing because there really are so many women” from whom to choose.
They searched for groundbreakers, activists and role models who had personal stories that could be captured well on film, Wolitzky said. Some famous faces such as Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey make appearances in the documentary, but West said she also enjoyed learning the stories of the lesser-known women.
The documentary opens with one of West’s favorite “makers,” Kathrine Switzer, who ran in the Boston marathon when women were still excluded from the race. “There were all kinds of laws in place that restricted the opportunities for women under the guise of protecting them,” West said.
West also interviewed Lynn Povich, who, along with several other female journalists, sued her boss for gender discrimination in 1970. Having earned a job at ABC News in the wake of Povich’s victory, West said, “I felt like I personally owed her a debt of gratitude, and so I think that was very thrilling.”
The MAKERS project, which includes the documentary and an online video archive component found at makers.com, has been in development for eight years, West said. The site launched last year, and videos of new “makers” are added each week. These videos also include interviews with a set of younger women who comprise the next generation of “makers,” Wolitzky said.
These women “are making their mark now or are acting on the opportunities that the women we had been interviewing sort of opened up for them,” she added.
“Because it’s a PBS project, there will be a huge educational outreach,” West said. “Part of doing the video archive was to make these stories accessible to anybody. And that’s part of the legacy.”
West said Brown was where she discovered her love of movies and became interested in TV journalism.
“I had a news career but I always wanted to move towards documentaries,” she added. “That is my passion and that started at Brown.”
Wolitzky, who concentrated in American Civilization, said the pop culture she learned about in her classes has been relevant to her field of work. But she added that women’s issues were not at the forefront of her mind until she entered the workforce. She said she encourages Brown students to think about these issues, even if they cannot yet personally relate.
“It’s women’s history, but it’s really the whole country’s history,” she said. “Everything from the politics of it to the pop culture.”
West said she was especially moved when Gloria Steinem, a pioneer in the women’s movement and a member of the project’s advisory board, quoted Paula Gunn Allen, an American Indian poet, during a speech at the documentary’s premiere at Lincoln Center in New York Feb. 6. West said Steinem emphasized “that if you don’t know the history, and you don’t know where you came from and what’s happened before, then that’s dangerous,” and referenced Allen’s famous line, “the root of oppression is the loss of memory.”
The Women’s Leadership Council will host a screening of “MAKERS: Women Who Make America” at Brown March 13 to celebrate Women’s History Month. “One of (the WLC’s) missions as a council is to engage more women with the intellectual excitement and the amazing things happening at Brown,” said Courtney Capizzo, the events’s organizer.
She said she also hopes the audience is not only made up of people who are already appreciate the women’s movement. “We want to open it up to a broader audience so that they can maybe have a different perspective, not that they have to agree with it, but just to expose the concept of how this evolution of women’s rights took place,” she said.
The free screening will take place in the Martinos Auditorium in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. A panel following the screening will include West, Wolitzky and “makers” Marika Shioiri-Clark ’05 and Barbara Smith, and will be moderated by Nancy L. Buc ’65.