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The Making of American Feminism

If you have plans tonight, cancel them. Instead, sit down in front of your TV to watch “MAKERS: Women Who Make America” on PBS at 8:00 PM EST. (Check local listings if you live in other time zones.) Otherwise, you will miss a remarkable three-hour journey through 50 years of the women’s movement.

Even for those of us familiar with the history of the feminist revolution — either by having lived through it, or from studying it — this documentary is an eye-opening experience. As someone born just as the women’s liberation movement was picking up initial steam, I was already aware of most of the historical and legal developments recounted in the film. But not until now have I truly understood how they all fit together to bring us to where we are today — mostly for the better, but with still far to go toward the ultimate goal of equality, both nationally and internationally.

As a Jewish writer and feminist, it was a point of pride to see so many women with Jewish backgrounds interviewed and highlighted for their instrumental roles in the advancement of women’s rights in the United States. It’s not as though Jewish women’s involvement at the forefront of the movement has been a secret, but it was nonetheless exciting to see so many of these faces and names on the screen. Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Nora Ephron, Alix Kates Shulman, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Judy Blume, Bella Abzug, Susan Brownmiller, Barbara Walters, Erica Jong and Sherri Finkbine are featured, among many others.

The film, narrated by actress Meryl Streep, is divided into three parts, each moving the historical narrative ahead with both clarity and nuance through expertly edited and balanced archival footage and “talking heads” interview excerpts. The first section, titled “Awakening,” begins in the 1950s. It takes us from the publication exactly 50 years ago this month of Betty Friedan’s seminal book “The Feminine Mystique” to the consciousness-raising of Women’s Liberation to the establishment of Ms. Magazine. For those who have no personal memories of the era, this section presents and analyzes the political tensions and ideological rifts between the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Women’s Libbers, women of color and lesbians (whom Friedan dubbed “the lavender menace.”)

The second part, “Changing the World,” details how “the movement migrated from an outside insurgency to the mainstream of American life, where it would lay siege to the country’s most established institutions, even the relationship between men and women,” as Streep tells us. The 1970s fight to legalize abortion plays a central role in this section, as do other examples of challenges to sexism entrenched in the law. The failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment — due to a backlash against feminism, engineered by Phyllis Schlafly and other conservatives — closes this part of the film.

Finally, “Charting A New Course” takes us from the 1980s until today, examining how women have advanced despite the rise of the so-called Moral Majority and the disappearance of feminist marches and sit-ins. Issues highlighted here include the increased and more varied career options for women, rape, domestic abuse, sexual harassment and single motherhood (think “Murphy Brown.”) Abigail Pogrebin, daughter of Ms. Magazine co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin, is profiled in a chapter looking at the struggles next generation faces in balancing motherhood and career.

The documentary is part of a larger multiplatform interactive video experience from PBS and AOL, comprised of a large collection of women’s stories — some icons, others lesser-known leaders in various fields. Stories of younger female Jewish standouts like Rabba Sara Hurwitz and teenage fashion media mogul-in-the-making Tavi Gevinson are included at MAKERS.com, along with those of some of the pioneering Jewish feminists in the documentary.

All aspects of the MAKERS project aim to leave viewers with a sense of optimism about the past and future trajectories of feminism. But they also raise serious questions about whether today’s younger women care enough about feminism to keep it alive in the long run, especially in the face of the current erosion of women’s health and reproductive rights.

“I don’t see that urge toward activism, the passion,” laments Letty Cottin Pogrebin at the end of the film. “And that makes me fear that they’ll have to lose everything before they’ll realize that they have to fight back.”

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