Last week, PBS premiered Makers: Women Who Make America, its three-hour documentary on the evolution of American women in the social and political landscape over the last 50 years. Billed as a comprehensive history of the women’s movement, Makers is an ambitious, multi-platform project that showcases the stories of “groundbreaking” women such as Gloria Steinem, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Ellen DeGeneres, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Oprah, and Kathrine Switzer (the first woman to run the Boston Marathon).
Forbes contributor Dina Gachman has declared that Makers is “a film every woman should see.” The creators of the project hope it will “change the way history is being taught” and inspire the next 50 years of feminist activists. However, if its purpose is to create an inclusive community and encourage millennials to identify with feminism—as its creators have claimed—then Makers simply misses the mark.
The ascension of women to full legal and political equality is a success story for all American women. All women have benefitted greatly from the victories of the second wave of feminism, and all have cause to celebrate. Yet Makers presents a version of history in which conservative women are airbrushed out of the narrative altogether or dismissed as “anti-feminists” and “opponents”. The film’s narrator, Meryl Streep, refers to the 1980s—a period in which traditional values guided many policy decisions—as the “decade of backlash.” She repeats the misleading and repeatedly discredited 77-cent gender wage gap figure without any explanation that the gap may be entirely explained by different life choices. Rather than inviting all women to unite in celebrating the remarkable gains we have made over the past 50 years, the film ends with divisive political statements and scare tactics. “Perhaps most insidiously for feminists,” Streep warns, “pro-life forces have intensified their push to roll back access to abortion and even contraception.” Iconic second-wave feminists lament that young women have begun distancing themselves from the feminist movement, and Ms. Magazine Co-Founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin exhorts that we may “have to lose almost everything before we realize that we have to fight back”.
Conservative, moderate, and religious women can and should be able to identify with feminism and engage in the discussion of women’s place in modern society. However, the brand of feminism portrayed in Makers and typically embraced by the feminist establishment is not an ideology that the majority of American women can identify with. It is alienating, restrictive, contentious, and, too often, committed to a victim-based narrative which many women frankly find absurd.
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer has been pilloried for her Makers interview, in which she stated that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist because she does not have that “militant drive and sort of chip on the shoulder.” With the narrow definition of “feminist” presented in the documentary, it is no surprise that Mayer, like many other women, feels alienated by the movement. Makers presents the radical feminist agenda as the only acceptable vision of womanhood. It fails to understand that true gender equality means that women have the freedom to embrace or reject femininity in whichever ways they choose, and views that do not align with the mainstream feminist dogma are not automatically “anti-woman”.
Fortunately, there are alternatives. Though they were not featured in the documentary and don’t often have a place at the “women’s movement” table, there are many conservative, libertarian, and moderate women who are working to redefine feminism on terms that are welcoming to women with all sorts of ideologies and life preferences. The Independent Women’s Forum’s “Portrait of a Modern Feminist” series currently showcases 11 trailblazing, empowered feminists that are wonderful role models for young women committed to liberty and limited government. AEI Scholar Christina Hoff Sommers’s forthcoming book, Freedom Feminism: Its Surprising History and Why It Matters Today, recovers the lost history of the conservative forces behind women’s progress and lays the framework for a new version of feminism that has the potential to incite a feminist renaissance and inspire young women from both sides of the aisle. If feminists want to engage millenials in the movement and create a broad-based, effective vehicle for social progress, the inclusion of these conservative voices may be the answer.