Celebrating Women’s History Month:
The Stories We Tell
Back in 1972, when I signed on at Ms. magazine, our mission was to document the history women were making every day. Early detractors, like newsman Harry Reasoner, dismissed those efforts by pronouncing the material too sparse to sustain a magazine for more than a few issues. But Ms. kept on filling its pages. It became the place to find out about women athletes, women scientists and executives as well as the brave rebels who were speaking truth to power — women who went unremarked in the rest of the media.
Also unremarked were women whose accomplishments had been lost to history, because no matter how awe-inspiring a woman’s story would have been if she were a man, it was rarely deemed worth including in the record of human accomplishments; if it had been suggested back in the seventies, the phrase “women’s history” would have been considered an oxymoron.
“Lost Women” was launched in the third issue of Ms. and became one of our most popular features. Month after month, it answered such questions as: Why were there no women composers? Not because women didn’t have the creative genius, but because the women who did were “lost.” (In 1975 Ms. even organized a concert of music by women that we had retrieved.) And why, you may ask, were there no women in the major orchestras (except the angelic harpist)? Not because there were no accomplished musicians, but because their skills were not tested. As soon as auditions were held with the candidates behind a curtain, the balance began to shift. But it was decades, until 2007, before Marin Alsop made history as the first woman conductor of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony.
“The truth will set you free,” Gloria Steinem has said, “but first it will piss you off.” There was plenty of truth-telling in Ms. and plenty of pissed off housewives, factory workers, teachers, political helpmates (those tireless volunteers who got men elected but were never considered potential candidates — even by themselves) who stood up to unfair treatment.
To me the greatest fighter of all was “battling” Bella Abzug whose big mouth and even bigger heart embodied the courage and chutzpah it took to speak truth to power. I got to know her words very well years later when Mary Thom, a former Ms. colleague, and I put together an oral history of her life. For a generation of women raised on regular admonitions to keep their voices down, Bella’s became a test of fortitude for all of us. Gloria Steinem recalls being appalled at first and then inspired by her courage to speak out loud and clear. The women who worked for her had a harder time. When Mary and I asked one what happened when Bella yelled at her, she replied, “I didn’t get my period for two months!”
Today, we have a grip on our history, but that means there are more, not less, stories to tell. MAKERS – a co-production of AOL and PBS – is an ambitious documentary composed of interviews with the change-makers of recent history, many of whom I worked alongside of – like Robin Morgan, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Gloria Steinem, Marlo Thomas, Alice Walker – and others of whom are the next generation of activists that I have encouraged and been inspired by – Amy Richards, Shelby Knox, Courtney E. Martin.
What is even more exciting is that the project reflects our ongoing history by adding new MAKERS to the narrative on a regular basis. I am proud and honored to be the newest one and the first of Women’s History Month. Producer Dyllan McGee is clear about her mission. “Maybe in the next 50 years declaring yourself a ‘feminist’ will be gratuitous because everybody will be on board with gender equality and we’ll be living it.” But, she emphasizes, we are not there yet.
MAKERS: Women Who Make America
MAKERS.com is a dynamic digital platform showcasing thousands of compelling stories - both known and unknown – from trailblazing women of today and tomorrow. This historic video initiative was founded by Dyllan McGee and developed by AOL and PBS. Executive Producers are Dyllan McGee, Betsy West, and Peter Kunhardt.
MAKERS: Women Who Make America is an ongoing initiative that aims to be the largest and most dynamic collection of women’s stories ever assembled. Selections of MAKERS are made twice a year by our filmmaking team using guidelines set by our board of advisors.This process ensures that the make-up of the library of stories includes women from all walks of life with diverse experiences and perspectives.