The PBS documentary Makers: Women Who Make America (airing on February 26th) shares the stories of exceptional women who have made pioneering contributions that continue to shape the world in which we live. Through the perspectives of those who lived through historic milestones, the film recounts the seminal events in the Women’s Movement, including the publication of The Feminine Mystique in 1963 and the battles to end discriminatory laws and practices over the following decade, while also telling the surprising and unknown stories of women who broke barriers in their own chosen fields.
During this recent exclusive interview with Collider, actress/author/activist Marlo Thomas talked about her own impact on American entertainment and culture by conceiving and producing That Girl, the first television series featuring an unmarried career woman, why she wanted to be a part of this documentary, the misconceptions of the Equal Rights Amendment, why Hilary Clinton is such an inspiration, the representation of women in the workplace, when she started to realize that her TV show was making an impact on women everywhere, what makes her want to get involved, and what she hopes audiences take away from the experience of watching Makers. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
MARLO THOMAS: Oh, yes! The Women’s Movement has been a huge part of my life. (Executive producer) Dyllan [McGee] and these women had an idea to put the history together, because there’s so much misconception about what a feminist is, what the ERA is, and what it was that these women wanted. You hear women say, “Oh, I’m not a feminist, but . . .,” and then you hear them say all these things that are feminist. It was great to have somebody put it all together and say, “Okay, this is what it was,” and show that it was simply a fight for freedom and equality. We’re promised the pursuit of happiness in the Bill of Rights. Certainly, you can’t be happy, if you’re not free and you’re not fulfilling yourself.
I’m just thrilled for people to see its honesty and scope. It shows the failures, the successes and the struggle, and what you get from the whole thing is that we must never oppress people. We must allow all people to be free, whatever color, gender or sexual preference they are, otherwise the world is a bully, and I’m completely against bullying. Bullying kills. It doesn’t just kill, in terms of people taking their lives, but it kills your spirit. That’s why Hilary Clinton has made such a priority of bringing equality to women all over the world. Whether or not girls should have an education is actually a conversation. Imagine that! Now we’re having a conversation in this country about whether or not women should have access to contraception. Can you imagine? I think a piece like this shows girls that there is a path. There were some pioneer ladies that took a machete and went through the brush to clear the way. Now, hopefully, girls will grow up to believe that that’s their entitlement.
How does it feel to be included with such extraordinary and visionary women, and be one of the people that had some hand in where women are at today?
THOMAS: Well, to me, what’s interesting is that this was like a bubbling under the earth. There was a young woman named Gloria Steinem, who nobody knew and who was a journalist, and she wanted to do an expose of the Playboy bunnies. And there was another young woman in California, who nobody knew and who wanted to do a series about a girl who wanted something and who had a dream. I brought the book The Feminine Mystique to the head of the network. The fact is that there were all these young woman, who didn’t know each other, but who were trying to bring women together, as a power. That’s what I find the most fascinating. Why I was excited about the documentary is that it shows that it wasn’t like somebody woke up one day and said, “I think I’m going to organize as many women as I can.” It was that it came really organically from all of us who had mothers. If you scratch a feminist of the ‘60s, what you’ll get is a woman with a mother whose dream was shattered. My mother’s was, Gloria’s mother’s was, and almost any feminist that you meet. Today, the hope is that you can become a feminist and your mother can be a feminist, too. We’re passing on the strength now, as opposed to the overcoming of victimization.
THOMAS: When it was happening, I had no doubt that it would succeed. It just seemed so right. It was like saying, “Should babies get good food when they’re first born?,” or “Does every child have the right to an education?” Well, in this country, every child doesn’t get a good education. Every kid who deserves to go to college can’t always afford to go to college, or is laden with student loans for the rest of their lives. So, everything isn’t really as fair as we want it to be. Watching it happen made me cry a lot. I didn’t sob, but tears came to my eyes, quite a few times because I remembered how innocent we were and how sure we were that, if we just explained it clearly, they’d see that their wives and daughters should have this. Why would you not want your children to have this?
The fight was with the men in the legislatures to get it past, and we were down to three states, which were Georgia, Illinois and Florida. I thought, “Well, we’re going to get one of these states, for god’s sake.” And it was shocking. Erma Baumbech had this great line that, “The words of the ERA are the most misunderstood words since ‘one size fits all,’” and that was true. It had nothing to do with what it was. They really waged a very successful and deep campaign to defeat the ERA, but they didn’t defeat equal rights. They defeated that amendment, but they didn’t defeat equal rights. We had to go, “Okay, I can’t mourn this. Now, what do we do?” And what we did was continue to do it, battle by battle and law by law.
The great thing about this country is that the heart of the land does follow the law of the land. If you can get the law, the American people come along to it until they embrace it. That’s why we wanted the amendment. We wanted women to have a fair chance in every state. We didn’t want you to have to send your daughter to another state to have equal rights, or have her choice of birth control, or have her choice to terminate a birth or not. It should be something that’s an American way of life. But, we have a lot of work to do for boys and girls, and men and women, with education and health.
Is there anyone today that inspires you or who you think is particularly empowering, as far as women who speak for and represent women?
THOMAS: What I’m loving about Hilary Clinton is that she has this job that’s been held mostly by men. Obviously, two other women have held the job, as well. She’s made it her job, not only to be a very tactful diplomat, but she travels the world, spotlighting what’s going on with girls and women, in every country that she goes to. That has been so unique. Only a woman would do that, but there were two other women before her who didn’t. That just shows you who Hilary Clinton is. I was very, very impressed by her working with countries that are already at odds with us and each other, and still having the guts and the heart to say, “But, what about this over here? We cannot live with people not having their rights in your country.”
THOMAS: Women have to make a living. We don’t live in a wealthy world where we even have a choice. We’re losing our choice of whether or not we need to work. If we want to work, we obviously should work and have that choice, but a lot of women can’t even get to the word “want.” They need to work. And it’s great to see all of these women who needed to work and found a way to become a firefighter or a steel worker. That, to me, is very exciting. If you really need to, you have to make it happen. You have a family to care for, and your family can’t make it on one paycheck. It’s old-fashioned times to believe that the woman is going to stay home in her corset while the man goes off to work. When girls see this film, I think that they’ll be excited by the fact that these women had the power and the courage to really buck everything – what the society felt about female, what the church felt about females and what our parents said about females. Gloria Steinem said the most wonderful thing at one of the rallies in Washington, D.C. She said, “We are the women our parents warned us about, and we are proud.” I just love that line! It’s so right. I remember my mother saying, “I don’t like those fem libbers,” and I said, “Mother, I’m a fem libber.” But, they were afraid. It was so completely camouflaged from what it really was.
What was it like to be the producer of the first show that had a female character at the center of it, who wasn’t married to a man?
THOMAS: It really wasn’t easy. When I took the book The Feminine Mystique to the head of the network, Ed Scherick, I said, “You really need to read this. This is what’s happening in this country.” And he looked at the book like he didn’t know what the heck it was. He took it home and, two weeks later, he called to tell me he’d read it. His first comment was, “Is this going to happen to my wife?” And it did! She ran off with a black musician. So, I was producing my own show, and I was the only woman other than Lucille Ball that was producing a television show, and I was only in my 20’s. I worked on the Desilu lot, which Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz owned, and she was also on the lot. I didn’t know, but my brother told me years later that, whenever they couldn’t find me, the joke was, “Oh, she’s in the men’s room, having a meeting with Lucy.” At the time, the climate was that, if you were a woman doing a man’s job, then you probably belonged in the men’s room.
Was there a point, while the show was on, that you started getting feedback and realized that it really was making an impact on people?
THOMAS: It was a really big moment in my life when I started to receive mail from women. A 16-year-old said, “I’m pregnant. I can’t tell my father. What can I do?” I got a letter from a woman who was 23 years old that said, “I have two children. My husband beats me. I don’t have any money. What can I do? Where can I go?” And I had two assistants at the time, who we called secretaries then, and I said, “We’ve gotta find some places for these women.” We were calling around the country to find places for these women to go, and there wasn’t any place. There was nothing. There were no law centers. There were no safety houses. There was nothing for a woman or a girl. That’s what politicized me. That took me from being a career woman with some guts to get what I wanted, to becoming a real, honest-to-god feminist. I had to be a part of finding places for women to go. It was unacceptable that a girl who was 16 years old couldn’t go someplace. It was unacceptable that a woman couldn’t take her two children and run for safety. There wasn’t anywhere to go. That was the politicization of me.
THOMAS: I don’t really think of it as giving back, to tell you the truth. I think of it as noticing. I have this theory that there are two kinds of people in the world, people who stop at a traffic accident and those that just drive by. If I see a traffic accident, I am going to stop. I do notice. I don’t think that makes me a good or bad person, or anybody else better or worse. I just think that you either do notice things and go, “What?! What are you talking about? How is that going on?” I write about bullying constantly on my website. My website www.MarloThomas.com is for women over 35, and it’s all about empowering women and getting them to dream again and reinvent themselves. One of the things I’ve been writing a lot about and got involved with is this big campaign with the Department of Education, AOL, Facebook and a few other companies to try to fight bullying. Kids are killing themselves over being bullied and over words. When I was a kid, we used to say, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me,” but today, names kill you. So, I think it’s about noticing. I don’t consider it giving back. I really do think it’s a part of life to notice what the hell is going on around you.
What do you hope people take away from the experience of watching Makers?
THOMAS: I think Makers will inspire people to say, “Wow, look what they accomplished!” That was a huge revolution, and it was bloodless, we’re proud to say. I’ve always said that one woman is a pest and two women is a team, but three women or more is a coalition. If you can bring a lot of people together as a coalition, you can get a lot changed. It’s just that people don’t want to be bothered, if they’re not being pressured to change. You have to push people. You have to be the agitator that makes the pearl.
Makers: Women Who Make America airs on PBS on February 26th, and further videos can be viewed at www.Makers.com.