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The Many Faces of Feminism in ‘The Women’s List’

The Many Faces of Feminism in 'The Women's List'

The names included in PBS’ upcoming “American Masters: The Women’s List” are an impressively disparate bunch. They’re introduced by none other than Toni Morrison, who speaks to the interesting place we are at in history: “No longer are we pioneers…. No, we are multitudes. And society is clearly the better for our peaceful invasion.” But, as we learn from many of these interviews, their presence is still often perceived as just that — an invasion. And invasions invite hostile resistance.

Interviewed by journalist Sandra Guzman (a talented former colleague of mine, as it happens), they are artists, scientists, athletes, politicians, comedians. But the one I really raised my eyebrows about was 44-year-old Sara Blakely, the inventor of Spanx.

To my mind, the person who created a garment that encourages women to flatten their bodies into uncomfortable and conformative shapes didn’t necessarily merit inclusion here. But then I heard her talk about how, growing up, she had been encouraged by her father to get comfortable with the idea of failure. Failure in their family, she explains, was considered not trying something — which is why she was confident enough in herself to make a go of her radical new take on control-top.

She also emphasizes, in an insight I found really stuck with me, the idea of fighting the urge to immediately get feedback from your friends and family when you think you have a revolutionary concept. She let the Spanx plan percolate for a full year before letting others weigh in, she says, and that enabled her to take criticisms with a grain of salt rather than letting them totally derail her dream.

My own feelings about Spanx aside, hers turned out to be one of the most memorable takeaways from this hour-long special celebrating cultural movers and shakers. If only every woman could be so accepting of the idea that failure of an endeavor does not equal failure as a human, which is an idea boys in our society seem to receive a lot more than girls do. And it’s this sort of stealthy revelation that makes “The Woman’s List” so effective in its workmanlike approach to profiling.

Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders previously brought us “The Boomer List,” “The Black List,” “The Latino List” and “The Out List.” Shot with the subject directly facing the camera against a plain gray background, “The Women’s List” gives us a no-frills look directly into the eyes of women who’ve made their mark on society.

It’s no small feat finding a handful of women who represent the endless diversity of female experience and achievement in America (Greenfield-Sanders has admitted he tried and failed to get Condoleeza Rice and Arianna Huffington, but this is a pretty wide-ranging group nonetheless.)

I imagine a director is under a substantial amount of pressure to include a lot of famous faces in a documentary like this, but some of the most touching interviews are with women you may likely never have heard of.

Black pilot Nia Wordlaw says she is currently “one of about 25 [African-American] women flying for major airlines.” As many times as I’ve noted to myself that I almost NEVER hear a female pilot’s voice over the intercom while in flight, this is still a shockingly small number to hear. She talks about the lack of role models for a little girl who always wanted to fly, so much so that she attended the funeral of a black female pilot just hoping to be able to see one — even if she was dead.

Aimee Mullins, a double leg amputee who’s also a prominent track athlete and a model, talks about the dismissive tenor of the word “disabled” and the incredulousness she’d feel when hearing it applied to her following a description of her achievements in sport. She gets choked up describing the pair of hard-carved wooden legs made for her by designer Alexander McQueen, whose London fashion show she opened in 1998.

Elizabeth Holmes, CEO of the company Theranos, is a scientist who invented a cheaper, faster blood test that made testing accessible to many more people than the traditional ones are. The youngest female billionaire in the U.S., she emphasizes her pride in hearing about her employees’ daughters and the freedom they feel to pursue their dreams. “This is a new generation that’s growing up, seeing that, and believing that’s normal — and that’s how we make a change,” she says.

Then, of course, there are the more familiar faces: Alicia Keys, Nancy Pelosi, Betsey Johnson, Edie Falco, Margaret Cho, Laurie Anderson, Wendy Williams. All discuss their upbringing and what motivated them to do what they do. Showrunner Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” producer of “How to Get Away with Murder”) talks about the drive to create she’s felt since she was a little girl asking her mother to transcribe her recorded stories. Yes, she’s a working mom, she says, but “nobody ever asks a man how he finds balance.” Alicia Keys gives a thoughtful remembrance of the way in which her mother taught her the value of being articulate, of being able to defend oneself in intelligent conversation. Margaret Cho and Rosie Perez talk about female ethnic stereotypes following them into their careers — and how they fight back. Wendy Williams describes how her very physical presence — big and loud — led to constant bullying and commentary that shaped her into the larger-than-life TV figure she is today.

Laurie Anderson gives a somewhat nostalgic juxtaposition with the more androgynous counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s, which she says was “not like now, where there was a lot more attention to men and women. We were artists, first of all. And we all kind of wore the same kind of clothes and made the same kind of jokes. We all worked together in a way that was… comradely.”

Older, well-established feminists are represented in Nancy Pelosi, Madeline Albright and lawyer Gloria Allred, who speaks the most bluntly about her own feelings on feminism: “The reason I am a feminist is because of my own experience. I have been a person who was unable to get an abortion…. If a person is not a feminist,” she concludes, “I have to believe they are a bigot.”

The full movie, well worth your time, debuts on PBS Friday at 9pm.

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