If you don’t know where you’ve been, how do you know where you’re going?
Today, women in America have the right to vote. The right to obtain credit. The right to jobs that for decades were strictly for men. Reproductive rights. The right to serve in their country’s military. Rights now taken for granted. Yet, do women really understand how they got those rights?
“A Century of Women,” a six-hour production premiering Tuesday on TBS, offers a glimpse of the enormous inroads and societal changes women have affected throughout this century. It’s a story filled with sadness, joy, passion, drama, tears, death, struggle and hard-won victories. And it’s not for women only.
Narrated by Jane Fonda, “Century of Women” utilizes diaries, letters and personal memoirs, never-before-seen archival footage and photographs and interviews with the women who have made a difference.
Interwoven throughout the footage connecting past with present is an original family drama directed by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Barbara Kopple (“An American Dream,” “Harlan County, U.S.A.”). The generational story stars Olympia Dukakis, Teresa Wright, Talia Shire, Brooke Smith, Justine Bateman, Jasmine Guy and Madge Sinclair.
The documentary is divided into three topics: “Work and Family,” “Sexuality and Social Justice” and “Image and Popular Culture.”
“When we sat around discussing the themes of the six hours,” says executive producer Pat Mitchell, “we found that everybody talked about the same issues. We thought if there was a way to mirror our conversations in the office with the conversations in living rooms, then people would understand this is not about history. It’s also about right now and how we are living our life. That was the genesis of our idea--to create that connection for the viewers that this isn’t just about what women did for the past 100 years. This is what women are talking about now and coping with and laughing about and crying about.”
Co-writer and executive producer Jacoba Atlas points out that a century ago, women were beset by many of the same problems confronting contemporary women. Turn-of-the-century writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Atlas says, grappled “with the role of men and women, how to raise their children, how to be a writer and postpartum depression and expectations.
“What we hope comes across is that we are all part of the same piece and things don’t go away. Laws change--that’s a real accomplishment for women in this century, but I think that any woman who has a child and has to leave their child to go to work grapples throughout their life: Did I do the right thing? That went on in 1901 and it goes in 1994.”
Though the documentary profiles such well-known women as First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, feminist Betty Friedan and writer Edna St. Vincent Millay, most of the women are not household names. “A lot of the women who really changed the laws are just average women,” Atlas explains.
One such “average” woman was Ida May Phillips who, in the 1970s, was a waitress with seven children. The family breadwinner, she wanted a better job and applied to become an assembly trainee at Martin-Marietta Co. “They said, ‘You can’t take this job because you have small children,’ ” Atlas says. “So she took it all the way to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court said you can’t tell a woman with children she can’t have a job unless you say the same thing to a man with small children. Ida Phillips had no background to say she would be able to go and do this, but she changed the world for all of us.”
Determining who to include in the documentary was difficult. One prominent woman not profiled is former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Atlas says Onassis’ life had been so dissected and publicized that the production team didn’t think it could add anything to her story, especially because the extremely private Onassis didn’t give interviews. Nor did the people close to her. “I’m not sure we could have offered any insights that would have done her justice,” Atlas laments.
Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, though, is prominently featured. According to Atlas, the documentary’s historical advisers all agreed that Roosevelt was the most influential woman of the 20th Century. “I gained tremendous respect for her,” Atlas says. “She took stands that she hadn’t been raised to take. She took a stand against racism in this country. She took a stand against anti-Semitism, both of which were prevalent in her husband’s administration. She also defended Japanese-Americans during World War II, who were rounded up” and placed in internment camps.
For Kopple, directing fiction was not much different from making a documentary. “In a sense, it was a documentary because we were searching for something that was deeper and going sort of underneath and being intimate,” she explains.
“When we started out to do the fictional, we had a rehearsal the first day and all the seven actresses sat around and read through the entire script. There was just this explosion of all of these women suddenly being so intimate with each other.
“It was if there was a bond between all of us. They talked about their mothers and being mothers and different things that happened to them in their lives. Every second we weren’t shooting was an excuse to talk to each other,” Kopple says.
“A lot of the women that we deal with in the documentary led very public lives,” Atlas adds. “The women in the fictional lead what would be called small lives. We were always concerned if the balance would seem OK. Can the fictional family compare to (birth control pioneer) Margaret Sanger?
Documentaries, Kopple says, “have so much drama and passion what we were afraid, ‘Would the fictional hold up to the documentary because the documentary is so strong?’ Not until we got into the editing room did we see that yes, this is going to work.”
“A Century of Women” airs Tuesday-Thursday at 5:05 and 9:05 p.m. on TBS; all six hours repeat June 18 beginning at 9:05 a.m.