A Mostly Positive ‘Century’ of Women

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Eulogies inevitably inflate their subjects, sometimes almost beyond recognition. Thus, when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died last month, “remarkable woman” was the stamp affixed to her in homage after homage.

Why remarkable? Well, her admirers say, she was an elegant, great-dressing First Lady who responded bravely to the murder of her husband, raising two swell kids in the process. Yes, just as countless other spouses of murder victims have carried on.

Well, the argument goes, she could have lived off her wealth, but instead chose later in life to work at a job in publishing. Yes, just as other widows work outside the home.


Well, she had style. Yes, and unlike other Americans, 100 million bucks to indulge it.

This is not to diminish Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who surely had many admirable qualities, only to urge against loosely conferring the term greatness . For a glimpse of the truly remarkable, tune in the TBS cable production “A Century of Women,” an entertaining, high-aiming, three-night biography of U.S. women, some of which rises to the epic level of those landmark PBS documentaries “Civil War” and “Eyes on the Prize (I and II).”

For much of this century, women were relegated to a sort of benign servitude on the white man’s plantation. Men have set the agendas for women in this real-life “Father Knows Best,” their paternalism reaching even to small, subtle things that society takes for granted, such as men being the ones who drive the family car and lead in ballroom dancing. And too often, women have allowed themselves to be defined by men, such as blustery Rush Limbaugh’s snide labeling of radical feminists as “feminazis.”

Not this time, though.

“A Century of Women” is not only about women, but also mostly by women, with Jacoba Atlas as executive producer, Sylvia Morales, Judy Korin and Christen Harty Schaefer directing the documentary portions and Barbara Kopple directing fictional family sequences that are used to bridge various topics.

With Jane Fonda narrating, “A Century of Women” unfurls its story with vintage film, testimony from historians and other prominent women, along with diaries, letters and personal memoirs of important female figures whose words are read off-camera by a collection of fine actresses, ranging from Jodie Foster to Meryl Streep.

Despite occasional soapbox tendencies and a few striking omissions, “A Century of Women” is largely a shining, valuable survey, one affirming that a documentary needn’t sacrifice smarts and scholarship to align itself with the mainstream of TV’s pop culture. The only real bummers here are Kopple’s gratingly intrusive, cloying, just-too-precious fictional pit stops, with Teresa Wright, Olympia Dukakis, Talia Shire, Justine Bateman, Brooke Smith, Madge Sinclair and Jasmine Guy cast in awkwardly conceived roles that are supposed to flesh out common denominators and generational gaps among women. Good cast, bad idea.

On to different ideas. The first diaphragm? The first bra? The first First Lady who became an influential social reformer (Eleanor Roosevelt)? They’re all here, along with the story of labor crusader Pauline Newman (the voice of Amy Irving), who survived the shocking working conditions and 1911 fire at the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York.


The latter episode opens tonight’s two-hour premiere, directed by Morales and titled “Work and Family.” We hear from labor reformer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (Sally Field) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman (Candice Bergen), a shocking radical who suggests there is life for women beyond domestic chores, and from Christine Frederick (Mary Steenburgen). She was the mother of what became known as home economics, the system that helped mechanize a woman’s work in the home.

Meanwhile, World War II turns homemakers into factory workers, but when the war ends, so do the jobs, and women are advised by men to get their priorities straight and return to “the fascinating business of making a home.”


Part 2 (“Sexuality and Social Justice”), directed by Korin, is both the most fascinating and the most irritating of the two-hour segments, with the likes of jazz-age poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (Blythe Danner), birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger (Streep), suffragette Alice Paul (Foster) and Mississippi voter-registration leader Fannie Lou Hamer sharing time with author Erica Jong and sex surveyor Shere Hite.

There’s a jolting TV interview here--revolutionary for 1957--with Sanger blasting the Catholic church’s male hierarchy for opposing birth control: “They’re celibates. They don’t know love. They don’t know marriage. They don’t know anything about bringing up children, or any of the marriage problems of life, and yet they speak to people as if they were God.”

As for irritating, the Supreme Court’s landmark Roe vs. Wade decision is depicted as a triumph for women wanting control over their own bodies. Fine. Yet the anti-abortion crowd is afforded no suffrage on this program.

Even while skillfully presenting the flowers of artist Georgia O’Keeffe as an erotic metaphor for full creative expression by women, Schaefer’s Part 3 (“Image and Popular Culture”) is otherwise the flimsiest of the segments. For example, it overvalues the influence of Lucille Ball and her ditsy Lucy Ricardo character in “I Love Lucy” as role models for U.S. women while understressing the relentless, long-term anti-female bias practiced by mainstream television. On target, though, is the touting of ABC’s “Roseanne” as a powerful positive force.


In the main, so is this documentary.

* “A Century of Women” airs tonight, Wednesday and Thursday at 5:05 p.m. and 9:05 p.m. each evening.