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15 Fabulous Females Make ‘The Women’s List’

In this PBS documentary, the trailblazers share their empowering stories

By Ann Oldenburg

Representing the ultimate in girl power, PBS’ American Masters: The Women’s List, airing at 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25  (check local listings), showcases 15 women who have shaped and influenced our American culture.

Only 15?

“We try — within these 15 women — to represent America,” says filmmaker Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. “It’s not the easiest thing in the world to do. And we try to balance ages and fame with unknown stories.”

He admits with a laugh: “It’s a hard thing to play God this way, but someone has to do it.”

The hour-long program will also be available Sept. 25 on DVD via Perfect Day Films.

The Women's List is the newest chapter of Greenfield-Sanders' List documentary series (American Masters: The Boomer List, The Black List, The Latino List and The Out List) and it includes interviews with trailblazers age 31 to 78 from the worlds of politics, art, business, science and entertainment:

Madeleine Albright, U.S. Secretary of State, 1997-2001, age 78
Gloria Allred, lawyer, 74
Laurie Anderson, artist, 68
Sara Blakely, Spanx entrepreneur, 44
Margaret Cho, comedian, 46
Edie Falco, actress, 52
Elizabeth Holmes, scientist and entrepreneur, 31
Betsey Johnson, fashion designer, 73
Alicia Keys, singer-songwriter, 34
Aimee Mullins, athlete and fashion model, 39
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, former U.S. House speaker, 75
Rosie Perez, actress, 51
Shonda Rhimes, writer/producer, 45
Wendy Williams, talk show host, 51
Nia Wordlaw, pilot, 38

How It All Came Together

Toni Morrison opens the documentary with a passage she penned for the documentary. It ends with: “There is no modernity and no justice without the talent, the passion and the steely intelligence of women.”

Greenfield-Sanders is particularly proud of Morrison’s involvement in providing a “statement” opening for the project, which took him a year to pull together, lining up and conducting the interviews one-by-one. Each interview lasted about an hour. The chats were trimmed down to the 7- to 8-minute range and then tightened more to fit the time.

Greenfield-Sanders admits that while the goal was to feature women who have “created and defined American culture,” it was difficult to narrow down the list. “It’s a snapshot. You try to get stories that are universal, that have meaning, that transcend the person and become a story that everyone can relate to,” he says.

He started by calling friends. (Greenfield-Sanders knew Albright from taking her portrait when she was in office.) And, he says, there are people who couldn’t or wouldn’t participate. Media guru Arianna Huffington was “too busy.” And former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he says, has turned him down “many times.” He asked her for The Black List, The Boomer List and The Women’s List.

The women who did participate talked about who and what influenced them as they were growing up.

Alicia Keys explains that her mother taught her the importance of good communication. Sara Blakely says her dad taught her “how to fail.” Shonda Rhimes recalls speaking stories into a tape recorder at age 3 and giving them to her mother to transcribe. Rosie Perez says “the nuns” at her school convent used to “beat the crap” out of her, but from those nuns she learned about tenacity and about the theater. Nancy Pelosi recalls a household that was “devoutly Catholic, deeply patriotic and staunchly Democratic.”

Can You See Me Now?

Being part of this illustrious group of women is “pretty cool,” says Nia Wordlaw, a pilot for United Airlines. As an African-American woman in the cockpit, she is a rarity.


“Anytime I say to people I work for the airline industry and travel a lot, the first thing they say is: ‘Oh, are you are a flight attendant?’ She adds, “There’s nothing wrong with being a flight attendant.”

But she says, “There’s a perception there — as a woman, a woman of color. I have never ever been asked, ‘Are you a pilot?’ That would be nice to hear.”

The problem, says Wordlaw, is “exposure. It’s not something that people see. I’m excited because now people will see. Now when they see a woman of color, they might ask, ‘Are you a pilot?’”

Gloria Allred, who has been making headlines lately with her work representing women who have come forward to accuse Bill Cosby of rape, had a similar experience.

“When I was so much younger, before I became a lawyer, I didn’t know any women lawyers. I don’t think I had read about or met a woman who was a lawyer,” says Allred. “So I definitely never heard about a woman who was a lawyer for women’s rights. I wish that I had. It’s important for women to say, ‘I would like to be like her. What does it take? Is this possible for me?’”

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

So have women really come a long way since Allred began her law career nearly 40 years ago?

Her answer: “I always say that a conservative will often say, ‘Look how far women have come.’ And a progressive will say, ‘Look how far we have to go.’ It’s true that we’ve made some progress in terms of improving the condition and status of women, but we still have a long way to go in winning rights.”

She proudly calls herself a feminist and says, “We should all be proud to be feminists and that should include men. Sometimes if I have friends who are about to give birth, most people say, ‘Is it going to be a boy or a girl? I say, ‘Is the baby going to be a feminist?’ Because that’s really what’s important.”

The feminist message was part of the goal of The Women’s List, says Greenfield-Sanders.

“These films raise your consciousness in a certain way. … You have to hear these stories of other people’s struggles to put your own in perspective.”

Ann Oldenburg Ann Oldenburg, who started her career at The Washington Post and was a longtime culture writer at USA Today, is assistant director of the journalism program at Georgetown University. An advocate of lifelong learning, she is a member of the first cohort of Georgetown's new Aging & Health master’s program. Read More
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