Celebrating Women's History Month: The Stories We Tell

Back in 1972, when I signed on at Ms. magazine, our mission was to document the history women were making every day. Early detractors, like newsman Harry Reasoner, dismissed those efforts by pronouncing the material too sparse to sustain a magazine for more than a few issues. But Ms. kept on filling its pages. It became the place to find out about women athletes, women scientists and executives as well as the brave rebels who were speaking truth to power -- women who went unremarked in the rest of the media.

Also unremarked were women whose accomplishments had been lost to history, because no matter how awe-inspiring a woman's story would have been if she were a man, it was rarely deemed worth including in the record of human accomplishments; if it had been suggested back in the seventies, the phrase "women's history" would have been considered an oxymoron.

"Lost Women" was launched in the third issue of Ms. and became one of our most popular features. Month after month, it answered such questions as: Why were there no women composers? Not because women didn't have the creative genius, but because the women who did were "lost." (In 1975 Ms. even organized a concert of music by women that we had retrieved.) And why, you may ask, were there no women in the major orchestras (except the angelic harpist)? Not because there were no accomplished musicians, but because their skills were not tested. As soon as auditions were held with the candidates behind a curtain, the balance began to shift. But it was decades, until 2007, before Marin Alsop made history as the first woman conductor of a major American orchestra, the Baltimore Symphony.

"The truth will set you free," Gloria Steinem has said, "but first it will piss you off." There was plenty of truth-telling in Ms. and plenty of pissed off housewives, factory workers, teachers, political helpmates (those tireless volunteers who got men elected but were never considered potential candidates -- even by themselves) who stood up to unfair treatment.

To me the greatest fighter of all was "battling" Bella Abzug whose big mouth and even bigger heart embodied the courage and chutzpah it took to speak truth to power. I got to know her words very well years later when Mary Thom, a former Ms. colleague, and I put together an oral history of her life. For a generation of women raised on regular admonitions to keep their voices down, Bella's became a test of fortitude for all of us. Gloria Steinem recalls being appalled at first and then inspired by her courage to speak out loud and clear. The women who worked for her had a harder time. When Mary and I asked one what happened when Bella yelled at her, she replied, "I didn't get my period for two months!"

Today, we have a grip on our history, but that means there are more, not less, stories to tell. MAKERS - a co-production of AOL and PBS - is an ambitious documentary composed of interviews with the change-makers of recent history, many of whom I worked alongside of - like Robin Morgan, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Gloria Steinem, Marlo Thomas, Alice Walker - and others of whom are the next generation of activists that I have encouraged and been inspired by - Amy Richards, Shelby Knox, Courtney E. Martin.

What is even more exciting is that the project reflects our ongoing history by adding new MAKERS to the narrative on a regular basis. I am proud and honored to be the newest one and the first of Women's History Month. Producer Dyllan McGee is clear about her mission. "Maybe in the next 50 years declaring yourself a 'feminist' will be gratuitous because everybody will be on board with gender equality and we'll be living it." But, she emphasizes, we are not there yet.

Recently, my path has crossed with another MAKER -- the pioneering movie executive, Sherry Lansing. We are on the Board of Encore.org, an organization that is building the next social justice movement -- to combat ageism. As the population shifts toward what used to be called "retirement age" and has a longer life expectancy, it is essential to take note of the talent, energy, experience, and commitment we bring to our work and community. It is time, as the founder Marc Freedman puts it, to liberate "the most underutilized civic resource," and promote the notion of "second acts for the greater good."

We old movement types just never stop.

Another case in point. In 2005, Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda, and Robin Morgan founded the Women's Media Center to monitor and enrich the current means of recording our history. Just recently the WMC released its latest report on The Status of Women in the U.S. Media. While noting barriers broken by women like Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, the 2014 report offers such distressing findings as:

• Newsroom women staffers continued to hover at 36 percent, a figure largely unchanged since 1999.
• At the nation's three most prestigious newspapers and four newspaper syndicates, male opinion page writers outnumbered women 4-to-1.
• White men continued to dominate the ranks of Sunday morning news talk show guests, except on a single MSNBC show with a black female host.

During the 17 years I edited Ms. I learned how to identify our history-in-the-making: if one woman is experiencing something, there are surely countless others who have been keeping quiet, convinced that they are either the only ones - or simply insane. After I moved on to other forms of storytelling, I kept on listening to women, including myself; so when I began to experience weird behavior -- going on an Outward Bound trip at 50, talking back to condescending sales people -- I was sure there were others in the same boat, and I set about trying to understand what was going on with the women of my generation in our fifties and sixties. As we share the discoveries we make about an unprecedented stage of life -- a second adulthood as it has been called -- we are living a new chapter in women's history.

I wrote four books about life after 50, but I am now beginning to think about life after our 50th high school reunion. Women I talk to are finding that our seventies definitely "feel different from our fifties and sixties," but we have yet to chart this latest stretch of unknown territory, unknown since no generation before us has entered it with such energy, confidence, and wellbeing.

We are beginning the process of telling the truth about this decade. We seem to be on a new path -- shedding things, people, expectations and zeroing in on what really makes life worth living. Jane Fonda put it beautifully in a recent blog on her web site: "Maybe because I'm older my heart is wider open, like a net that wants to catch all the things that matter." Another story to tell.