Girl power

The shocking truth is that the story of the women’s movement had never been told before, at least not in a definitive documentary.

So when Nancy Armstrong learned of this while attending a New York City fundraiser in 2010 for Dyllan McGee, a filmmaker who was trying to get a documentary about the women’s movement off the ground, her reaction was one of utter disbelief.

“Are you kidding, this hasn’t been done?” she remembers thinking.

It was then – after meeting Gloria Steinem and being galvanized by her words and by the excitement in a room full of women ready to move the project forward – that she took action, enlisting the help of AOL to get the film done.

“Makers: Women Who Make America” made its PBS debut in February and was number one on Twitter the night it aired. The epic three-hour documentary brings the story of the women’s movement of the past 50 years to life through the voices of women who have been groundbreakers. Hundreds of dynamic interviews were produced and used to craft the story assiduously. Those live interviews continue on makers.com – a historic digital archive AOL developed showcasing hundreds of trailblazing women. More than 35 million people have visited the site, 48 percent of those being men, which proves that remarkable stories are compelling regardless of gender.

Over a cup of tea at her Greenwich home, the “Makers” web producer and mother of three (Jack is 11, Hope 9, and Summer 7) explains how she came to be involved in the project and why it is so important to her to get these stories told.

“I had taken time off to start a family and raise them, but I was getting the itch to do something else. I had done volunteer work” – she still is on the American Red Cross’ board of directors – “but wanted something else and was looking for something I could use my skill set.”

When she heard Gloria Steinem speak of the genesis of the women’s movement and the gender inequality that still exists, she realized she had found what she was looking for.

“It’s just that thing that she does where she speaks and you’re like, ‘I’ll get on that bandwagon,’” she says of the charismatic activist.

Nancy arranged a meeting with Dyllan McGee to see if she could get involved in the project. Dyllan immediately said yes and asked if she could help produce the interviews, the web and anything else that would help further the project.

“There was a white space on the story of the women’s movement and this opportunity to be able to tell this story through the voices of the women who were on the front lines who lived it, with the exhilaration and the pain of the ERA not passing, all of those ups and downs … the victories and the losses. So to have their voices (heard) is incredible and made it so much more exciting to show the archival,” she says about the nearly 200 interviews that can now be viewed on makers.com that she helped produce.

After gaining a better understanding of the scope of the project during the meeting, she realized “Makers” would be perfect for AOL, where her husband Tim is CEO, because he was looking for women’s brands and content to develop and nurture under the AOL umbrella.

That night, she told Tim about the Women’s 2.O Media Project, (as it was originally called until a branding company at AOL wisely renamed it “Makers”) and suggested he meet with its executive producer, Dyllan, to see what he thought.

“I could see the dots were already lighting up in his head,” Nancy says about Tim’s first meeting with Dyllan. She recalls, “Two minutes into dinner he said to her, ‘AOL will fund the whole thing.’ I think he blew Dyllan off her chair… I don’t think she was expecting that.”

The venture would be good for women, but it would also be good for AOL.

“There’s no reason that women shouldn’t have an equal opportunity to the pursuit of happiness in life and ‘Makers’ is a powerful way to show men, women and children the power of chasing big dreams and using all your talents to make a difference in your chosen area of passion,” Tim says. “Helping half the population of the world grow and achieve is a great thing for society and a great business opportunity for AOL.”

His wife says she’s proud that it was a man who saw the significance of this project.

“It was a man who said this is game-changing, we have to do this.” And that the man happened to be her husband made it all the better.

It’s clear Tim was inspired by his wife.

“Living with a strong and talented woman is a helpful thread in my work life, because I see the benefit of diverse and talented opinions.”

Tapping into her personal network proved vital to landing those first big interviews, like those with Marlo Thomas and Martha Stewart. Because once those were in place, the others soon followed. “Makers” is now in its second wave of interviews. That’s why Nancy describes the video archive as an “evergreen” project that continues to grow, like her recent interview with Mia Hamm, which will soon be added to the site.

Part of the motivation for getting involved in “Makers,” Nancy says, was to give her daughters and all girls the respect and sense of gratitude for the movement as well as the hope of inspiring them to believe that if these women could succeed under adverse conditions, they can do anything.

“They should appreciate that and understand where they want to go based on how far we’ve come … to take responsibility for that opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity that did not elude the dynamo growing up. Encouraged by her mother, Nancy sang and acted as a child, pursuing that dream in Chicago and Los Angeles after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in psychology. She had co-starring roles on “Third Rock from the Sun” and “L.A. Heat” and a lead role in the comedy pilot “Kinks.” Besides numerous stage performances, Nancy wrote, directed and produced the one-woman show “A Look Beyond the Attitude,” which she performed at The Cinegrill theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

But after eight years in LA, she had an epiphany. “I decided that instead of playing someone who was doing something interesting, I wanted to actually be someone who was doing something interesting.”

With that, the statuesque brunette – who says she was too tall for Hollywood (at 5 feet 10 inches) and always wears heels now because, “If I can’t be an actor, I might as well tower,” packed her bags and enrolled in graduate school at Boston University to study communications and public relations, which she says was a natural offshoot of being an actor. Next came a job in Manhattan at a boutique PR firm, then on to Ogilvy Public Relations, where she worked until she got married and became pregnant, choosing to become a stay-at-home wife and mom.

Thanks to the waves of suffragists and feminists, she could make that choice.

“You can have a career, be a working mom,or a stay-at-home mom. The whole point is that you have a choice,” she says.

Still, while the expectations have shifted, the reality has not. Today, women account for 47 percent of the labor force and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, make only 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Women currently hold 4.2 percent of Fortune 500 CEO positions. In the 113th Congress, only 20 of the 100 senators are women (still the most in U.S. history, though), while women make up 79 of the 435 members of the House of Representatives. Clearly, there’s more work to be done.

“We’re in the next wave of feminism where women are in these fields but not necessarily in the leadership positions,” Nancy says. “I think society is at a crossroads where we need to figure out how to let families be families and still use that creative force from women.”

2 Comments

  • MizKatz says:

    2/8/14: I wonder where this “actress, publicist, philanthropist, wife, mother, feminist ” stands on her husband’s recent bad behavior?

  • Headscratching says:

    I think it would be amazing to include the one of the mothers of the distressed babies in the documentary!! Or maybe the woman who was carrying quadruplets at Google who was Tim’s HR nightmare. #foodforthought

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