Ruth Ginsberg was first her class at both the Harvard and Columbia law schools, where she transferred her senior year. Upon graduation, she was rejected by 14 law firms. She went on to become the United State’s second female Supreme Court justice.
Madeleine Albright took her first paying job at the age of 39. Two decades later, she became the country’s first female Secretary of State.
And as Hillary Clinton puts it, “If the 19th century was about ending slavery, and the 20th was about ending totalitarianism, then the 21st century is about ending the pervasive discrimination and degradation of women, and fulfilling their full rights.”
All these messages and stories were relayed on MAKERS, “the largest collection of groundbreaking women’s stories ever assembled online,” explains Nancy Armstrong. Armstrong is a producer and a founding member of the team behind the website and documentary series, MAKERS — Women Who Make America.
Armstrong will speak at the Princeton Chamber’s New Jersey Conference For Women on Friday, October 16, at the Westin Princeton. For more information, visit princetonchamber.org/njcw2015.shtml.
The mission of MAKERS, Armstrong says, is to “ignite a story-telling revolution that will not only flood the marketplace with stories of role models from all walks of life, but will also inspire and ignite young women and girls — the next wave of the movement.”
The MAKERS projects has its roots in a 2010 encounter between Armstrong and Dyllan McGee, a filmmaker who was then working on a documentary about the women’s movement. The two connected immediately and began working together on the project, with Armstrong pitching the idea to AOL — where her husband is the CEO — for support. The MAKERS website (www.pbs.org/makers) launched in 2012, and in 2013, it debuted its three-hour documentary on PBS. Since then, the site has amassed over 3,000 videos, features the stories of over 300 women, and the documentary was just last month nominated for an Emmy.
Yet MAKERS also arguably has roots that can be traced even deeper: Armstrong’s experience of growing up, as she puts it, “at an interesting point in the history of women’s advancement in America.” As a young girl, she recalls being told that for women to live a `good life,’ they had to marry into it. Then, as the women’s movement began to take shape — as figures like Gloria Steinem, Marlo Thomas, and Bella Abzug roused the masses — change began to materialize. “That ushered in the beginning of a very deep cultural shift that I could feel subtly growing up. The message went from ‘marry a doctor’ to ‘have a career and don’t worry about marriage.’ I was in the middle of that cultural shift,” says Armstrong.
Still, when Armstrong graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in psychology in the late 1980s, the transition was still slowly being made. “The message was ‘go have a career.’ But at that point there were very few role models. You looked around and men were very much leading in every industry with very few women next to them,” she says. She added, “It was very hard to envisage a life for ourselves where we can rise to the top of our industry because there were no women that we could see that were doing that.”
This lack of visible role models was one reason why Armstrong initially chose acting as a career. “I chose to be an actress for two reasons: one, I knew I was good at it, because I had done it for so. And I didn’t have any role models for what else I could do,” she says.
After eight years, however, she wanted “to make more of an impact” and chose to leave acting to pursue a career in public relations. She eventually landed a job at Ogilvy, where she became a senior executive and worked until she became pregnant (Armstrong is a mother to two daughters, ages 12 and 10, and a son, age 13).
Getting involved with the MAKERS project seemed like a natural extension to the storytelling that she had been doing throughout her life. From acting in her first stage play as a 5-year-old to becoming a professional actress, then to working in PR — “another form of storytelling.” Armstrong has been telling stories in every iteration of her career. “I’m a storyteller,” she says. “That’s what I’m passionate about.”
“Storytelling is one of the most powerful platforms from which to launch ideas and inspiration into the world,” she adds.
And yet, Armstrong points out, “women have largely been omitted from history, even in cases where they have been involved.” She points to a study by a professor of anthropology at Penn State University as an example. By analyzing hand stencils in eight cave sights in France and Spain, the professor and archeologist, Dean Snow, found that 75 percent of handprints were female — overturning the age-old assumption that the artists were men.
“All of our lives we’ve been told that these paintings were done by men,” Armstrong says. “Women have just been left out of the story, and part of the mission of Makers is rewriting women into history.”
“Right now we are in a period where women have been empowered. The next mountain to climb is to foster the rise of talented women. Men and women enter the workforce in equal numbers. But something happens along the way. There’s this cliff, where women just drop out of the workforce, and they end up not rising in leadership positions in equal numbers to men,” Armstrong explains.
“Gender diversity is an ethical and business imperative,” Armstrong says. “I think the reason it’s taken us so long to find that balance is that companies are just starting to acknowledge this as a challenge that they want to tackle. I expect to see us get it resolved in the next 45 years, completely.”