Actress Marlo Thomas comes to town next week for a sold-out preview screening of the new documentary MAKERS: Women Who Make America, airing at the Gene Siskel Film Center next Wednesday (February 13), and nationally on PBS February 26 (7 p.m.).
Narrated by Meryl Streep, the film explores women’s rights issues of the last half-century by sharing the stories of influential players in the Women’s Rights Movement, from Gloria Steinem to Oprah Winfrey. Thomas is among this group of activists, having revolutionized sitcom television on the 1960s show That Girl—the first TV programming to focus on an unmarried, working woman who lives independently.
The film is very powerful. What message do you hope women take from it?
MARLO THOMAS: I think women will be motivated to be their own makers. The point of history is to learn from it, and to see what is possible. The great thing about today is that everybody has a way to talk on the web to each other, to spread information quickly—we used to hang [flyers] on trees. You can gather in such a massive way, women or people together; you don’t even have to assemble physically, you can assemble electronically. It has made activism very easy and very exciting, at your fingertips.
In your opinion, what is the state of women’s equality today?
MT: We’re still fighting for more, just to get equal. A lot has been done: [for instance], we now have 20 women in the Senate. I remember, as a 16-year-old, going to Washington with my father and looking down at the Senate floor and—not even thinking as a feminist, I don’t think the word was even coined yet—but I said to my father, ‘Look daddy, there aren’t any ladies.’ It looked like a Brooks Brothers ad. So it has changed for sure; it has changed for good. But there’s much more to do.
Did you realize, at the time, how groundbreaking of a role That Girl had?
MT: I knew that it was a groundbreaker because it was very hard to get the show on [the air]. I knew that. But I didn’t realize it was going to have such a gigantic impact on women’s lives. To this day, I walk down the street and [people] will come up to me and say that they never would have gone after the big job, or they wouldn’t have moved to the big city, had it not been for Ann Marie.
What can Chicago women do to further the cause?
MT: What women need to be doing, in every city, is feeling entitled that they can be leaders, not settling for the middle job. Not enough women aim high enough; too many feel that they have to compromise their lives. You don’t have to run for Senate, you can run for school boards, committees, and panels. Get involved and see where you fit in the community, as opposed to being outside of the community.