When PBS executive Perry Simon took the stage at the PBS Television Critics Association press tour to talk about the new quarterly initiatives, it became clear that women are at the forefront of a sizeable chunk of PBS’s 2020 programming. That’s as part of PBS’s “Trailblazers” initiative centered around the celebration of women’s right to vote.
Simon, the chief programming executive and general manager, general audience programming, teased the upcoming programming, which includes, “suffragettes, the feminist movement, and modern changemakers.” Among the programming highlighted: “POV: And She Could Be Next,” about candidates of color transforming politics from the ground up; Margaret Hoover, who will profile conservative women changing the face of the Republican party; and “Unladylike 2020,” which will feature notable American heroines, such as Mae West and Toni Morrison.
In June, “Great Performances” will feature plays about two strong female activists. Christine Lahti stars as Gloria Steinem in “Gloria: A Life,” and Holland Taylor stars as the late Texas governor Ann Richards in “Ann,” a play she wrote herself because she so admired Richards. “Ann” will air June 19, and “Gloria: A Life” will air June 26 on PBS.
Steinem is very much top of mind right now, as she’s also a main character in FX’s upcoming series “Mrs. America,” which centers on Phyllis Schlafly, but also includes feminist icons Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm and Steinem. Lahti is aware of “Mrs. America,” and mentioned that Julie Taymor also has a feature film, “The Glorias,” that will debut in February.
Lahti mused, “Gloria is everywhere, and she needs to be everywhere.” As Lahti spoke of her long friendship with Steinem, she shared that she was very nervous when Steinem saw a run-through of the PBS production, directed by Diane Paulus (who also directed the current Broadway hit, “Jagged Little Pill”) and was relieved when Steinem liked it.
Lahti said Steinem is so self-effacing that she did not want the entire play to be about her, so the second act is a re-creation of the living room talking circles Steinem hosts in her own home. The audience is given a chance to talk about their feelings and reactions to issues, and Lahti said it was very emotional when they taped the play, as it was around the time of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. The discussion provoked tears from both male and female audience members. Lahti pointed out that many men were confused, as they thought of themselves as feminists, but patriarchal masculinity had prevented them from really being in touch with their feelings.
Lahti also pointed out that Steinem didn’t become “woke” to women’s issues until she was 35 years old. “Before that, she didn’t really want to write about women, because she had internalized so much misogyny,” Lahti explained. “Black feminists taught Gloria everything about feminism. The media didn’t cover that, they wanted to interview the pretty white lady.”
Holland Taylor was passionate when she talked about Ann Richards, whom she only had the opportunity to meet once in person at a private lunch. “She was a very valuable figure in our culture,” Taylor said.
Taylor described Richards as the life of any party, who came alive around people. Referencing Richards’s political success as a liberal in red state Texas, Holland posited, “She was so loved in Texas because she did so much good in Texas.” When Richards passed away in 2006, Taylor says she felt it was a terrible loss for America, and her own grief inspired her to write the play, “Ann.” “I wanted to help keep Richards alive in our culture. She’s a folk hero, really. She was a leader with humor, warmth, strength and humility.” Taylor will also be performing the show again in Pasadena, CA later this year.
Asked what traits the two powerful women share, Lahti said she thinks both women wanted all human beings should be treated equally, and that government can be a good force for justice and equality and benefit people. Taylor offered that Richards “was all about truth and I think she would be stunned at the current collapse of the norms of government.”
Who do Lahti and Taylor see as leaders in the movement right now? The names Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Greta Gerwig were quickly mentioned, with Holland adding that the flood of women getting into politics now are leading the way forward.