Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Makers: Women in Business (PBS, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched the PBS broadcast Makers: Women in America, a segment on “Women in Business,” and while it suffered (as did the only other episode in the series I’ve seen, “Women in Comedy”) from a bad case of first-itis — I’ve never forgotten Katharine Hepburn’s complaint to Garson Kanin about “the women’s liberation movement — I’m for it, of course; I just wish they didn’t come off like they started it all!,” and the Makers series suggests that there weren’t powerful, assertive women anywhere in the working world until the 1960’s. Not true, though given that I’m much more interested in popular culture than the business world I don’t have the names of powerful women pre-1960’s who were material successes in business (aside from a handful of people like Hetty Green, who made it into the popular culture mainly because she was famously miserly and a biographer wrote a book called The Day They Shook the Plum Tree about how her heirs, who were anything but miserly, ran through the fortune she had carefully and painstakingly assembled). The story started with one of my personal heroines, advertising executive and agency owner Mary Wells — despite the Mad Men stereotype advertising, according to this program, was actually more women-friendly than most businesses in the 1950’s because a large part of their task was figuring out how to sell products to women, and the males who ran the top agencies realized that it might actually help them do that if they had a few women in their own ranks — and runs through a bevy of powerful women who fought hard to get themselves into the all-male club most of the business world was then. Perhaps the most inspiring story on the show was that of Muriel Siebert, who fought an eight-year legal battle for the right to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange (and incidentally ran for the U.S. Senate as a Republican for Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s seat, losing the GOP primary to another woman, Assemblymember Florence Sullivan, who lost to Moynihan in the general), though some of the people profiled were creepier: among them were Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina, both of whom were also failed Republican candidates for public office (and I found it astonishing that Fiorina was here lionized as the pioneering woman CEO of Hewlett-Packard — not mentioning that she ran the company into the ground and the current board has tabbed Meg Whitman to be the corporate savior!) and ending with Sheryl Sandberg, second-in-command to Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and author of a controversial book called Lean In: Women,Work and the Will to Lead, which has been attacked by old-line feminists basically for saying that the corporate world is what it is and women need to learn to be successful in it on its terms instead of trying to remake it.