Shining a light on trailblazing women

Psychology alumna Nancy Armstrong shares the stories of the modern American women’s movement to inspire future leaders.

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Imagine sitting down to talk with Shonda Rhimes or Christiane Amanpour. With Ruth Bader Ginsberg or Oprah Winfrey. With Diane von Furstenberg or Alice Waters.

What if they and more than 300 other leaders in business, science, entertainment, fashion, sports, politics, food, art, activism and more were all willing to share their experiences? What if they were all brought together in one space?

That’s the power at the core of MAKERS, a multimedia platform that includes the first documentary of the modern American women’s movement and the largest collection of women’s stories ever assembled.

Years ago when Nancy Armstrong, a native of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, who earned a degree in psychology from UW-Madison, learned that these stories hadn’t yet been told, she was floored. She was at an event in 2010 and met feminist icon Gloria Steinem, who spoke about the need to document women’s experiences, and Dyllan McGee, who was trying to get a project about the women’s movement off the ground. Moved by McGee’s mission, Armstrong joined as a senior producer and helped launch MAKERS with the goal of inspiring women to recognize and achieve their potential.

You’ve been an actress. You’ve worked in public relations. You’re raising kids. How have all these experiences informed your work on MAKERS?

The through-line of my career has been storytelling. As an actor, I was using myself as an instrument of storytelling; as a PR executive, I was helping companies and brands to tell their stories to key corporate publics; and as a producer, I use digital media to tell the stories of groundbreaking women who changed — and continue to change — the course of history in America. I’m inspired by stories that elevate the human condition, and teach us something about life and what’s possible if you dream big. Being a mom has also contributed to my work as a producer, in that it has been a profound and life-changing experience — one that really opens you up emotionally — and that quality is essential for great storytelling.   

Why did you want to be a part of documenting the women’s movement?

Despite my mother’s urging that I should forget about marriage and focus on a career, the lack of female role models made it difficult to envision a life for myself in which I could rise to the top — and that held me back. Looking back, I believe it had a similar effect on millions of women from my generation. As a mother of two girls, I wanted more for their generation. I thought it was so important for them to be able to understand the history of the women’s movement, what was accomplished and where we need to go from here. It was important for them to see and hear from the incredible women who broke those glass ceilings — and to be inspired by those stories of courage and determination.  

Being able to meet and interview so many of these groundbreaking women, to produce their inspiring stories and to leverage their legacies with the goal of inspiring the next generation of female leaders has been the honor and opportunity of a lifetime.

Why are the MAKERS so inspiring to others? 

Most of our MAKERS took big risks, with some working out, and some not. For many, there was a moment when things took a turn for the worse and failure was upon them. And what’s really moving and dramatic in any story is how that person pulled herself out — how she persevered, never gave up, never took “no” for an answer and emerged victorious. 

How has MAKERS grown since the first Emmy-nominated documentary aired in 2013?

We have evolved into a women’s leadership platform. Our MAKERS@ program is designed to help companies deliver on their publically stated goals of increasing the numbers of women in leadership positions in their respective corporations. And our third MAKERS Conference in February brought together hundreds of trailblazing leaders to shine a light on issues ranging from violence against women to inclusion of men — ultimately creating a bold agenda that flips the script and creates lasting impact.

What have you learned from MAKERS?

Growing up, I rarely thought about feminism and the women’s movement. Thirty years later, I fully understand how different my life is (from that of my mother’s) because of a small group of feminist leaders that literally shook the world order and demanded a society that treats women equally. They fought hard for a country in which women can follow their true calling, whatever that may be, and have an opportunity to rise to the top of their chosen field. Being able to meet and interview so many of these groundbreaking women, to produce their inspiring stories and to leverage their legacies with the goal of inspiring the next generation of female leaders has been the honor and opportunity of a lifetime. 

Tag: Psychology