The Ms. Q&A: Katherine Brewster on Documenting the Fight for Civil Liberties and the Ongoing Struggle to Preserve Them

No modern rights can be taken for granted, says Katherine J. Brewster, president of BC Voices and executive producer of the new series “Stand Up, Speak OUT.”

In protecting the civil liberties that are still under attack, it can be easy to forget about the hard-fought battle to establish them in the first place. An ongoing docuseries by BC Voices, titled “Stand UP, Speak OUT: The Personal Politics of Women’s Rights” (SUSO), aims to preserve the stories of those who witnessed a turning point in the fight for women’s rights.

The series features interviews of Barnard College alumnae (‘71) who, along with their families, came of age in an era of social and political turmoil. The “Know Your Rights” segments cover the significance and evolution of issues like the pay gap and voter suppression.

Katherine J. Brewster, president of BC Voices.

“Stand Up, Speak OUT” Episode 1, titled “Equal Pay for Equal Work,” outlines the ongoing struggle to realize equal pay; Episode 2, released just prior to the Nov. 3 election, tackles voting rights—from no vote in 1789 to the 19th Amendment; Jim Crow to the 1965 Voting Rights Acts; 2013 Shelby v. Holder to voter suppression, today.

In following the sacrifices of activists as far back as the 1800s, the series stresses that no modern rights should be taken for granted. As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (quoted in Episode 2) said, failing to protect legislative advancements is like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

According to executive producer of Stand UP, Speak OUT and president of BC Voices, Katherine J. Brewster, the series will continue to release episodes into 2021 on topics like reproductive choice, affirmative action, sexual harassment and marriage choice.

Ms. spoke with Brewster about how her organization BC Voices and the “Stand Up, Speak OUT” docuseries came to fruition, and the impacts she hopes it has on future generations of activists.

(Screenshot from “200+ Years: American Women Fight and Rise“)

Sophie Dorf-Kamienny: Could you tell me about your background as a Barnard College alumna, and why your college experience was so impactful?

Katherine J. Brewster: Great question. I am a member of the Barnard College class of 1971, and we were freshwomen during the spring of 1968, when, as a result of issues around the Vietnam War and racist policies of Columbia University in relationship to the surrounding community, there was a strike. There was a building occupation and then a university-wide strike protesting these policies and these actions. It was partly stimulated by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.—that was the tipping point. 

And for many of us that was quite a seminal experience coming into freshman year of college. It’s kind of the first time you’re on your own, in many ways, making decisions about your life, possibly for the first time. And then we were presented with a very clear set of political issues. So that piece of our experience coming of age has seemed to us rather unique, looking at the span of history. 

So that’s one piece, and then the other piece is that, partly stimulated by all of the political activity, what’s called ‘second-wave feminism’ began to emerge. We were at the crest of this wave of shifts happening for women. And when we looked at that as a class, we said: We think we have an important story to tell. We have a story to tell about how the body of law that happened from 1954 to 1978 set a foundation for the lives of many many women. That just catapulted the lives of women over the past 50 years. These laws gave women of my generation  a foundation for an independent life that was unthinkable for previous generations of women – a political voice, economic independence, and, agency over our own bodies. 

Katherine J. Brewster in 1968, as a Barnard College freshwoman. (Screenshot from “Equal Pay: The Brewster Women“)

Dorf-Kamienny: And what inspired you to want to document these experiences and perspectives?

Brewster: We felt this was an important story to tell. It’s like trying to explain the benefit of having all these rights, which were the choices we were able to make in our lives. I think the younger generation might be asking, “Why would we want to fight for these laws? Why are they still so important?” And it’s because the kind of choices we’ve had—the opportunities, and the ways we could fulfill ourselves—weren’t possible before. So that’s how we set out to tell what it was like in 1968 for us, how our perspectives on life changed, and how we’ve been breaking barriers and creating new norms our whole lives.

That’s why we have the multigenerational stories, to try and get this sense of the past and current, and what the future is potentially going to look like. So the agenda was kind of a natural evolution from within our class, beginning to look back at our lives, that started as we began planning our 40th Barnard College reunion. And we thought maybe we do have something important to say.

Columbia and Barnard College students march in 1968. (Screenshot from “200+ Years: American Women Fight and Rise“)

Dorf-Kamienny: How did you bring this idea to life and establish BC Voices?

Brewster: Out of our first experience in 2011, in making the first documentary, “The Way it Was”… In 2012, we formed a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit corporation, BC Voices, to begin to be able to raise money, create an oral history collection of BC’71 alumnae, and then produce additional documentaries. 

I am the president and executive director of BC voices, and also executive producer of this series and “Making Choices, Forging Paths.” So I wear many hats. We are a small organization, but we are lean and mean. We have a board that is composed of four people, but then we also have five of us on the planning team who are doing the work of raising the money and producing the film.

In addition, a renowned panel of feminist scholars advise us on historical accuracy and diversity inclusion. And then, of course, there’s our fabulous filmmaker, Elisabeth Harris, who has brought our idea to life. 

Katherine J. Brewster (right) with her mother Anne (center) and daughter Ericka (left) in 2017. (Photo courtesy of Katherine J. Brewster)

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Dorf-Kamienny: And how did you shift from telling stories about your time in the 60’s to highlighting the issues that women are still struggling with today? When did inspiration strike for Stand UP, Speak OUT?

Brewster: That’s a great question. So the inspiration for this one struck me sometime in 2016 or 2017. We finished the second documentary, and I began looking back at our history. In the process of doing that, I was looking at laws that were passed. And I started to see from 1954 to 1978, this incredible shift, starting with Brown v. Board of Education, Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1964 & 1965 Civil Rights Laws, Roe v. Wade, and then the Fair Credit Act. As I started to look further, I had an epiphany that my generation of women has created adult lives in a whole different playing field, a unique one never before experienced by women.

Society hasn’t implemented these laws perfectly, at all, but this was a different playing field, out of which came such things as affirmative action, which gave women the ability to get in the door of high paying professional positions. And birth control pills, which gave women the ability to enjoy themselves sexually while also controlling whether or not to have children, how many and when. Revolutionary!

And I thought, it’s the fabric of all of these laws together that have made our lives so very different. This is an incredibly, historically different time period. Yes, there have always been unusual women, even starting from 1789. But that wasn’t the majority of women’s lives, they were very unusual given the circumstances of women in general. So, 50% of the population suddenly had the possibility of change.

And it’s the decisions that you make personally. Most of us think that our individual lives aren’t that important, but put them together collectively, and we’re the living history of the difference in women’s lives. Another generation of women may have come into life assuming that these rights are a given, if they’re not in jeopardy of being taken off the books. But I realized how many of the rights were at risk of being either eliminated or drastically eroded. Without these, no one else will have the kind of life that we’ve had. And how sad that would be, how sad and deadening for women.

(Screenshot from “200+ Years: American Women Fight and Rise“)

Dorf-Kamienny: So how did you decide which of those rights were most important for you to cover in your docuseries?

Brewster: The six that we identified are ones that we think are key to women’s opportunities and independence. We originally envisioned that the episodes would be really short videos that we could get out quickly when another woman’s issue came up. For example, equal pay, which was our first episode, was really big in the headlines in 2018, when we started. And the next one was actually going to be reproductive choices. But with what was happening with the erosion of, and the continued attempt to suppress, voting rights, we shifted our focus. And timing wise, we made it just under the wire before the election.

Dorf-Kamienny: Why did you decide to present the issues in this format, with an overview and multiple short interviews?

Brewster: The historical overview, Know Your Rights, wasn’t initially a really big part of it. But when you make a documentary, it becomes evolutionary. So the question became, “Are people going to understand these short videos if there’s no other context?” That’s when we went to the historical overview becoming important. There was this long fight, and that history provides a context for why we didn’t have lives the way we have them now.

And then the other piece, regarding the context, is to try and do justice to the racial and class differences in America that have made a big difference in women’s lives. And once it’s not just a story of white middle class women, we found that the historical overviews were getting longer and longer. But the personal stories and interviews were the original idea.

The individual stories bring women’s history to life, make it personal—show how women’s daily lives are different because of each one of the legal rights gained in the mid-20th century. The 3 generational conversations—women who grew up in the 1930s-1940s with women of the 1960s cohort with women of the 1990s-2000s or today– communicate what’s changed, what’s still the same, and how far we have to go for women to experience full equality.

(Screenshot from “Equal Pay: The Brewster Women“)

Dorf-Kamienny: I saw that one of the interviews highlighted your own family, including your mother and daughter. Was that your favorite segment to include?

Brewster: I’m not sure I even have a favorite because they’re all so well-done—each one of the speakers are well-spoken and I think the filmmaker did a great job in providing enough context that you understand the stories.

I think they all just tell a different aspect. It’s like a diamond, and you have different facets, and that is an aspect of our experiences as women… What we’ve discovered in showing this to people outside of the Barnard College community is that it doesn’t really matter whether we’re all from the same university. What we hear from women is: “Oh my god, that’s my story.” It doesn’t matter where they went to college or if they went to college. There’s a resonance that we’re tapping into, the collective experience of women.

Brewster with her daughter, Ericka. (Screenshot from “Equal Pay: The Brewster Women“)

Dorf-Kamienny: Do you think your experience and identity as a mother impacted the lens through which you viewed these issues and this series?

Brewster: I think, to me, it was really important that there be three generations included. As a mother, I think it was the insistence that there’s a story there to tell about what is the legacy that we’re leaving.

I’m also a single mother, and I’ve been a single mother since I was divorced when my daughter was three. So, the piece that is actually becoming more important to me that we tell is that of marriage choice. That’s huge.

Before our generation, women didn’t have as much of a choice to marry interracially, marry the same sex, or get divorced. In a previous generation, I would have had to have been remarried a long time ago. You couldn’t support yourself in any decent way. You could only live as a single woman, decently, If your family supported you through some kind of a trust; otherwise you were poor. From being a mom, having been married and divorced, and then not remarried— that’s probably one of the reasons why I’m becoming very passionate about exploring women’s marriage choices.

Dorf-Kamienny: So when you were creating these episodes, was reaching the younger generation your primary goal?

Brewster: It’s a great question. It’s been so challenging for us, because there are multiple audiences who we are producing for. In our own generation, when people have seen the videos, they go, “Oh my god, that was my life too.” It’s like a recognition of one’s life; owning, how we have had historically unprecedented experiences. 

The goal with the younger generation is to communicate, so that you do understand how important it is to fight for these rights. To know them and to fight for them, and to listen for what’s happening in your city, town, and the state or the federal level. 

The series is also about helping us respond to the increasing rate of climate change. According to Project Drawdown, educating women and girls and offering them family planning will have one of the largest impacts on moving human society to net zero carbon emissions. An educated woman has fewer children, knows what her rights are and fights for them, becomes politically engaged in society and takes on leadership roles.

(Screenshot from “Voting Rights: Know Your Rights“)

Dorf-Kamienny: You touched on this a little bit in terms of reproductive choice and marriage choice episodes, but what do you think are SUSO‘s next steps? 

Brewster: We’re just starting to fundraise for a reproductive choice episode, so that will be the next one. We are hoping, assuming we raise the money in enough time, we’d love to have it released no later than the end of May of 2021. It just always takes longer than you think. And so we need to raise $32,000 to be able to produce reproductive choices. We need about $6000 by January and then we need the remaining by the middle of February at the latest. And then then marriage choices would be after that, probably in December, 2021. 

The Voting Rights episode was underwritten by Craig Newmark Philanthropies. The previous episodes—the docuseries introduction and Episode 1: Equal Pay—were underwritten by donations from individual donors, many from Barnard College alumnae including the class of ’71.

(Screenshot from “Voting Rights: Know Your Rights“)

Dorf-Kamienny: And besides donating, what can a Ms. reader who feels connected to your series do to support Stand UP, Speak OUT?

Brewster: It’s very important to watch and share, because we’re not charging for this. So we are really dependent upon the whole network of people enthusiastically spreading the information through email and through social media. Anyone can stream it and use it as part of programming. We also have a Facebook, Twitter and an Instagram account. So people can follow us and put it out through their own networks as well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Sophie Dorf-Kamienny is a sophomore at Tufts University studying sociology and community health. She is a Ms. contributing writer, and was formerly an editorial fellow, research fellow and assistant editor of social media. You can find her on Twitter at @sophie_dk_.