‘American Masters: The Women’s List’ Is Finally Here: Interview With Director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

by Erika W. Smith


Need Friday night plans? We’ve got you covered. Tonight, tune in to PBS to watch American Masters’ The Women’s List, a documentary spotlighting 15 women who have made their mark on modern American culture, including Madeleine Albright, Margaret Cho, Betsey Johnson, Alicia Keys, Nancy Pelosi, Shonda Rhimes and Rosie Perez.

The Women’s List is the latest in filmmaker/photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ List series, following The Black List, The Latino List, The Out List and others. We called Greenfield-Sanders to talk about The Women’s List, how Toni Morrison got involved and why he calls himself a “lifelong feminist.”

You began your List series with The Black List back in 2008. How long has the idea for a Women’s List been in the works?

The idea for a Women’s List really started early on. The time we were making The Black List coincided with Hillary running for president. I was watching that unfold and was astonished by the misogyny and by the way she was being treated in the media, by other politicians and by everyone. It made me think there was a need for a Women’s List.

You have such an interesting mix of women included. They’re different ages and races, some are very famous and some are known in their fields but aren’t household names. How did you choose which women to feature?

It’s always a difficult juggling act. We get started with a wish list and from there think who we could actually get to. We start with someone who other people will want to do a film with. Madeleine Albright was that person. She was one of the earliest, and she was someone I’ve known a long time, having photographed her for her books. That’s how the process works, and then you want a mix of occupations and ethnicities. It’s not easy.

Gloria Allred and “American Masters: The Women’s List” filmmaker/photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on the set of “American Masters: The Women’s List.” Credit: © Greenfield-Sanders Studio

The women included also cover a wide range on the political spectrum. You have some women who are really embraced by feminists, like Toni Morrison, and others who are more controversial figures, like Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx. Was that a conscious decision?

Yes. I think to try and understand different approaches to being a women in America today is what the film does, through the eyes of these very different people. You look at someone like Gloria Allred, who has a long history of fighting for people who have nobody who will fight for them, you want that because her career sends a strong message, even when you don’t agree with her. 

Toni Morrison wrote the introduction for the Women’s List. How did she get involved?

You can’t just start a film with 15 people – you need something, some sort of prologue. And Toni and I have been friends for 35 years. I did her portrait back in 1980 for the Soho News cover, and we’ve stayed friends. I’ve done all of her book covers. She was the first guinea pig for The Black List. When I didn’t know quite what it was or how it would unfold, Toni agreed to sit for an interview. I reached out to her a few months ago and asked if she would consider writing something, about a minute long, and reading it. And I lucked out!

With many of your lists, like “The Women’s List” and “The Black List,” you’re telling the stories of groups that you yourself aren’t a part of. How do you approach that?

With sensitivity. It’s always been the case with the List films that the person who did the interviews was part of that community. With The Black List, it was Elvis Mitchell; with The Latino List it was Maria Hinojosa and Sandra Guzman; with The Out List, it was Sam McConnell. With The Women’s List, we reached out to Sandra again because she’s such a great interviewer. I’ve always felt that my role is the person who makes these things happen, who has the connections to get people on television, who can understand what issues should be talked about, but I feel that it’s much more comfortable for the subject to have someone that he or she can relate to.

In the press release, you say that you’re making “The Women’s List” as a “lifelong feminist.” Can you tell us about that?

Back in the ‘50s, when I was a boy, my mother started the first integrated school for music, art and dance in Miami, Florida. She was very much her own person, and very much supported by her father to do it. Her role back then was remarkable. My wife is certainly a very involved feminist, as are my two daughters. I surround myself with deep thinkers.

So we know where you stand on that question, “Can men be feminists?”

I think it’s a silly argument. Of course you can.

Nia Wordlaw and “American Masters: The Women’s List” filmmaker/photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders on the set of “American Masters: The Women’s List.” Credit: © Greenfield-Sanders Studio

What do you hope viewers take away from “The Women’s List”?

First of all, it’s entertaining, which is good because you want to be able to watch the whole thing! I think it’s riveting. We love storytelling, and these are very powerful stories, each different from the next. You’ll come away from it understanding 15 women better and maybe finding some connection to yourself. Do you have any personal favorite moments? I’m not allowed to do that! I have lots of them. It’s always interesting to find someone who’s unknown, and I think our pilot, Nia Wordlaw, is the one in this film. She’s a fabulous surprise to meet, and you’ll see what I mean when you watch her.

The Women’s List airs on PBS on Friday, September 25 at 9pm.

Image and videos via “American Masters.”

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