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Category: Great Women

“Gloria: In Her Own Words”—Notes from a Young Feminist

| August 15, 2011

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Gloria Steinem at a news conference in 1969; Jason Laure/HBO

Our twenty-something commentator appreciates the HBO documentary, but also wishes for a deeper treatment of WMC Cofounder Gloria Steinem's philosophy and activism.

Near the end of Gloria: In Her Own Words, which premieres tonight on HBO, the title feminist quotes Susan B. Anthony when she says “Our job is not to make young women grateful, but to make them ungrateful.” Steinem insists onscreen, as she does personally and patiently to women who approach her on the street worried their daughters don’t know who she is, that this doesn’t matter “as long as they know who they are.”

But judging from the media surrounding the film Gloria Steinem may be the only person who isn’t worried. As Newsweek dramatically put it, few women under 30, “have even a flash of recognition” upon hearing the name Gloria Steinem. In fact, Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films and executive producer of the project, told The New York Times she made the film in part because few of her young staff recognized the famed feminist. The filmmakers didn’t set out to make a biography, Nevins says, but “an inspirational film on St. Gloria.”

The trope that young women don’t know Steinem’s name or legacy is repeated so often that I’m suspicious it’s yet another tactic to make the mainstream think feminism is dead, especially since it runs so counter to my experiences speaking on college campuses. I’m often asked if it’s true that I really know Gloria Steinem and my affirmative response is invariably met with squeals and excited whispers from the audience. That Steinem was on Time’s Most Powerful Women of the Past Century list this year and the answer to an SAT question two years ago further edge this into the “urban myth” category.

For those of my generation who genuinely don’t know who Gloria Steinem is, Gloria: In Her Own Words is certainly a better education about her and the 1970s feminist movement than they ever got in school. The young women with whom I saw the film last week gasped at the outright ridicule Steinem and her cohorts received from male newscasters for daring to even suggest women were discriminated against. My generation has grown up with the legal, if constantly imperiled and difficult to access, right to abortion and the ability to enter any profession we want even though we still don’t get the same pay as men. The film is a good introduction to, or reminder of, the entrenched sexism our foresisters had to battle to make sure we’re pretty much unaware that other injustices—like men-only bars and segregated job listings—ever even existed.

The filmmakers' straightforward biopic approach has many rewards. Filled with stunning archival footage of Steinem calmly disarming sexists on what seems like every major television show that’s aired since 1965, tap dancing in the elevator at the Ms. magazine offices and again for Barbara Walters years later, and addressing a rally on a van while wearing a mini-skirt, Gloria distills the 40-year media narrative surrounding the world’s most famous feminist into a neat and digestible 60 minutes. Its most poignant, authentic moments are when the images fade away and present-day Steinem looks into the camera to talk about her mother, whose career as a journalist was cut short by mental illness, her deep regret that her father died alone, and the depression she fell into after too many years of travel and too little introspection.

Viewers of any age who have heard of Gloria Steinem before will enjoy the refresher. But young women, especially those of us who consider ourselves active duty members of today’s feminist movement, would be better served with more information about Gloria the radical, forward-thinking activist that she continues to be than about “St. Gloria.” Learning that Steinem had to publicly deny dating Henry Kissinger is interesting if just for the ick factor, but it's more motivating to know, for instance, that she joined Dolores Huerta, Chicana feminists and striking farm workers in the mid-sixties on the 100 mile walk from California to Mexico to convince Mexican workers not to break the grape strike. The film touches briefly on her conscious decision to travel with African American speaking partners so women of color in the audiences could see their experiences reflected on stage. But it doesn’t mention that, schooled by her friend Cherokee Chief Wilma Mankiller, Steinem has spent the last 20 years learning and speaking about egalitarian original cultures as a real world model for non-hierarchical societies.

None of this is to say that Gloria: In Her Own Words doesn’t have a lot to offer audiences of any age. I was thrilled to see in it something rarely televised: a real woman aging and evolving onscreen, unabashedly. At 77, Gloria speaks with compassion of the younger, “vulnerable” versions of herself in the old news footage. To all us twenty-somethings who beat ourselves up for not having “made it” yet, it’s comforting to hear from someone who knows that life, and feminist activism, is truly a marathon and not a sprint.

Steinem has stated in interviews that she hopes people who see the film say, “Well, here’s where we’ve been over the last 30 or 40 years, where should we go in the next 30 or 40?” In those same interviews she distinguishes herself as a staunch ally to younger feminists. She refuses, for example, an invitation to bash young online activists and supports the international anti-sexual assault protest movement SlutWalk—insisting that young women know best what comes next on their agenda. To that end, she’s co-hosting with the Women’s Media Center an In Your Own Words Video contest that asks viewers to answer the question, “What do you think is the future of feminism and what will you do to get there?”

While Steinem wants younger women to define the future of feminism, it’s clear she will be a vital part of whatever that may be. She says she hopes to live to 100 and is far from resting on her laurels. Right now, she’s working on a campaign to save Korea's Jeju Island from the arms race and finishing a book on 40 years on the road as an itinerant feminist organizer, an aspect of her life she says is the “least public, but by far the most time-consuming and probably the most important.”

In other words, even if this is somehow the first time you’ve ever heard of Gloria Steinem, it certainly won’t be the last.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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