GLORIA STEINEM: A FIERCE & INSPIRATIONAL WOMAN
FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
“It’s shocking, I know,” remarked GLORIA STEINEM, allowing herself a wry grin.
And for once, the author, activist and feminist icon isn’t talking about a case of gender inequity at home or a human rights violation across the globe. This time, she’s talking about her age.
GLORIA STEINEM is 77…and most people are even more shocked than she is. Not only because she barely looks middle aged, but because she is, in the minds of many, frozen in the 70s — a tall, slim, striking woman with long streaked hair (it’s still streaked, but shorter now) and those big aviator glasses.
But four decades have indeed passed since Ms. Steinem helped launch the women’s movement. And this summer finds her in a reflective mode: working on a book about her years on the road — a combination of essays and memoir — and promoting a new documentary celebrating her life. GLORIA: IN HER OWN WORDS premiered last night on HBO.
Nestled on a couch in her comfortable Manhattan apartment one recent afternoon, Ms. Steinem acknowledged that often such tributes come at the end of one’s life and career — and she has no intention of either ending any time soon.
But, she said, maybe this isn’t such a bad time to look back a little.
“My hope is this film will make people think: ‘It’s been 30 or 40 years. Where do we want to be 40 years from now?”’ Besides, she added: “I want people to realize that if a very imperfect person did this, maybe they can, too!”
That self effacing tone runs through much of what she says — she likes to stress, for example, that if she had never come along, the same progress for women would have been achieved anyway. Her admirers are not so sure.
“It would have been like Christmas without Santa Claus — she was the goddess of the movement,” stated SHEILA NEVINS, coproducer of the new documentary with PETER KUNHARDT, who directed.
“She doesn’t take credit, but I give it to her.”
One of Ms. Steinem’s most important qualities, said SHEILA NEVINS, is that she showed “how you could be the bull and the china shop — aggressive and gentle.”
She noted that growing up, she was taught to think a girl couldn’t be good looking and smart at the same time: “Gloria made me realize I could.”
Ms. Steinem, though, makes clear that being branded the beautiful sexy feminist was a double edged sword at best.
“It’s a problem we all share, getting identified by your outside looks. The most hurtful part is that you work very hard and people say it’s because of your looks.”
Ms. Steinem learned that lesson well before she became an activist — with her famous Playboy adventure in the early 60s, where she donned the bunny suit to go undercover for a magazine and expose degrading working conditions at The Playboy Club.
She deeply regrets the whole episode. “I could not have made a bigger mistake. It was personally and professionally a disaster. In the short term it was much harder to get serious assignments and in the long term it’s been used to ridicule me.”
She can’t escape the Playboy story: Recently she’s been asked by many journalists what she thinks of an upcoming NBC period drama about The Playboy Club. For the record: not much, though she hasn’t seen it yet.
“They were tacky, awful places to work,” she said of the clubs. “This will no doubt be a glamorized version.”
She also wondered why a TV interviewer recently used precious air time to ask about that long ago episode. She would rather have been asked about a NEW YORK TIMES op ed piece she had just written, about a controversial new naval base on Jeju Island off South Korea.
Such an issue may seem off the beaten path for Ms. Steinem, but she’s long been vocal about a wide range of international issues, like sex trafficking, genital mutilation or violence against women across the globe.
“I’m just not sure I believe in boundaries any more.”
At home, it won’t be surprising to see her weigh in on the 2012 presidential race, as she did in 2008 — opposing SARAH PALIN and decrying what she saw as sexist media treatment of HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, whom she supported over BARACK OBAMA in the Democratic primaries.
GLORIA hopes the current secretary of state might yet become president. “Many more Americans can now imagine a female chief of state because of her. After a second Obama term…”
For the documentary, producers amassed a treasure trove of film clips, photos and other tidbits that tell the story of GLORIA STEINEM’S long career.
We see a young GLORIA tap dancing in an elevator — it was one of her talents — and flirting with GEORGE BURNS in a TV interview. We also see some striking negative reactions to Ms. Steinem and her feminism: A vicious call from a female viewer on LARRY KING LIVE, telling her to “rot in hell” and advising her never to have children; or, more recently, conservative host Glenn Beck call her a “cranky feminist” and making a vomit gesture.
There’s also news anchor HARRY REASONER predicting that MS. MAGAZINE, which GLORIA cofounded in 1972, would fail (it’s still publishing today) and, perhaps most interesting, a segment from the Nixon tapes, with the former president dissing Ms. Steinem to Henry Kissinger.
Asked her biggest mistakes, GLORIA replied with a laugh: “How much time do we have?”
Turning serious, she mentioned her father. She did not travel to California to see him in the hospital after a car accident and he died alone.
“I had taken care of my mom as a child and I feared I’d never come back.”
She also wishes she’d “fought harder” for things she believed in. One of the choices she doesn’t regret, however, is not having children.
“I was in Mumbai at a women’s centre a few years ago and they asked whether I regretted that. I thought, ‘If I tell them the truth, I’ll lose them.’ But there was no point in lying and so I said, ‘No, not for a millisecond’ — and they applauded. Because they don’t have the choice.”
As for marriage, she surprised many when she married for the first time at age 66, to entrepreneur DAVID BALE, father of actor CHRISTIAN BALE. Mr. Bale died a few years later.
“I hadn’t changed — marriage had changed. We wanted to be together. We loved each other. And he needed a green card. But it was so lucky, because when he got sick, he was on my health insurance.”
The experience strengthened her commitment to same sex marriage.
Her greatest satisfaction, she said, is still when people come up to her — in the subway, on a plane — and tell her stories about their lives.
Like the man at the ticket counter at the Washington airport a week ago, who wanted to talk to her about his mother and all her accomplishments.
“It happens all the time.”
Though an agitator by profession, GLORIA spoke today of a new kind of contentment. She was in a taxi recently and her iPhone was out of juice, meaning she had time to look out the window.
“I was looking out and I had an amazing feeling of serenity, of well being. A sense that I don’t want a house in the country or anything I don’t have. I was feeling a unity, a oneness.”
What was that all about, her interviewer wondered?
“It must be my age.”