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A few words with Gloria Steinem

With a new HBO documentary, 'Gloria: In Her Own Words,' a memoir in the works and various speaking engagements, it's clear the longtime feminist activist has no plans to slow down.

August 13, 2011|By Deborah Vankin, Los Angeles Times
  • Gloria Steinem at the Beverly Hilton Hotel.
Gloria Steinem at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Over a recent breakfast at the Peninsula Hotel, Gloria Steinem is awash in pale, neutral colors. She wears a flowy white blouse, no makeup but for sheer, nude lipstick and soft, blond highlights still frame her face, as do her trademark aviator sunglasses. The neutral canvas catapults one accessory front and center: Steinem's words, which are unwavering and polished as ever.

"I'm old, but the movement is young," says Steinem, 77. "Every social justice movement has to last at least 100 years or it doesn't really get absorbed into society. We're only 30 or 40 years into this!"

As the face of the women's movement for more than four decades, Steinem has embodied myriad iconic roles — all of them powerful, if sometimes polarizing: the pioneering journalism "It" girl of the early '60s who went undercover as a Playboy bunny for an exposé, the spirited feminist revolutionary, the glamorous celebrity activist, the visionary editor who founded Ms. magazine.

All of those "Glorias" come alive in the forthcoming HBO documentary, "Gloria: In Her Own Words," which airs Aug. 15. The one-hour show, directed by Peter Kunhardt, is a survey of sorts of the women's movement as told through Steinem's own life and career. As such, all the expected moments are there: Steinem leading marches and speaking at protests ("utterly terrifying," she admits now); her aforementioned 1963 stint as a Playboy bunny ("I'm 77, and some men still introduce me as an ex-bunny!"); her string of high-profile boyfriends, Mike Nichols and Mort Zuckerman among them; the scrappy, early offices of Ms.; Steinem tap-dancing in the red, satin shoes she's kept since a teenager; the 1969 New York abortion hearing at which Steinem decided to become an activist ("Big light bulb moment for me").

Strikingly, the documentary has no narrator. Instead, Steinem's story is pieced together from thousands of old photographs, hundreds of hours of archival video footage and audio recordings, and one new interview — a laborious process that took over a year to stitch together.

"We wanted to capture what it was about Gloria that inspired a generation of women to fight for themselves" says HBO President of Documentary Films Sheila Nevins. "It's amazing how many women take for granted the things that Gloria fought for and accomplished. It was a way to make the younger generation celebrate her."

For young women today, pursuing a career might be a given — and the 1970s, a distant, hazy, freewheeling era to be grateful for. But Steinem insists we haven't come nearly as far as we think.

"We're constantly told how lucky we are," she says. "And it's true, because we happen to live in a rich country. But if we're talking about equality within that country, then we're nowhere near that. We don't have equal pay for the same jobs yet!" At this, Steinem's frustration is palpable; she occasionally raises a fist for emphasis.

Chief among her concerns these days is pushing for an institutional shift in how men fit into the workplace — or don't. "We can't go forward until men are raising kids as much as women are," she says.

Toward that end, Steinem is keeping busy as a working activist. In May she traveled to South Korea as the first woman keynote speaker at the global innovation conference, the Seoul Digital Forum. She lectures internationally and writes articles, continuing to stir the political pot, writing op-eds for New York Times and elsewhere. She's deeply involved with a number of organizations including Equality Now, the Ms. Foundation for Women and the Women's Media Center, which she co-founded with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan. Steinem is also currently writing a memoir she calls a "road book — 40 years on the road as an organizer."

Steinem says that feminism, as an active movement, is more alive than it's ever been. It's just bigger and more diversified today, and without a singular face — all good things, she says.

"The only reason people knew me or Bella Abzug or Shirley Chisholm or whoever was because we were like 12 crazy ladies. Now it's everywhere. But we're not 'news,' that's the thing — the new is always emphasized, even if it's small, like the 'tea party.'"

When asked if her efforts to help propel women into positions of political power could have paved the way for the Sarah Palins of the world, Steinem says, simply, "No."

She calls Palin "the modern-day [anti-ERA activist] Phyllis Schlafly"— and likens Palin's place in the Republican party to "black heads of the labor gangs" on plantations. "It takes the heart out of you to see someone who looks like you and behaves like them," she says. "It's very hard. But it's inevitable. Because you create jobs for people who will oppose the movement."

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