Her assignment as a young freelance journalist wasn’t exactly telling of her talent or eventual influence. A piece on textured stockings. “I’m not sure I knew what feminism was,” says Gloria Steinem in “Gloria: In Her Own Words,” the one-hour HBO documentary about her remarkable life.
I guess she figured it out. Like the anecdote about Steinem’s early career, “Gloria: In Her Own Words” offers wonderful moments for viewers who didn’t grow up in the feminist icon’s era. Or who aren’t familiar with her personal history. Although I was a college student in the 70s, remember buying my first issue of Ms. Magazine, I still found surprises in this important, intimate documentary. (And I am not talking about her Playboy bunny expose in Show magazine, an article Steinem amazingly still regrets because it made her look unserious.)
It’s hard to overestimate how radical the women’s movement was. For instance, I had forgotten how sexist and condescending the media coverage was, when millions of women were demonstrating for such basic freedoms as birth control, the ability to have a checking account in their own name, the right to go to law school. It made me angry all over again. Not surprisingly, the journalists and talk show hosts mostly delivering those bone-headed remarks were male. To wit, the hilarious Gary Moore on the make-up of the movement: “Most of the women I see couldn’t lure me out of a burning building.”
But just as there are today, there were women who didn’t like the movement because they felt threatened by it. In one gut-wrenching scene, Steinem is on Larry King when he puts her on with a female caller. At first, the woman sounds tickled to speak to Steinem. Is this really her? she trills. But soon she launches into a tirade against the women’s movement, ending with a vicious attack. “Gloria Steinem should rot in hell for what you’ve done.”
One thing that comes across vividly in the documentary is how sensitive and low-key Steinem is. This is important for several reasons, but one because it plays against the stereotype of the raging, man-hating feminist. It’s almost funny given how much Steinem, who dated a bevy of attractive, smart, fascinating men, loved the opposite sex.
As for what drove Steinem to devote her life and career to feminism, I would have liked much more insight into that. There are hints in Steinem’s reflections on her hardscrabble Midwestern childhood, where she became caretaker of her mother, a “pioneering journalist,” after a “nervous breakdown.” Also, in her pivotal years covering women’s issues, including a birth control hearing in Congress. “I listened to these women testify about all the humiliation they had to go through to get an illegal abortion,” she says. But what sustained her profound and singular dedication to women’s rights?
While there is terrific footage of the women’s movement in the 60s and 70s, of Steinem in the early days editing Ms. Magazine--which CBS anchor Harry Reasoner snidely predicted would last five months--there is little about her life in later years, as the political movement began to lose steam. I was dying to hear her talk about the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Was that a huge blow? Does she still think it’s necessary?
I’d also like to have known what she thinks about the concerted assault on abortion rights in dozens of states--a right that galvanized the young Steinem to learn everything she could to advance feminism. I’d also like to have heard her talk about feminism today. Where does the movement need to go?
Clearly this calls for some kind of sequel: “Gloria: In Her Own Words, Part 2."
In the meantime The Women’s Media Center, which Steinem co-founded six years ago, is using the film as an opportunity to launch an inter-generational discussion about the future of feminism. To participate, here are some great ideas from WMC:
Gather friends and join the Women’s Media Center on August 15th at 9PM EST as we watch the premiere of the HBO Documentary, “Gloria: In Her Own Words." Gather some friends and learn about the past and future of the women’s movement. If you can't watch the show on Aug 15 here are the other dates: Other showings: August 18 (11am); August 20 (2pm); August 23 (1:15pm and 12:30am) and August 28 (5:15pm). It will also air on HBO 2 on August 17 at 8pm.
Join Us On Facebook: WomensMediaCenter.
In 140 characters, write on The Women's Media Center wall what you want the future of feminism to look like.
Join Us On Twitter: @womensmediacntr.
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