HBO’S ‘Gloria: In Her Own Words’ celebrates a woman in her own time
Gloria Steinem opens the door to her home. That simple gesture could not be more symbolic.
The most famous of the founders of the women’s movement has been opening doors of all kinds for more than 40 years.
To women of a certain age, those who marched in the streets demanding equal rights, Steinem is a hero. To girls who never questioned that they could play ball, she’s also a hero.
For those who don’t know who she is, and for those who smile at the mention of her name, watch HBO’s “Gloria: In her Own Words” Monday, Aug. 15.
The excellent documentary has footage of President Richard Nixon grumbling about her, George Burns coming on to her and the protests. It covers the story she did under cover as a Playboy bunny. She “learned what it was like to be on a meat hook,” she says in the film. “I regretted for many years I did it because it made me unserious.”
It traces her childhood with an adored father, emotionally fragile mother and constant money problems. It shows the meeting she was covering, as a young journalist in 1969, when women revealed their hideous experiences getting illegal abortions. That became a pivotal moment for Steinem.
She never grabs sole credit for what the women’s movement has accomplished. Steinem became the face of the movement when even the word “feminist” terrified people. While Bella Abzug and Flo Kennedy were abrasive, Steinem was reserved, and the camera loved her.
At 77, she looks fabulous. The long, frosted hair is shorter now but still parted in the middle. She wears brown slacks, a brown top and light makeup; the iconic aviator shades are gone.
Her Manhattan apartment, as one might expect of a writer’s home, is full of books and art from her travels, including carousel statues from India on the mantel. She had just returned from South Korea after working with women attempting to reunify the country.
Steinem answers whatever Zap2it asks.
Q: Do you see a committed next generation of feminists?
A: Yes, absolutely. There are infinitely more young women who consider themselves feminists. It’s clearly present.
Q: How do you react to those who say equal rights are fine, but they’re not feminists?
A: The word has been denigrated in the same way “liberal” has been by the ultraright. If you send them to the dictionary and they look it up they might say, “Oh, yeah.” “Womanist” is a great word. I love “mujerista.” Also, I just think if people understood what it means, 65 percent identify (with feminism) in polls.
Q: Are you surprised that abortion rights have been chipped away?
A: Just from knowing about the depth of patriarchy and racism, I began to understand this. If controlling reproduction is the reason or the root that women have to be controlled, men have been made to feel they have to have great paternity; they need more people in their race and nation. Q: How do you stay so calm? A: I come from the Midwest. I don’t want to characterize the Midwest. ... When I started out, I made a list of the things that frightened me about the peo- ple in New York. They say three times the things we wouldn’t dream of saying once.
Q: What’s your opinion of Sarah Palin?
A: If I had set out to make up an adversary, I couldn’t have done much better. In a way, it is not her fault. She was picked up by what pretends to be the Republican Party. If they had a woman, that was all that was necessary. They treat women in a general way, like any general constituency understands who stands for their issues and who doesn’t.
Q: Why do we need a women’s movement in 2011?
A: Because we do not have a democracy without it, because violence against women is the primary cause of violence in the world. It sets the paradigm for all other violence. You can predict violence by violence in the home. And for the sake of men, the woman man most fears is the woman inside himself. Men are deprived of the human qualities wrongly called feminine. So I would say we need a women’s movement for democracy, world peace and whole human beings.
Q: Have you ever seriously thought of running for office, since you were on that implausible 1969 Norman Mailer/ Jimmy Breslin ticket?
A: I never thought of running for office. It is a big stretch for me to speak in public. Until the women’s movement, it was not natural for me. If I ran for office, I would have to study and understand many issues that don’t interest me.
Q: Do you still tap-dance in elevators?
A: If there is an irresistible Muzak, I do still tap-dance.
Q: Do people stop you on the street?
A: Yeah. It’s wonderful. So far no one has stopped me to say, “I hate what you are doing!” ... I’m not crazy enough to think it’s me. It’s because I symbolize something important in their life.
Gloria Steinem is profiled in “Gloria: In Her Own Words” on HBO.