Photo from artnet.com
I’ve been eager to see the new HBO documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words, and last night I finally had the chance. The hour-plus film looks back at the life of activist Gloria Steinem, now 77, taking us through her evolution from freelance journalist to face of the second-wave feminism movement.
Even if you’re already familiar with Steinem’s story, the film is an education and wholly satisfies with rarely-seen footage and stunning archival news clips that remind us what was at stake in the women’s movement – and how much the culture owes to it today. Not only in terms of women’s rights. The film looks at how Steinem was among those who worked to expand feminism to include all people experiencing inequality, including gays and lesbians. With the recent passage of same-sex marriage in New York, it was a timely reminder of how far we’ve come – and how we got here.
What also struck me was how many of the archival news clips played now like comedy. We hear a man proclaim as biological fact that women aren’t capable of doing the same work as men because they “have a problem with concentration.” We see President Nixon bristle at the burgeoning honorific Ms. (now so widely used). And we hear broadcaster Harry Reasoner predict the quick demise of the newly launched Ms. magazine (What could they possibly have to say beyond one issue?). He later apologizes when the magazine – which of course lives on today - sells out three-months’ worth of copies in one week.
I appreciated that film took us beyond the “feminist icon” caricature we’re accustomed to getting. We see Steinem’s sharp sense of humor, see her tap dancing in the elevator at Ms. magazine and later in an interview with Barbara Walters. It all serves to humanize Steinem, who talks candidly about her personal struggles and vulnerabilities. She explains her trademark aviator glasses were a sort of armor she hid behind. She reveals how painful some of the public criticism could be – an Esquire piece that took personal aim at her, an obscene painting of her likeness that was hung publicly. And she lets us in on the darker chapters of her life – a dysfunctional childhood, depression, breast cancer, her husband’s death.
I was particularly excited to see the documentary because I interned at Ms., more than a decade ago. I can remember the quiet thrill of sitting in on my first editorial meeting, Steinem sitting cross-legged on the floor next to me (the magazine had just moved into a new downtown office and furniture had yet to arrive). I was so painfully shy and nervous, I could barely speak coherent sentences when asked to weigh in on this issue or that upcoming article. I just remember sitting transfixed as Steinem artfully, succinctly articulated one point or another, waving her long, thin hands for emphasis. Whenever I had the chance I’d slip into the magazine archive, leafing through old issues and feeling a sense of history unfolding right in my hands.
While the film would have been well-served by interviews of Steinem’s confidantes or others who took part in the movement and launch of the magazine, I could appreciate it for what the title promises. It is, in fact, her story, in her own words.
Watch the documentary if you can. Meanwhile, check out this great clip of Steinem on the Colbert Report. Says Steinem: “We know that women can do what men can do, but we don’t know that men can do what women can do…it’s really important that kids grow up knowing that men can be as loving and nurturing as women can.”