Gloria Steinem: Trailblazer for the Ages

Gloria Steinem: Trailblazer for the Ages

Since the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last week, it may be more important than ever before to celebrate feminist warriors   Julie Taymor’s new film, The Glorias, recreates the exciting life and turbulent times of trailblazer Gloria Steinem, an advocate for women’s rights since the 1960s. Writer-director Taymor felt so strongly about Steinem’s impact that she has cast four actresses to play her.
Julianne Moore portrays the mature Steinem, Ryan Kiera Armstrong is Steinem the child, Lulu Wilson is Steinem the teen, and Alicia Vikander is Steinem in her twenties and thirties. All four actresses do her proud, especially Oscar winners Moore (Still Alice) and Vikander (The Danish Girl), who energize Steinem’s historical journey and journey of history.  And what a journey it was, going from career in journalism to going undercover as a Playboy bunny to expose sexist working conditions, co-founding Ms. Magazine in 1972, and partnering with New York Representative Bella Abzug (played by Bette Midler) to create the National Women’s Political Caucus.

In adapting Steinem’s 2016 memoir, “My Life on the Road,” Taymor, the visionary director of Broadway’s “The Lion King,” places on a “bus out of time,” all four Steinems together to discuss their agendas  It’s a bold strategy that emphasizes Steinem’s crucial role of a distinctly female collective, in which an individual triumphs as part of a surging whole.

It’s no surprise then that the real Steinem begins the interview with discussing RBG: “She was a friend, because we’re of similar age (Ginsburg was 87; Steinem is 86). I had not seen her nearly enough in recent years but I have known her from ACLU days, and I actually once had a wonderful tea time with Ruth in her amazing offices in the Supreme Court building.”

Though Ginsburg has been ill for a long time, the news of her passing was still shocking: “I was devastated, I somehow had convinced myself that she was immortal (laughs), and I don’t think I’ve fully dealt with it yet. But I have two things to say, one is immediate, which is we have to make sure that, as she said, this president does not nominate her successor, that we wait until after the election. And second, that we keep her alive in our own lives by just thinking what would Ruth do (or would have done) in new crises.”

“Ruth was amazing, kind of a miracle, because she was a movement before there was a movement.  She was always at least a decade in advance of everybody else at Harvard Law School, then at Columbia, then ACLU where she was inventing the Women’s Rights Project.  The first thing she sent me to do was to interview Fannie Lou Hamer, who had been sterilized without her knowledge in the hospital where she went for something else, and Ruth had a case to support two teenage girls who were threatened with sterilization because they were on welfare.  She was always, always, in advance every step of the way.  That’s a miracle.”

“There is not a single Republican judge who could be a decent successor to Ruth. I don’t see any, and neither did she.  She made it very clear before she died, that she wanted the next administration to be nominating her replacement, not this one.  And we are so close to the election that it makes sense, and all it takes is for four U.S. Senators to say No to Trump, to tell him that we have to wait until after the election.”

We Don’t Start as Organizers, or Fantastic Women

Like Taymor, Steinem feels that The Glorias is not only timely movie, but a good companion piece to RBG, the acclaimed feature abut Ginsburg that was nominated for the 2019 Best Documentary Oscar.  She says: “You know we don’t start out as fantastic or important women. We become such women, it’s a process. Certainly, we’re just trying to do what we love and care about in the midst of all kinds of bias and obstacles. So I hope that my story causes people to both tell and trust their own stories.”

She elaborates: “I was not trained to be an activist, or an organizer, I thought I was just going to be a journalist, peacefully writing about all kinds of issues. But then I realized that, when you see something that needs changing, if you just act on it, you gradually become an organizer. And then you find friends and comrades and a movement that becomes your chosen family. There was nothing more rewarding for me that that.”

Asked about turning points in her life, Steinem says: “That’s very difficult question to answer, because my life was like a series of breakthroughs.  When I think about the part that Alicia Vikander plays, I think about India because going there right after college taught me that the world was not like our Dear United States.  The trip to India introduced me to the world, introduced me to a women’s movement and an independence movement. It made me aware that people sitting around a fire and telling stories could change history in their own country. And if they could do it, why not do it in my country?  And I think that Taymor also had an experience in her own life, escaping to South Asia that changed her life radically.”

Steinem firmly believes that “We don’t learn from sameness, We learn more from difference, and who doesn’t want to learn.  I was sitting there thinking ‘how did Julie know what I learned in India, because I don’t think it was in my book that I was learning from third-class women in railway cars, who were just having conversations.  That scene with Alicia in India, I don’t think it was in the book, so it’s like extraterrestrial communication somehow.”

In the movie, Taymor is using devices that were nowhere in the book, especially that of the Greyhound Bus, which was populous and accessible. Everybody can imagine being there, different people and even the same person with different ages of me could be talking to each other on that bus.  You could look out the window and see entirely different world. This was genius on the director’s part.  I don’t think I have ever seriously used the word genius about anybody, but Julie comes close to it. We may like each other too much” (laughs).

A graduate of the prestigious Smith College, Steinem still believes in single-sex education: “There are many benefits to single-sex education because the politics of the classroom is such that you’re just focused on what you’re learning, everybody gets called upon, and I believe in it much more now than I did then, because in the 1950s, my class was entirely white.  There was not one black student in my whole class. When I arrived I asked the Dean of Admissions, Why?’ and he–a guy of course–said, ‘because we have to be very careful about admitting young negro girls’ (negro, not black, was the word used). He said ,’there aren’t enough educated negro men to go around.  I rest my case, that was the 1950s.  Smith is very different now, much more diverse, they even allow trans, but I think it’s still helpful for girls to have the option of an all-women’s campus.

Writing the nook and then watching the movie made Steinem more meditative, more self-reflexive: “The scenes with my mother made me return to a painful and important place, which is what might have been.  I think we all have some version of that in our families or around us.  I think of all the people of enormous wisdom and talent, who just could not use their talents in the ways that I and other women did.”

She explains: “It took me a while to wrote about this, because we are so fearful deep inside that it will happen to us that we otherize our parents and think that’s a special circumstance. And it took me a while to really deeply think about the sadness of what could have been and to think about the universes inside our parents, our relatives, that could have been, and to try to do my best to minimize these terrible worlds of what could have been. All my life, I’ve tried in every way I can to move forward, to follow my instincts, to support each other to do what we care about, and not to opt out of our individual lives.”

How does Steinem perceive herself these days? “I am not an icon; I am a human being. You don’t think of yourself as an icon, I don’t think of myself as an icon.  But I am very grateful to be kind of raw material for a movie by Julie Taymor. How much greater could it be? I loved her films, Across the Universe and Frida, I just trusted she would get the real thing on screen, because she reveals the emotional truths of my life in a specific and vivid mode that is was way, way, beyond anything I could have done on paper.”

Mrs. America–Unrelievedly Terrible, Unrelievedly Wrong

Steinem make no bones of disliking the recent award-winning series, Mrs. America: “It was unrelievedly terrible, and unrelievedly wrong. I read two of the scripts and they asked me if I wanted to get involved and I said, ‘Are you kidding, the premise is false, so absolutely not.’  If you go online, you’ll find something I co-wrote about Mrs. America with Ellie Smeal, because it was factually wrong. I don’t mean the actors were not doing their best.  It was the premise of the series that was totally wrong, because Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett), as far as anybody knows, changed not one vote about the Equal Rights Amendment; it was all about economic interests, the insurance companies defeated it.  Unfortunately, the show made it seem that women were our own worst enemies, but we always had enemies that were worse than other women.”

As expected, Steinem is critical of the current administration: “Clearly we have a virus in the White House named Donald Trump, and this is a real threat.  And clearly we have something like a fourth of the country that wants to go back to the old hierarchy.  But the truth is, that the majority of the country, if you look at public opinion polls, agrees with all the basic premises of all the great social justice movements and the environmental movements. That’s a huge victory, at the same time that we have a backlash from a powerful minority.  So we’re not going to stop, that’s my real lesson, we’re not going to stop.”

The only way to combat, she holds, is to vote: “Voting isn’t the most we can do, it is the least we can do.  It is the only place on Earth in which everybody is equal.  And Taymor’s movie is meant to inspire people to vote. Influential politicians and other people are already using The Glorias for benefits, for fund-raising, for all kinds of ways to get out the vote.  With a majority vote, we will have a new administration.”

As for the Women’s March, Steinem says: “That unity and energy was after defeat, after we had lost that election.  So marching now is a great source of unity as it was then, and it continues to be and that’s why it’s wonderful to see so many people in the street.  Many people now aren’t working, so they have more time to go out and march out in the street.  And we need to use whatever we can in terms of our economic resources. We can tell our values by looking at our checkbook stubs.  It’s not interesting to die with money, who wants to die with money, let’s use the money we have, whatever we have, to make change now. And to do it collectively with other people so that we have some fun. We can dance and make jokes and be encouraged, we are communal animals, we need each other.  That’s the real joy of doing it together.”

Steinem is hopeful about the new generation: “I am so glad to see younger women, because I feel that we have a lot to bring each other. I am perhaps a bit more optimistic because I’m old enough to remember the time when it was worse.  The young women “Are Mad as Hell, ” to quote a line from the movie Network, because it’s not right now.  That’s why we need to organize together.  I am really glad because I just see the future when I look at them.”

Gloria as Private Woman? Of Men and Cats

Pop culture can be negative, even sick, she says, referring to Netflix controversial series, Cuties, about the sexualization of young girls: “You have got to have children see movies that make a difference, whether it was years ago, and we have a possibility as Americans to see movies from all over the world, but we don’t. I did when I grew up, I saw many foreign films, that’s what made me, Rashomon by Kurosawa, the Fellini and the Bergman movie. That’s not happening in our culture now.  So it’s really sad when it’s all about the buck, the opening weekend at the box-office.  Streaming changes that, doesn’t it, cause there is no opening weekend, and people are watching more things about real people than they used to.  So maybe it will turn a little better.”

The Internet is a useful means up to a point: “You can’t eat the internet, you can’t like a friend on the internet, you don’t have all five senses on the internet. Fuck the internet I say (she laughs at her own use of the F bomb word). I mean we have to use it for communication, and it’s a gift because we can communicate safety at home, so I am not knocking the Internet down completely.  But if we don’t press in, we haven’t done anything, so we have to use our money, our contents, whatever we have with all five senses to actually make change, not just tap on keys passively.”

Steinem says: “I was sort of equally thought as loving-men too much and hating-men too much. It makes no sense.  I mean, men are people, they too are all human beings.  The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn. I hope that maybe that’s what COVID-19 is teaching us since the virus doesn’t pay attention to race, gender, class, national boundaries. Of course, its impact is terribly different according to how much money on health care and housing you have. But it actually doesn’t label people. So perhaps the pandemic will be a portal through which we learn to relinquish those labels.”

As for the small joys of life, she says: “I still have a cat as part of my life, but because I’m now in California, my cat has moved to Brooklyn for a while. I love dogs, and I would love to have a dog, but I travel too much to be able to properly have them. What gives me joy in my life is just getting up in the morning having a cup of coffee, sitting down at my desk with my crazy yellow pads that I still use, walking around the corner for a bran muffin, seeing my friends, dancing to music when nobody’s watching, all of those little crazy things.”