Gloria Steinem Looks Back—and Forward

While a new HBO documentary focuses on her past achievements, the feminist icon is very much in the present

By Susan Toepfer
Gloria Steinem image
Photograph: Annie Leibovitz ©, 2010/ HBO

She is one of the most charismatic figures in our lifetime—and yet one of the most down to earth. Perhaps that’s the reason Gloria Steinem holds a special place in the hearts of women she has supported and inspired since she first devoted herself to the feminist movement in the ‘70s. Now, a new HBO documentary, Gloria: In Her Own Words (premiering August 15 at 9 PM EST), focuses on Steinem’s—and our own—remarkable journey.

On camera, Steinem speaks movingly of the loss of her father; a difficult childhood caring for an emotionally damaged mother who was “always lying down with her eyes closed, talking to herself”; and the cruel illness that took away her first and only husband, whom she married at age 66. Though she acknowledges that her physical attributes (she is still dazzling at 77) might have helped “break a false stereotype” of dowdy feminists, she still bristles at the notion that, after all her hard work, “the result is attributed to looks.” And scattered among the documentary’s insights (“A lot of my generation are living out the un-lived lives of our mothers”) and historical moments are such delightful surprises as Steinem tap-dancing in an elevator and flirting with an 86-year-old George Burns.

Just before the documentary’s debut, Steinem spoke to More about the movement’s past accomplishments and, more important, what’s ahead.

MORE: What do you consider the greatest feminist achievement in your lifetime?

Gloria Steinem: The contagion of the understanding that we are not crazy, the system is crazy. In my growing up we were made to feel that our position in life was due to biology or something else inevitable and if we weren’t happy there was something wrong with us. To realize the simple humanity of female human beings is huge. And just to question what had passed as logic. It’s still going on, mind you, for instance, people still say to me because women bear children, it’s logical that they should be the ones to raise them. I say if women spend much of a year or two bearing and nurturing a child, why shouldn’t men spend half the care-giving time, plus half the extra physical time spent by women? Logic is in the eyes of the logician. I wouldn’t have had the courage to say that before.

More: Your own greatest achievement?

G.S.: That is not for me to know. The art of behaving ethically is behaving as if everything you do matters. But the truth is we don’t know what will matter.

More: Has aging affected how you view things?

G.S.: It certainly has made a difference. With age, you get perspective. You are much more likely to say what you think. The time of maximum conservatism in women’s lives is when the gender role is at its peak. Once the role diminishes, you’re freer to become who you uniquely are. I think that when we’re children of 8, 9 or10 we are our own selves, and we’re saying it’s not fair, I’m going to climb that tree, then the gender role comes down at 11 or 12 or 13 and we’re saying how clever it is for you to know what time it is and all those things…and that lasts to something like 50 because culturally the so-called feminine role is about persuading women to have children and raise them by themselves.

So after 50, as Carolyn Heilbrun wrote in Writing a Woman’s Life, you become yourself again. She wrote about Virginia Wolfe and said at 50 she became a different person. That sense of your self  that you had as a child comes back, but now you have your own apartment, you can reach the light switch, that true self can act in the adult world. In a general sense, that’s why women get more radical as they age.

More: That age demarcation may be changing, though, because as women have children later, they’re still raising them at 50.

First Published August 12, 2011

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