What We Learned From ‘Gloria: In Her Own Words’

Truman Capote wrote in his classic novella, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, “If you let yourself love a wild thing, you’ll end up looking at the sky.” It was Holly Golightly who so famously uttered those words, both in the story and in the film version in 1961, and it was also that character to which feminist icon, Gloria Steinem related. She even attributes the blonde streaks she put in her hair in the 1960′s as a tribute to Capote’s beloved, yet gorgeously flawed (and tragic) heroine.

I wasn’t even born yet when Steinem started her movement. And while I have always known who she is, and have associated her with feminism and women’s liberation, having not taken a proper course on her or even having read a single one of her books, I was, honestly, not completely aware. I know that my generation is just one, of all that will follow, who owe her a gigantic thank you, but having never experienced discrimination to the extent that generations of women before me had, I will admit that I’m a bit ignorant to the struggle.

Last night I watched the debut of Gloria: In Her Own Words, the new HBO documentary. Through old clips, interviews from then and now, as well as some shocking old footage as to just what anchormen were allowed to say on the air about women back then, I definitely got a well-needed lesson. One female news correspondent who said in regards to positions women fell into when they first entered the workforce: “Women had no problem adjusting to the dull tedious jobs, that men don’t want.” And of course, women doing these jobs were making half that of their male counterparts. Reasons for this were vocalized by men at the time – the late 1960′s to early 70′s: “Women can’t handle the responsibility that most men assume,” as well as, “Most women I think have a problem with concentration,” and the always favorite, and original, “a woman’s place is more in the home.” Whoever came up with this slogan obviously never spent a day slaving over a stove and cleaning dirty diapers.

It was in the negative backlash to women trying to make a way for themselves in the world, that Steinem realized, “that my experience was an almost universal female experience”. At the time, she was trying to make it as a serious journalist, but instead found herself with assignments like “writing about textured stockings,” something of which she considers a “low point” in her life.

While Steinem is regarded as the forefront to the women’s movement, she was just one of many. She and her supporters became the type of women men feared, citing “we are becoming the men we wanted to marry”. They were standing up for reproductive rights, composing literature to inspire and educate, and she eventually started Ms. magazine, with co-founder Letty Cottin Porgrebin. Steinem would later say she was “obsessed” with the magazine, and it was her “child.”

However, despite her effort to move the female gender forward in the hopes of attaining equality, she was not celebrated by all women. In fact, during an appearance on Larry King Live, a female caller, who first questioned Steinem’s marriage and motherhood status – she was both unmarried and childless – pretty much accused her of destroying the American fabric, and that she, Steinem, should “rot in hell”. Of course this was not the first, nor was it the last time that Steinem would face cruel and vicious opposition. Glenn Beck would quite famously make a vomit gesture every time he mentioned Steinem’s name. Beck is one for being original in showing his disdain for others.

Steinem did admit that several incidents such as this had hurt her so badly, that she was brought to tears, but she did point out that “I learned to use anger constructively”.  And she did; she continues on with her movement.

Steinem is 77 years old now, and she’s still one of the most important feminists in the world. She is constantly in the front lines to question and challenge inequality. She is a strong supporter of women who choose career over babies, and has even said “having children should not be such a deep part of the a woman’s identity.” And for the longest time she was not interested in marriage, saying early on in her career, that she couldn’t “mate in captivity.” However, all that changed when she met and fell in love with environmentalist animal rights activist, David Bale. They married in 2000 when Steinem was 66.

When asked about her change in attitude regarding marriage, she said:

“I didn’t change. Marriage changed. We spent 30 years in the United States changing the marriage laws. If I had married when I was supposed to get married, I would have lost my name, my legal residence, my credit rating, many of my civil rights. That’s not true anymore. It’s possible to make an equal marriage.”

For some the word “feminism” is one that’s equated with angry women who are pissed off and trying to make a scene. I’m not saying this because I agree, but because I actually have female friends who would never associate themselves with that term, no matter how feminist they just might be in their thinking. Fundamentally, it’s not about being unnecessarily angry, it’s about standing up and rocking the boat; perhaps yelling a little louder than one might like, just so you can be heard. Feminism isn’t just for the advancement of women, it stands for the advancement of all people. Societies that flourish, are the one that treat all people as equals. Steinem closed the documentary with this thought:

“I think being a feminist means that you see the world whole instead of half, it shouldn’t need a name, and one day it won’t. Feminism starts out being very simple. It starts out being the instinct of a little child who says ‘it’s not fair’ and ‘you’re not the boss of me,’ it’s something in us who knows that… and it ends up being a world view that questions hierarchy all together.”

Although we may never know the woman who called Larry King Live that day to tell Gloria Steinem to rot in hell, one thing is certain:  at least once in that woman’s life she has probably benefited from the women’s liberation movement. And while that mystery woman may not have even noticed that she had, because it seemed so small and insignificant at the time, that fact alone makes everything Steinem has done worth while. Even if we’re too busy living our lives, not a day goes by that someone doesn’t experience the Steinem effect. She may steer away from the word “icon,” and that’s fine if it makes her uncomfortable, but millions of us owe her a debt of gratitude for not only our future, but for the very spot where we stand at this moment.

You can reach this post's author, Amanda Chatel, on twitter.
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