“Gloria, In Her Own Words,” a documentary about one of our nation’s best-known advocates for gender equality, taught me what it really means to be a feminist.
“Oh my God, I’m a feminist!” That’s what ran through my head as I watched “Gloria: In Her Own Words,” a documentary on the life of Gloria Steinem currently available on demand on HBO. When I first saw it listed, my reaction was, “Eh, don’t need to see that one.” But one evening while making dinner, I turned on the TV for background noise, selected it, and within minutes, was mesmerized.
Before that, I had always pictured 1970s-era feminists as man-snarling, romance-bashing, bra-burning sourpusses who succeeded in making some much needed changes for women, but at the same time, left men bleeding, wounded and unable to understand what in the heck we women wanted when it came to personal relationships.
That kind of collateral damage was never, ever Steinem’s intention. In her mind, a feminist was “anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.” She wanted to empower people — to have a world where each gender was seen as a whole, not as a half, and men and women embraced their differences, yet had equality.
Well, if that’s a feminist, sign me up. And what makes Steinem’s story particularly interesting is that she was single, making her an advocate for relationship status equality in an era when growing up and getting married, posthaste, was the norm.
She was not well-liked by the longtime-married Betty Friedan, the founder of the National Organization of Women (NOW) and author of The Feminine Mystique, who criticized Steinem for profiteering off the women’s liberation movement when she founded Ms. Magazine. Steinem defended herself and her publication, (which helped foster the acceptance of Ms. as a neutral marital status personal title), saying that Friedan wanted people to think the women’s liberation movement was hers — that Friedan was the mother of the movement.
“Feminists were seen as sexless, humorless, super-serious,” Steinem says. “I knew that would kill the movement, to be seen that way. I broke the stereotype by not being those things.”
Yes, Steinem was the pretty one, the one that dated, who was rumored to have had an affair with Henry Kissinger, the one who didn’t have children, who wore makeup and added blond streaks to her hair — and who fought tooth and nail to free women to live the kind of lives their mothers wished they could have had.
Steinem began her journalism career in New York City in the 1960s. Back then, she couldn’t get an apartment because landlords thought unmarried women were irresponsible — or hookers. She spent months sleeping on friends’ couches even though she had a job at New York Magazine, where instead of being able to write about politics, her editor had her cover fashion, food, cosmetics and babies.
She says that in those days, women accepted gender discrimination and sexual harassment as part of life. “My editor gave me a choice of meeting him in a hotel room or mailing his letters on my way out,” Steinem says. “It was something you had to find your way around in your own way.”
Trailer for the HBO documentary “Gloria: In Her Own Words” directed and produced by Peter Kunhardt.
But it was the abortion issue that finally pushed Steinem to realize her experience as a woman was not hers alone, but shared among millions. She had one when she was 22 and had never told anyone. When covering an abortion “speak-out,” she says she felt transformed. “One in three women in this country has had an abortion,” she says. “Before knowing that, I never felt part of a group. I began to understand that my experience was a universal female experience.” She says her life as a feminist began that day. When her editors wouldn’t allow her to write about gender equality issues, she started speaking at feminist gatherings and found her place as a leader in the women’s liberation movement.
In interviews, Steinem was often asked if she wanted to get married. She would say she didn’t want to wed right then, but maybe in a couple of years. That postponement kept moving further and further into the future. She’s known for quipping, “I can’t mate in captivity,” and says she identified with Audrey Hepburn’s free-spirited character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s — particularly when she says, “I’ll never let anybody put me in a cage.”
Still, she enjoyed many long and short-term romantic relationships and did get around to marrying — when she was 66 years old — to David Bale, who was seven years younger. Steinem’s friend Wilma Mankiller (yes, really) the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, performed the ceremony. Steinem says she didn’t tell anyone, and they never got around to calling each other husband and wife. Their marriage was sweet but brief. Bale was diagnosed with brain lymphoma, was ill for a year, and died three years after they married. “We loved each other,” Steinem says. “He was an irresistible force and it was the first time I felt utterly in the present.” (You will see him with Steinem in one of the many rare clips in the documentary.)
Steinem’s insight and brilliant quotes sometimes surface as Facebook “postcards,” often without attribution. And I wonder how many women, like me, don’t even realize what she did for us and what she accomplished — not just for women, but for single women who, despite receiving the benefit of the en masse efforts of second-wave feminists, still remain suspect because they are single.
“Women show their power by getting men to fall in love with them,” Steinem once said. Maybe it’s because we ourselves, as women, are not willing to let go of our need to compete or because we just can’t let go of the idea that our strength is determined by the status of the man we claim as ours. As Steinem also said, “Far too many people are looking for the right person, instead of trying to be the right person.”
Nevertheless, single women continue to thrive. Some will form a life partnership and some will not. But regardless, thanks to people like Gloria Steinem, we are learning we don’t have to look outside ourselves in order to be complete.
Copyright © Kim Calvert/2015 Singular Communications, LLC.
Kim Calvert is the editor of Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. An outspoken champion of people who are living their lives as a “me” instead of a “we,” Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful single living.
Singular Steinem Quotes
“A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
“A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.”
“I can’t mate in captivity.”
“Some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry.”
“The first resistance to social change is to say it’s not necessary.”
“The truth will set you free. But first, it will piss you off.”
“Women’s total instinct for gambling is satisfied by marriage.”
“I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career.”
“Men should think twice before making widowhood women’s only path to power.”
“The art of life is not controlling what happens to us, but using what happens to us.”