Gloria Steinem on the Acts of Rebellion That Have Defined Her Life
Legendary feminist and human-rights advocate Gloria Steinem takes a rare step into the spotlight with an upcoming play and movie about her exceptional life.
Laura Brown: Gloria! Am I correct in assuming you’re as busy as ever?
Gloria Steinem: I always thought the idea about age is that life gets less complicated, right? Or simpler. No, it’s cumulative, it turns out [laughs]. Who knew? Nobody told me.
LB: With the new play, Gloria: A Life, there will be another you. I was thinking about what it must be like to witness a play about your life and be portrayed by someone else.
GS: Kathy Najimy, who is a friend, director, and actor, said to me around three years ago, “You should do a one-woman play.” I said, “Oh, be serious now.” I couldn’t imagine! [laughs] But she went to see Daryl Roth, and Daryl — a very wise, experienced producer — said yes. We did a few days of workshop from which I learned that I could not possibly do it. I mean, it’s taken me to past 40 to feel OK about getting up and talking publicly because I’ve been two things in my life: a dancer and a writer. I went to a speech teacher when I was first trying to speak in public, and she said, “Of course you can’t talk; you’ve chosen both of those [professions] because you don’t want to talk.” She ended up giving up on me.
LB: You’re kidding! So you were 40 at this point?
GS: Yes. Clearly, it was very difficult then [in 1974] to get any accurate or serious articles published about the women’s movement, but since that was what my column in New York magazine was about, I received invitations to speak. So I asked my friend Dorothy Pitman Hughes, who ran one of the first nonsexist multiracial childcare centers and was a great organizing person, if she would come with me. So that was the beginning, and when she had a baby and wanted to stay home more, Florynce Kennedy and I [traveled] together for years, and then Margaret Sloan-Hunter.
LB: Did you get stage fright?
GS: Yes, the physical manifestation was that I lost all my saliva, and each tooth got a little angora sweater on it [laughs]. But to do it together was comforting because I realized that if I totally fucked up, there was somebody else there. Also, especially with Florynce, I had to go first anyway because I would’ve been an anticlimax after her. And we didn’t think, “Oh, it’s good if one white and one black woman do it together.” It just happened, and it became apparent how important that was, especially in the South.
LB: Right, to be represented. When was the first time the training wheels came off?
GS: Well, I don’t know that the training wheels came off [laughs]. Although, after a while, I can do it by myself. But the most enjoyable part, which relates to the play, has always been the audience discussion. Act 2 [of Gloria] is not a talk back about the play; it is a talking circle.
LB: Because that’s how you’ve engaged with people throughout your life.
GS: It always works. And in the rare case in which someone gets up and talks for too long, someone else will say, “Sit down.” It takes care of itself. I have such faith in it, and it is our original form of government. We’ve been sitting around campfires for millions of years for a reason. There will be different organizers who come in to be part of the talking circle. I’ll do it in person, onstage, when I can.
LB: How does it feel to be outwardly represented? Christine Lahti is playing you in Gloria, and Julianne Moore is playing you in Julie Taymor’s upcoming film, My Life on the Road, based on your book. Is that strange at all?
GS: Christine is more animated than I am, so I don’t know, but whatever it is, I have faith. We both are also from the Midwest and came to a sense of ourselves later because of our age. She’s younger than me, but still.
LB: Do you remember a moment or an experience when you were “in your bones”?
GS: Well, I was always rebelling in a sense in that I didn’t get married to the man I was engaged to. I went to India instead of getting a job. I was individually rebelling, but I was hoping no one would notice. I assumed I was going to have to do what I was supposed to do in order to have children and lead someone else’s life, so I was just putting it off.
LB: Right, you’re like, “Hey, if I go to another land, no one will ask me.”
GS: I also felt like an outsider from this system, and my family was very unconventional too. They were also rebelling secretly, I think, hoping no one would notice [laughs]. So it didn’t come together until I went to cover an abortion hearing for my column in New York magazine [in 1969]. The New York state legislature had organized a hearing on whether to liberalize New York state abortion laws. And they had invited 14 men and one nun to testify.
LB: Hmm ... something’s missing there.
GS: So a group of women had gathered together to talk about the real experience of having to enter a criminal underground in order to get an abortion and what had happened to them. At that point one in three American women, and now one in four, needed an abortion at some point in their lives. Why is it criminal and dangerous, and why are we not talking about it? It was the first time I’d experienced women talking about something that only happened to women.
LB: And in every single pragmatic way you can look at it, it was illogical.
GS: It also was a good place to start, because it is true as you pursue this that it’s all about controlling reproduction. That’s what the patriarchy and male-dominated systems are all about, and what the racist systems are about too. So if we didn’t have wombs, we’d be fine [laughs].
LB: With #MeToo, Time’s Up, etc., how often were you drawn into those discussions before they hit the national sphere?
GS: Well, always, just because of the nature. For instance, the term “sexual harassment” was invented in the early ’70s by women in Ithaca, N.Y., who all had summer jobs. They were coming together discussing their experience trying to name what had happened to them. So we at Ms. magazine did a cover story on sexual harassment, which we illustrated with puppets. We didn’t want it to be too shocking, so we had a male puppet and a female puppet. Even so, we were put off the newsstands.
LB: What were the puppets doing? Was one puppet grabbing the other puppet’s ass?
GS: It was a male puppet standing behind a female puppet at a desk, and his hand was heading toward her breast. That was all.
LB: I’m curious — how did you develop your backbone?
GS: After I wrote about the abortion hearing in my column, I was considered the girl writer. And the guys there [at New York magazine] were nice guys — like Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Clay Felker — but they all said to me, “Gloria, you must not get involved with these crazy women, because you’ve worked hard to be taken seriously.” And it made me realize that I was one of those crazy women.
LB: There is something about being on the right side of history. When people come at you, you have solidarity.
GS: It’s the purpose of movements — to share values, laugh at the same jokes. You’re very different, but you have the same hopes, and I had that in ever-growing forms. And the other good news was that I was a freelancer. I wasn’t in an office. So I wasn’t subjected to it all day. I wasn’t worried about my paycheck, or even if I was, I could have another freelance job.
LB: Can you imagine if you’d had Twitter at your fingertips?
GS: You know, it’s great for the speed of information, and a problem for the speed of defamation. In both cases it’s not complete because you can’t empathize with each other unless you’re physically together.
LB: It’s nice to have an interaction with someone who fills you up. How often do you take time for yourself?
GS: Well, it’s not an either or. You may need to sleep for 12 hours. Or see friends or go to a movie, but there’s not such a thing as off and on.
LB: Right, especially with the state of this current administration. I think of it as a long game. Some of us are engaged who never used to be. What do you think about that?
GS: Well, we know the bad news. Trump was not a democratically elected president because of the peculiarities of the electoral college. He lost the popular vote by six million. And he came up through the media, not through the political party. And he has the clearest case of narcissistic personality disorder you could possible imagine. It’s dangerous. You can’t downplay the danger that comes from his executive powers and from a Congress that hasn’t stood up to him, although the courts have been better. But his purpose is that he’s allowing us to see exactly what is wrong with this country at a high level. And we are woke.
LB: We wake up every morning swearing pretty much. What makes you feel optimistic about this time?
GS: Mostly talking to you, traveling, seeing groups of people. The first moment that I thought something different was happening was when Trump issued his first travel ban and the courts weren’t able to act yet. Within two hours thousands of people were protesting at every international airport.
LB: Also, I think it’s a super-challenging time for young women who don’t really know where to begin to engage. Would you say to go and find your like-minded girls?
GS: Yeah, I think we need each other. We can’t do it alone for very long. What I would say to them is not only to look up because it makes us feel empowered, but also to look out for each other and we’ll know the things we can do.
LB: What women in the political field are currently impressing you?
GS: Maxine Waters is such a good, smart, brave woman. I’ve known her since the late ’70s. She was on the Ms. Foundation board when she was in the California legislature. Cynthia Nixon had a positive impact on the electoral race as well.
LB: Are you involved in any voting campaigns for the midterms?
GS: I try to be helpful in races where I can, like in Georgia with Stacey Abrams. She came to see me with some of her people, and I went to a benefit for her. I think she’s an ideal candidate. She understands how to describe the issues in the way we experience them. She has a personal journey that helps her understand people. She came from a very unlikely place into the state legislature. For her, it depends on the turnout outside Atlanta. Atlanta is one thing, but it’s the counties outside. And in one of the poorest counties with the most black residents, they tried to reduce the number of polling stations.
LB: I read that Lyft is offering free or discounted rides to get to the polling stations.
GS: Yes, we just have to keep going. The one disturbing thing I’ve seen lately is a poll of millennial women. There’s a group that’s political and cares but doesn’t see that voting matters. I understand the feeling of disillusionment with the system because there’s been redistricting in the states. But, still, our vote is our voice. It isn’t the most we can do, but it’s the least.
LB: Especially as a woman. How’s it going with Time’s Up?
GS: They’re quite organized. The last meeting I went to was the one in California for three days. They have launched efforts in different industries and established goals in terms of numbers of women on the board and created a legal defense fund. I think they’ve done a good job. Being at their meetings quite a lot made me realize that, as always, they have situations that are unique to the way they work. Listening to everybody made me realize that female actors are probably the only women who are also competing with each other for jobs. So what was moving to me was to see how new it was for them to be together and to be supporting each other. I also think there were a lot of mystified men who didn’t quite understand that your body belongs to you, and it’s the basis of democracy.
LB: What about the current female resistance? In what ways is it different from before?
GS: In that now it’s a majority. It’s not intrinsically different because it’s still basically saying, “My body belongs to me.” We’re all human beings; gender and race are not any kind of logical divisions. We’re unique as human beings. But now it’s the majority, and that means that women are being believed. Also, it isn’t only that we live in a patriarchy; it’s also that patriarchy lives in us. So we also have to deal with the internalized values we’ve grown up with.
LB: How do you feel about young women saying that they’re feminists? Is there a different way they approach it now?
GS: Yes, it’s much more positive and plentiful.
LB: What’s going to happen 10 years from now for you?
GS: I’ve given up the idea that I can control what happens. I just have to hang in there, because as a writer, I have three more books that I want to do.
LB: You have to! For the “crazy women.” But most important, how are your belts? [laughs]
GS: I have a drawer full. That’s my idea of changing my clothes: changing my belt. It’s still the same.
Gloria: A Life opens at N.Y.C.’s Daryl Roth Theatre on October 18.
Photographed by Jennifer Livingston.
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