Documentary "Gloria: In Her Own Words" premieres on HBO
On August 15, 2011, the documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words premiered on HBO. Using thousands of photos, rare video footage—and, of course, Gloria Steinem’s own stories—the hour-long film told the story of the women’s movement as seen through the eyes of one of its central figures.
For those who lived through the feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s, the film was, in Steinem’s phrase, “a home movie”—a look back at battles won and lost. For younger feminists, it brought to life experiences they have only heard or read about. As Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer, wrote after seeing the film, “I and many of the women of my generation take for granted so many of the opportunities that Gloria and women of her generation had to demand… As I watched Gloria evolve from a journalist forced to cover patterned pantyhose to an activist demanding equality for women, the simple truth struck me over and over again: My life is better because of Gloria Steinem.”
Steinem was reluctant to do the film, but her friend Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films, would not take “no” for an answer. “At first, I said ‘no’, because no one person can be the framework for the women’s movement,” Steinem recalled. “But then I thought, ‘Ok, if [ Sheila ] tells me this is worth doing, I believe it.’” Nevins told the Los Angeles Times: "We wanted to capture what it was about Gloria that inspired a generation of women to fight for themselves."
Gloria Steinem was born on March 25, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio. Her mother Ruth, whom Gloria calls “a pioneer in journalism who couldn’t do it all,” suffered from mental illness. When her father abandoned the family, Gloria became her mother’s caretaker.
As she grew up, she inherited her mother’s love of writing and journalism. But as an aspiring writer in the New York of the early 1960s, Gloria was lucky to get “fluff piece” assignments male editors considered appropriate for women. “The low point,” she says in the film, “was writing a piece on textured stockings.” In the era dramatized on Mad Men, there were frequent propositions from male bosses. “There were no words for sexual harassment then,” she says. “It was just life.”
The film includes rare footage of a women’s meeting that proved to be a turning point for Steinem. In 1969, abortion was illegal in New York, and the state legislature scheduled a hearing on whether to change the law. They invited 14 men and one woman—a Catholic nun— to testify. A group of feminists held their own counter-meeting at a Greenwich Village church, and Steinem went to cover it for New York Magazine. For the first time, she heard women who had illegal abortions speak publically about their often harrowing experiences. Steinem herself had had an abortion at age 22 but had never felt she could share the story with anyone. She says, “I began to understand that I wasn’t crazy. It was the system that was crazy."
Steinem got angry and put her anger to work. Frustrated that there was no national women’s magazine that was run by women, she co-founded Ms. Magazine in 1971. Realizing that social change and political clout go hand-in-hand, she helped organize the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, which attracted 20,000 women. With an eye toward passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, attendees adopted a National Plan of Action that would be presented to President Carter.
The film highlights Steinem’s efforts to expand the movement. At the risk of alienating fellow feminists who thought they would be more effective focusing solely on women’s issues, Steinem worked with Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta of the United Farm Workers to champion the rights of laborers and the working poor. At a time when lesbians were labeled as “lavender menaces,” Steinem openly supported their involvement in the women’s movement.
In line with Steinem’s insistence on looking forward, the film ends with footage of her talking to college students. In the final shot, she looks into the camera and says, “The primary thing is not that they know who I am, but who they are. Being a feminist means that you see the world as a whole instead of a half. It shouldn’t need a name, and one day, it won’t.”
To learn more about Gloria Steinem, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia and Jewish Women and the Feminist Revolution.
Sources: “Exclusive Interview With Gloria Steinem: In Her Own Words’” The Huffington Post, August 12, 2011; “Gloria Steinem: Looking Back and Moving Forward” The Huffington Post, August 11, 2011; “A Few Words With Gloria Steinem.” Los Angeles Times, August 13, 2011; “Gloria: In Her Own Words—A l Life in Activism” Marcia G. Yerman, August 15, 2011.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Documentary "Gloria: In Her Own Words" premieres on HBO." (Viewed on June 4, 2023) <https://jwa.org/thisweek/aug/15/2011/gloria-steinem>.