“That Was The Big ‘Click!’”: Gloria Steinem and the History of Feminism

August 17, 2011, 12:12 pm

Last night, after watching Gloria: In Her Own Words (HBO Films, Peter Kunhardt dir., 2011), a short documentary about Gloria Steinem that premiered on August 15, I decided to take action.  I came upstairs and I:

  • Joined EMILY’s List (this is completely free, but I celebrated with an initial donation of $35 + $15 for their featured candidate, Kate Marshall, a former Democratic state treasurer who is running against Mark Amodei in Nevada’s 2nd.
  • Joined the National Organization for Women (NOW) which cost $40.00. This allowed me to sign up for the national and my local Shoreline chapter, which I hope will call me into action sooner rather than later.
  • Subscribed to Ms. magazine (which Gloria founded; $25) and, for good measure, bought a snappy black tee-shirt with Ms. on the front in big pink letters ($20.00.)

But it wasn’t always this easy.

I became a feminist in high school because of Gloria Steinem, I have lived feminist ever since, this blog is feminist and I teach feminism, but it was only after watching this documentary that I realized I have not actually participated in feminism as a social movement for over two decades. While this is not a perfect documentary, it caused me to think about why that is, and what kind of feminist that makes me (answer:  the kind who buys her way back in to the movement, and performs a great many daily acts that many people don’t really know are feminist.)

For those of you who are less familiar with Steinem, she was born in 1934 in Toledo to a mother who was a journalist and a homemaker.  It was the tension between those two roles, she speculates, that may have caused her mother to have a breakdown when Steinem was still a child.  Leo Steinem left for California in 1944, ostensibly to seek work but also leaving his ten year-old daughter in charge of her mentally disabled mother.

After graduating from Smith, Gloria Steinem moved to New York to become a journalist:  at various points in the film, she speculates that a generation of women (in which I would include myself) were subconsciously determined to have the careers their mothers had been blocked from.  This was preceded by several years of international travel and work, part of which was funded by a CIA-front (an episode that later came back to haunt her within the movement); and followed by the kind of dead-end “women’s assignments” for which female-bodied people were supposed to have a special talent.  One marvelous clip in the documentary features male “experts” insisting that women were organically incapable of organized thinking (and their tiny little low-paid hands just flew over the typewriter keyboard!)

Two things happened, other than hard work, to change Gloria Steinem’s fortunes:  one was that “women’s issues” suddenly became more serious.  Her big break through was an article on contraception that she did for Esquire in 1972.  The other was that Steinem went undercover as a Playboy “bunny,” learning to serve and twirl while “walking around in a costume so tight,” she said, “it would give a man cleavage.”

She was able to do this latter task in part because she was beautiful, something she struggled with throughout her career as a writer and as a feminist.  Being beautiful got her in the door many places but the paradox, she underlines, is that any female achievement was “explained” by her beauty. “You work really hard,” she says, “and the result is attributed to your looks.”  By the time she covered the New York State abortion hearings in 1964, she was primed for “the big ‘click’!”  For those of you who are too young to know, the “click!” moment was when you got it that sexism was happening to you at that moment.  Ms. magazine, which Steinem co-founded with Letty Cottin Pogrebin in 1971, had a whole section where women would write in about their “clicks!” (no pun intended, because we were interested in those too) which was one of my favorite parts of the magazine.

Moments like this are so well-narrated that Gloria: In Her Own Words is both the perfect length and has all the right historical elements to supplement a classroom lecture on the trajectory of second wave feminism. Through Gloria we see iconic moments like the No More Miss America protest of 1968 (which is not overplayed, as it often is); and footage from events that are significantly less well-known to students.  This includes scenes from the 1972 Democratic convention, where women made up a third of the delegates, and the 1977 International Women’s Year Conference in Houston, where after a fierce internal fight and a resounding floor vote, lesbians became a “feminist issue.” (Editor’s note: When, oh when, will trans people become a feminist issue?)

This was all footage I had never seen.  Gloria’s specialty in the movement was being articulate, reasonable, witty and schmoozing the mainstream while working for radical change. Why didn’t she get married before the age of 66? “I don’t mate well in captivity.” As a great contrast, the filmmakers have cut in relatively prolonged of women rudely challenging male privilege, seriously getting in faces and dropping f-bombs right and left.  One, at the 1972 convention, features a group of feminists ganging up on a producer and a camera crew, while Mike Wallace slumps in a chair nearby looking like he wishes he were anywhere else but there (of course, a lot of people felt that way for a lot of reasons in 1972.)

The documentary also evoked Steinem’s relationship with Bella Abzug beautifully (as an aside, why is there no documentary about Abzug more recent than 1993?) Bella loved a camera, and this footage is marvelous, but perhaps the greatest evocation of this icon is in a story told by Steinem.  Shortly after Ms. was founded, Al Goldstein, the publisher of Screw, printed up and distributed a poster/game showing a nude drawing of Steinem surrounded by penises that could be cut out to play “Pin the Cock on the Feminist.”  In case they hadn’t seen it, Goldstein also had someone post it outside the offices of Ms. Steinem was humiliated, as was intended (he and Larry Flynt of Hustler specialized in the public, sexual humiliation of women who were prominent in the movement.)  As Steinem was trying to pull herself out of a depression, Abzug said: “It isn’t you,” which of course, it actually wasn’t. Au contraire, said Steinem:  it was her hair, her glasses, her face, her breasts — “and my labia,” Abzug finished.

Is there anything wrong with this film?  Well yes.  In an effort to finish in under an hour and bring Steinem’s life up to date, we get a lot on abortion, but no reflection on the severe retraction of abortion rights nationwide; we get a bit on the Equal Rights Amendment, but alas, the filmmakers don’t tell us that the ERA never passed. I also wished they had asked Steinem to reflect on the labels “liberal” and “radical,” since much of the work she was involved in actually counts as liberalism but became radical because liberal men didn’t frakkin’ get it.  On the bright side, we have a complex story in other ways:  women as well as men stating ignorant, sexist views, and a great cameo appearance by Phyllis Schlafly (there are many documentaries of Schlafly you can use in class, which is great — but only one of Bella?)

This is a film that is well-worth showing to young men and women, since Steinem is elegant in her views about why becoming invested in gender inequality led her to anti-racist and anti-homophobic work within and outside feminism.  You become a feminist, she says, because “There’s something in you that says, ‘You are not the boss of me’…and it becomes a world-view.”  Should young people strive to be like her? she is asked towards the end.  No, she says, with a smile.  What feminism is about is “that they should fight to be like themselves.”

Right on, sister.

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