Despite decades of opposition from the right, and recent personal setbacks, Gloria Steinem remains one of the most outspoken and visible symbols of the women’s movement today. Produced and directed by Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker Peter Kunhardt (HBO’s JFK: In His Own Words and Teddy: In His Own Words), Gloria: In Her Own Words blends interviews of Steinem in her Manhattan apartment, archival footage, photographs from throughout her life and clips from press interviews over the years. Among those interviewing Steinem in the film are Barbara Walters, Helen Gurley Brown, Phil Donahue and Larry King. The documentary also features archival footage of such prominent women’s movement figures as National Organization for Women (NOW) co-founder Betty Friedan, congresswoman Bella Abzug and civil rights advocate Flo Kennedy.
Gloria: In Her Own Words chronicles Steinem’s emergence as a driving force in the modern women’s liberation movement. She recalls beginning her career as a journalist in New York City in the early 1960s and making headlines with an expose on the working conditions of Playboy Bunnies, noting, “I learned what’s it’s like to be hung on a meat hook.”
Having had an abortion at age 22 (which she kept secret at the time), Steinem’s political awakening accelerated when she covered an abortion hearing for New York Magazine in 1969 and learned of the horrifying and humiliating experiences women endured attempting to exercise their right to reproductive freedom. She began to seek out everything she could find on the burgeoning women’s movement and helped lead the nationwide Women’s Strike for Equality march on Aug. 26, 1970, the 50th anniversary of the enactment of women’s suffrage. It was, Steinem notes, “the first time in my life, and I think for many other women too, that we marched for ourselves.”
Since then, Steinem has been ever-present on the front lines of social activism, co-founding Ms. Magazine, where she continues to serve as a consulting editor, in 1972, despite media speculation about the publication’s viability. She recalls that at the time “there was nothing for women to read that was controlled by women.”
Steinem became the public face of the women’s rights movement, participating in marches, making media appearances and also weathering the inevitable backlash, feeling she had to work twice as hard to not be judged by her looks. Indeed, Steinem would become almost as well-known for her distinct style as for her political activism, remembering that her streaked blonde locks were inspired by the character Holly Golightly in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Her signature aviator glasses were about concealment, she reveals, saying, “The bigger they were, the more I felt I could hide behind them.”
Gloria: In Her Own Words also explores Steinem’s early days. Born in 1934 in Toledo, Ohio, she studied tap dance as a child and watched her mother give up a career as a journalist to have children. Her parents had a rocky marriage and ultimately divorced. Steinem, who attended Smith College, wonders whether devoting so much of her time and energy to the women’s movement was a way to avoid the kind of suffering her mother experienced.
The film also looks at the challenges Steinem has faced in later years. Diagnosed with breast cancer soon after turning 50, she underwent surgery and radiation. “The cancer served a real purpose, making me a little bit more conscious of time,” she observes. Taking a break from public life after decades of traveling nonstop, Steinem “hit bottom” and began to look internally, writing the self-esteem book “Revolution from Within” in the early ‘90s. Interviewed at the time, she noted, “Being a social activist can be a drug that keeps you from going back and looking at yourself.” And after decades of remaining single, she married entrepreneur David Bale – father of actor Christian Bale – in 2000, but he died after they had been married just over three years.
Gloria: In Her Own Words is produced by Peter Kunhardt and Sheila Nevins; directed by Peter Kunhardt; editing and graphic design by Phillip Schopper; original music by Michael Bacon. For Kunhardt McGee Productions: executive producer, Dyllan McGee. For HBO: supervising producer, Jacqueline Glover.