Gloria Steinem has been involved with, guided and even transformed almost every major issue in the feminist movement, but there's something about her particular brand of feminism that seems to transcend any one issue.
I've been trying to think why that is. I really enjoyed HBO's documentary, which didn't feel sensational even though it covered a woman who was frequently, well, sensational.
So what makes Gloria Steinem so appealing? I admit, until I watched this documentary, she was very little more than a name to me, the woman who founded Ms. magazine and went undercover to expose the exploitation of the Playboy Bunnies (and I vaguely recall that, on the Mary Tyler Moore Show, she's presented as the ideal woman by all the men. Can you imagine a mainstream tv show choosing a feminist as an ideal woman today? Maybe Parks and Recreation. But I digress).
I wonder if this is an institutional problem: in all my gender history related courses at university focussed on academic thinkers at the expense of activists, which is sort of the opposite way to how education covers other civil rights and human rights issues.
This is important to note because there are very real, substantive differences between academic feminism and real-world feminism, the chief one being pragmatism. Steinem carries herself as intelligent, not bitter. She wins crowds through humor, not through righteousness and anger. If she loses a fight she doesn't retreat, she thinks immediately of the next step.
Watch this interview about Hillary Clinton losing the Presidential nomination:
She moves quickly from explaining the significance of Clinton's achievement to why the loss is disappointing to the lessons Barack Obama can learn, and by the end, you feel she genuinely supports candidate Obama. That's an amazing ability, to be true to oneself and also find ways to be positive about an alternate future (or at least to come off that way). It's incredible that she can praise and bury Clinton and manage not to insult Obama in the process, not even in a back-handed way. That's grace, that's elegance.
But I'm not suggesting you take away good sportsmanship from the documentary, but something altogether more difficult: compassion. I believe she was able to unite so many people, to affect so many lives, because she didn't frame the feminist movement in terms of power but in terms of empathy and kindness. Again and again, she stresses the ideal end result: a world where both men and women can live lives reflecting their better selves. To achieve that ideal, you can't have discrimination. It's as simple as that.
In an era where Internet debate on gender becomes ever more rancorous, it seems valuable to remember that lesson: be compassionate, remember what you're fighting for, and do not act in such a way that belies that eventual goal.
For those of you who are interested, here's a great interview that Steinem did about the documentary with Maria Shriver: http://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/gloria-steinem/
Oncoming Hope, out.
I can't find a clip, but in the documentary there is a horrendously awkward interview on Larry King Live from 1991 which seems to have inspired all the awkward humor you'd see today on Parks and Recreation or Arrested Development. Essentially, a woman calls in and says she's been waiting 15 years to talk to Gloria Steinem. Bright smiles all around. Then, you watch Larry King's and Steinem's faces fall as the woman proceeds to accuse Steinem of destroying the world and American society. It's horrible, but you almost can't help laughing.