Feminist Activist Gloria Steinem Shocked That She is 77 Years Old

August 14, 2011 - 12:29 PM
Ever the activist, Steinem is in a reflective mode

Gloria Steinem

Feminist activist Gloria Steinem. (AP photo/Chris Pizzello)

NEW YORK (AP) — "It's shocking, I know," says Gloria Steinem, allowing herself a wry grin.

And for once, the author, activist and feminist icon isn't talking about a case of gender inequity at home or a human rights violation across the globe. This time, she's talking about her age.

Steinem is 77, and most people are even more shocked than she is. Not only because she looks fiftyish, but because she is, in the minds of many, frozen in the 1970s — a tall, slim, striking woman with long streaked hair (it's still streaked, but shorter now) and those big aviator glasses.

But four decades have indeed passed since Steinem helped launched the women's movement. And this summer finds her in a reflective mode: working on a book about her years on the road — a combination of essays and memoir — and promoting a new documentary celebrating her life. "Gloria: In Her Own Words" premieres Monday on HBO.

Nestled on a couch in her comfortable Manhattan apartment one recent afternoon, Steinem acknowledges that often such tributes come at the end of one's life and career — and she has no intention of either ending anytime soon.

But, she says, maybe this isn't such a bad time to look back a little.

"My hope is, this film will make people think: It's been 30 or 40 years. Where do we want to be 40 years from now?" Besides, she adds: "I want people to realize that if a very imperfect person did this, maybe they can, too!"

That self-effacing tone runs through much of what Steinem says — she likes to stress, for example, that if she had never come along, the same progress for women would have been achieved anyway. (Steinem was a highly visible spokeswoman for the women's movement, but there were many others who made it happen, too.) Her admirers say they're not so sure.

"It would have been like Christmas without Santa Claus — she was the goddess of the movement," says Sheila Nevins, co-producer of the new documentary with Peter Kunhardt, who directed. "She doesn't take credit, but I give it to her."

One of Steinem's most important qualities, says Nevins, is that she showed "how you could be the bull AND the china shop — aggressive AND gentle." She notes that growing up, she was taught to think a girl couldn't be pretty and smart at the same time: "Gloria made me realize I could."

Steinem, though, makes clear that being branded the beautiful, sexy feminist was a double-edged sword at best.

"It's a problem we all share, getting identified by your outside looks," she says. "The most hurtful part is that you work very hard, and people say it's because of your looks."

Steinem learned that lesson well before she became an activist — with her famous Playboy adventure in the early '60s, where she donned the bunny suit to go undercover for a magazine and expose degrading working conditions at the Playboy Club.

She deeply regrets the whole episode. "I could not have made a bigger mistake," she says. "It was personally and professionally a disaster. In the short term it was much harder to get serious assignments, and in the long term it's been used to ridicule me."

Steinem can't escape the Playboy story: Recently she's been asked by many journalists what she thinks of an upcoming NBC period drama about the Playboy Club. For the record: not much, though she hasn't seen it yet. "They were tacky, awful places to work," she says of the clubs. "This will no doubt be a glamorized version."

Steinem also wonders why a TV interviewer recently used precious air time to ask about that long-ago episode. She would rather have been asked about a New York Times op-ed piece she had just written, about a controversial new naval base on Jeju Island off South Korea.

Such an issue may seem off the beaten path for Steinem, but she's long been vocal about a wide range of international issues, like sex trafficking, genital mutilation, or violence against women across the globe. "I'm just not sure I believe in boundaries anymore," she says.

At home, it won't be surprising to see her weigh in on the 2012 presidential race, as she did in 2008 — opposing Sarah Palin ("Wrong Woman, Wrong Message," she titled a column) and decrying what she saw as sexist media treatment of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whom she supported over Barack Obama in the Democratic primaries.

Steinem hopes the current secretary of state might yet become president. "Many more Americans can now imagine a female chief of state, because of her," she says. "After a second Obama term ..."

For the documentary, producers amassed a treasure trove of film clips, photos and other tidbits that tell the story of Steinem's long career.

We see a young Steinem tap-dancing in an elevator — it was one of her talents — and flirting with George Burns in a TV interview. We also see some striking negative reactions to Steinem and her feminism: A vicious call from a female viewer on "Larry King Live," telling her to "rot in hell" and advising her never to have children; or, more recently, conservative host Glenn Beck call her a "cranky feminist" and making a vomit gesture.

There's also news anchor Harry Reasoner predicting that Ms. Magazine, which Steinem co-founded in 1972, would fail (it's still publishing today) and, perhaps most interesting, a segment from the Nixon tapes, with the former president dissing Steinem to Henry Kissinger.

Asked her biggest mistakes, Steinem replies with a laugh: "How much time do we have?" Turning serious, she mentions her father. She did not travel to California to see him in the hospital after a car accident, and he died alone.

"I had taken care of my mom as a child, and I feared I'd never come back," she says.

Steinem also wishes she'd "fought harder" for things she believed in. One of the choices she doesn't regret, however, is not having had children.

"I was in Mumbai at a women's center a few years ago, and they asked whether I regretted that," says Steinem. "I thought, if I tell them the truth, I'll lose them. But there was no point in lying, and so I said, 'No, not for a millisecond' — and they applauded. Because they don't have the choice."

As for marriage, Steinem surprised many when she married for the first time at age 66, to entrepreneur David Bale, father of actor Christian Bale. Bale died a few years later.

"I hadn't changed — marriage had changed," she says now. "We wanted to be together, we loved each other. And he needed a green card. But it was so lucky, because when he got sick, he was on my health insurance." The experience strengthened her commitment to same-sex marriage.

Her greatest satisfaction, Steinem says, is still when people come up to her — in the subway, on a plane — and tell her stories about their lives.

Like the man at the ticket counter at the Washington airport a week ago, who wanted to talk to her about his mother, and all her accomplishments. "It happens all the time," she says.

Though an agitator by profession, Steinem speaks today of a new kind of contentment.

She was in a taxi recently, she says, and her iPhone was out of juice, meaning she had time to look out the window.

"I was looking out, and I had an amazing feeling of serenity, of well-being," she says. "A sense that I don't want a house in the country, or anything I don't have. I was feeling a unity, a oneness."

What was that all about, her interviewer wonders?

"It must be my age."