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“What keeps me in it is it’s infinitely interesting,” says 82-year-old Gloria Steinem, the most prominent feminist of the last half-century — and a 2016 Emmy nominee, in the category of outstanding documentary or nonfiction series, for Viceland’s Woman, 51 years after her first nom for writing on the Saturday Night Live antecedent That Was the Week That Was — as we sit down at the Empire Hotel in New York to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. “It’s angering, but it’s alive and vital and connecting, and I just can’t imagine anything more rewarding. I just feel incredibly lucky.”
(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, Eddie Murphy, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Jennifer Lopez, Louis C.K., Kristen Stewart, Harvey Weinstein, Amy Schumer, Jerry Seinfeld, Jane Fonda, J.J. Abrams, Kate Winslet and Michael Moore.)
Born in Toledo, Ohio, and raised on the road by a nomadic antiques dealer and a mother who had to give up “everything she cared about” to be his wife, Steinem rarely attended school prior to her teens, but became a voracious reader on her own. After her parents split up when she was 10, she became a primary caretaker of her depressed mother, who eventually had to be committed to a mental hospital. “It wasn’t her fault,” Steinem says. “It was society and circumstances. She had all of these dreams, but by that point she was married with a child.”
Steinem “knew very little” about feminism prior to heading off to all-female Smith College — not even the feminists who, in her own lifetime, were leading the cause, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. “It really was quite a while before I began to realize that I could rebel publicly, not just secretly, as an individual,” she says. Indeed, it wasn’t until she “was already in the labor force and being badly treated” that it occurred to her that “this whole idea of labels, of sex and race and hierarchy, is just not right. We’re all unique individuals and we can be who we are.”
Several events after college helped Steinem to arrive at the conclusion that something needed to be done. First, feeling not yet ready for marriage and still looking to find herself, she left a fiance and headed to India; en route, she discovered she was pregnant, and learned what a challenge it was/is for many women who wish to terminate a pregnancy to do so. Then, a couple of years later, she moved to New York to become a freelance writer, and encountered all kinds of misogyny. “I did watch Mad Men and I thought it was brilliant,” she says, “although not as bad as it really was.”
One freelance assignment she took on very reluctantly — “I objected at first, but then I thought, ‘No, I really need the money'” — was a piece for Show magazine that required her to spend 11 days undercover as a Playboy Bunny so that she could write about what it was like. It appeared in the June 1963 issue and became an instant sensation. “It really was a mixed-bag,” she says. On the one hand, it provided her with a degree of fame. On the other hand, it gave her detractors a set of imagery which they have used to knock her seriousness ever since. “People still introduce me as an ex-Bunny, especially if they don’t like me,” she says with a chuckle.
Over the ensuing years, Steinem continued to write about many aspects of America’s turbulent society. She attended the March on Washington and witnessed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in August 1963, and she was reporting from the White House one day in November 1963 and saw President John F. Kennedy leave it for the last time, bound for Dallas. But it wasn’t until 1968, when she was part of a group of writers who started New York magazine, that she felt especially purposeful. “That was really the beginning of being able to write about what I cared about,” she says. And it was New York editor Clay Felker who, in 1971, greenlighted a special insert into an issue of the magazine that would focus specifically on women’s issues.
The insert, a 30-page tease of a 130-page full issue of what Steinem and her collaborators dreamed might become another magazine unto itself, was given the title of Ms., a term provided in 1950s secretarial handbooks as the one to use if one didn’t know whether or not a woman was married. (“We had a lot of other ones,” Steinem says with a laugh. “We were gonna call it Sojourner, after Sojourner Truth, but people thought it was a travel magazine. Then we were gonna call it Sisters, but they thought it was a religious magazine.”) To the delight and disbelief of Steinem and her colleagues, it sold out in just over a week. “It made us know there was a huge hungry audience out there.”
The success of Ms. created a massive demand for Steinem to do what she “feared most” — public speaking. “I couldn’t do it by myself,” she says. “I was way too scared to do it by myself.” So she recruited various other leaders of the feminist movement to share the podium with her and engage in dialogues with attendees. “It just is magic,” she says of gatherings like these, which she continues to participate in to this day. “It just turns into a big organizing meeting and you kind of feel like none of you is quite the same as when you came in. It’s addictive.”
Being a public figure came with its downsides. Some, of both genders, suggested she was put front and center because of her beauty. (She says, “I do remember being rescued by an old woman — probably as old as I am now, who knows — who got up in an audience and said, ‘Honey, you know, it’s important for somebody who could play the game and win to say the game isn’t worth shit.'”) Others questioned her motives altogether. (Leonard Levitt‘s 1971 Esquire article “She,” which was accompanied by a comic strip, accused her of attaching herself to one movement after the next. “That was very painful,” she acknowledges.) But, over the years, seeing the progress that she fought for becoming a reality — such as when then-first lady Hillary Clinton said on Sept. 5, 1995, at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights” — made the sacrifices feel small.
Many were surprised when, in May of this year, a show popped up on Viceland — an offshoot of Shane Smith‘s Vice, which long had been perceived as a network by and for macho men — called Woman, With Gloria Steinem. It turned out that this eight-episode series, which Steinem executive produced and hosted, came about after Smith heard Steinem speak at a Google ideas conference about Valerie M. Hudson‘s 2012 book Sex and World Peace, which highlights how violence against women drives global instability. Smith was shocked to learn that because of various forms of violence against women there are now, for the first time in recorded history, fewer females than males on the planet, and he asked to meet with Steinem.
From that came this series, each episode of which is hosted by a female correspondent and focuses on a different example of this problem, from rape in the Congo to sexism in Colombia to imprisonment in the US. Steinem says she’s “so grateful” for the show because “it brings empathy and information to a much bigger group of people, it allows women in these eight countries who are suffering in unspeakable kinds of violence, in many cases, to know they’re not alone; it allows the viewer to see and empathize and actually do something about it, because there are activist groups at the end of each episode.”
Steinem, whose friends tend to be much younger than her, says she’s loved working with Smith and his young team. “Age-wise, I’m probably a shock to Vice,” Steinem says with a laugh. But in terms of gender, she has felt nothing but welcomed. “When we finally had a wrap party in my living room for the 40 or so people who worked on these eight documentaries,” she adds, “we made buttons for everybody [including Smith] that said, ‘I put the V in vice.'”
As Steinem celebrates this series and the Emmy nomination she has received for it (it’s up against Netflix’s Making a Murderer, among other fine works), she emphasizes that the fight for women’s rights has only just begun. She’s pulling hard for Hillary Clinton: “In this election, she has to win. I am very enthusiastic about her. She is a miracle to me, that she can withstand the amount of distortion and criticism and hatred and trivialization that she has endured — really, really, really remarkable. As for [Donald] Trump? He is a fraud. We here in New York know that he is not a successful businessman; he is a successful con-man. If he had just invested his inheritance, he’d be richer than now.”
Steinem’s keeping an eye on Hollywood, too. She’s displeased with gender inequality in the entertainment industry, which the Equal Opportunity Commission is investigating. She’s closely monitoring the situation involving The Birth of a Nation filmmaker Nate Parker, who was accused — and found not guilty of — rape on a college campus 17 years ago. (“It sounds as if he has taken this very seriously. Not only was there a process in the past, but he is not making light of this, as others have in situations of sexual assault.”) And she’s extremely disappointed that women in the business aren’t doing more to help themselves. Asked about the Kardashians, Steinem says, “It isn’t the individuals who are at fault, it’s the culture that says, ‘You are rewarded for your outsides, not your insides.’ But I regret it and it’s painful. It’s not quite as painful as the [Real] Housewives, which is perhaps the most painful — it’s the closest to a female minstrel show that I can imagine. But again, I understand why: those women are looking for a way to start their business or get to be known, so it’s not to criticize the people who are in the game. It’s to change the game. It’s embarrassing.”
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