My Take on “Gloria,” the New Documentary about Steinem’s Life

"Gloria: In Her Own Words" is airing on HBO Monday evening. I found the documentary pretty problematic. It refused to explicitly tackle race issues, either during the height of the Second Wave or more recently, when Steinem made a number of controversial statements about the relationship between race and gender during the 2008 Democratic primary. 

Though there are interviews in Gloria about how upper-middle class, straight feminists came to embrace lesbian rights and economic justice for poor women, there is no explicit discussion of an equally enduring and arguably more fraught issue: the relationship between feminism and struggles for racial equality. The film does feature archival footage of 1970s white feminists arguing that men’s only bars are the equivalent of Jim Crow lunch counters. Doesn't that contention cry out for debate, for analysis–for something? We see Steinem appear alongside her 1970s “speaking partners,” the black feminists Flo Kennedy and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, but we don't hear much about how these women (who were so often overshadowed by the more famous Steinem) navigated their dual identies as people of color within the feminist movement.

Steinem notes that her own brand of feminism was more radical than that of her elders, women like Betty Friedan, who were concerned mostly with the plight of white, college-educated housewives. Yet there are no interviews with either Steinem or other movement veterans that reflect explicitly on the relationship between feminism and Civil Rights. We hear about how Steinem’s sexy good looks helped propel her to prominence, but not about how her whiteness helped make feminism seem less threatening. We also learn nothing about the sophisticated set of critiques women-of-color, such as Angela Davis and bell hooks, have long made regarding mainstream feminism: that its focus on abortion detracted from their own struggle for maternal rights, and that the assumption that women represent a united interest group often downplayed the struggles of non-white women in overcoming racism.

I should note that Steinem herself, in my experience, is more than game to reflect on all these issues. I hold the filmmakers accountable for failing to explore them in the movie. In any case, read the whole review at The Nation.

One thought on “My Take on “Gloria,” the New Documentary about Steinem’s Life

  1. Madelyn Gutwirth

    I don’t have HBO so didn’t see the Gloria show on TV. However, as an old lady feminist, I find your tone of reprobation of the feminist movement as so totally white privileged women oriented sadly off base, and possibly influenced by the generalized backlash tendency, even on the left, to denigrate that movement as racist.
    Yes, so-called “privileged” women, including some few African-American ones, initiated and led that movement, but that was because we weren’t privileged, but were, both subtly and blatantly, not accorded equal rights with men. And it must be acknowledged that in the distinctly more racist atmosphere of the ’60′s and ’70′s, feminists were among the first to seek to unlearn their own racism and attempt to lead the way for other Americans to do so. Just look at Florence Howe’s publication record at the Feminist Press for evidence of a major attempt by feminists to fight racism. I

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