By Sexual Correspondent Andrea (AJ) Plaid
As I said on Twitter, Gloria: In Her Own Words, the new documentary about feminist activist Gloria Steinem running exclusively on HBO this month, is a “precise” work on her life and The Second Feminist Movement (and what I mean by this is the mainstream Second Wave Movement) in the last 60+ years.
Dana Goldstein took the doc to task in The Nation for not addressing race and racism in the movement Steinem helped shape:
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 showing 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 (pictured above–Ed.) 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 women 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.
The reason why I called this doc “precise” is because I didn’t expect it to be nothing more and nothing less than a reflection of the mainstream Second Wave feminist movement…which was, in reality, notoriously short on analysis of race and racism as it functioned within it. When it was addressed, the rhetoric talked about white men and their race vis-à-vis “male privilege.” Some of the white women within that movement may have deeply empathized with and felt themselves in solidarity with the struggles of people of color—Steinem presents herself as such a person—but, as cravenly cynical as it seems, those struggles were also a media-friendly “hook” so people could grasp why women were fighting for, say, equal pay and the right to safe abortion. And, as critiqued again and again, loaded with white female privilege.
For Second Wave mainstream feminism, the mere presence of women of color showed how “diverse” women can come together to fight for the “common” goal of equal rights for “women.” That was “race talk” enough to show the movement’s good faith regarding this. When it came time to really deal with how race, racism, and white female privilege infused mainstream feminism, the usual response was variations of, “We’re all sisters here. Talking about race divides the movement!” Out of that frustration of failing to address the issue came the influential works like The Combahee River Collective; Pat Parker’s Movement in Black; Gloria Hull’s, Patricia Bell Scott’s and Barbara Smith’s All the Women Are White, All the Black Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave; Barbara Smith’s Home Girls: An Anthology; Gloria Anzaldua’s and Cherrie Moraga’s This Bridge Called My Back; Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider; Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens; and Anzaldua’s La Frontera/Borderlands. (And, as some hip-hop and other feminists would tell you, some Second Wavers still hold that viewpoint.)
These and other books by and about women of color that came out of the that time period were viewed as writings of outliers, not really touching the mainstream rhetoric or the “concerns” of that movement, which is reflected in the doc by omission. The writing of Angela Davis, which Dana Goldstein mentioned, helped shape the Third Wave of feminism. Though Angela Davis was in the same demographic as Steinem—both are Baby Boomers–during the throes of the Second Wave (in the 60s through the 70s), Davis was speaking about Black Power. Though her autobiography shows a consciousness around feminism and intersectionality, it was later in her public intellectual life that Davis became famous in feminist imaginations—and required college reading–with her classic books Women, Race, and Class and Women, Culture, and Politics.
It’s the same thing, really, with bell hooks. Though she was critiquing the Second Wave hard, she was an outlier as far as the mainstream Second Wave was concerned. hooks was 19-year-old undergrad when she wrote Ain’t I a Woman in the 70s and had it published a decade later—long after the mainstream Second Wave, with Steinem’s help, formed its rhetoric and platform of “equal rights” and became part of the academy.
That’s why I’m not surprised that the film didn’t include these foremothers of the Third Wave or pay attention to, let alone analyze, the issue of race and racism. This doc isn’t that doc about the race/racism/feminism conundrum. In that sense, I can, strangely enough, somewhat forgive Gloria for not addressing that issue. That almost insta-kyriarchal critique we in anti-racist and some other progressive circles do and are used to isn’t Steinem. This doc is, simply put, a longer periscope of the mainstream Second Wave through Steinem’s view.
And the way Steinem and her feminist compatriots have seen it is that all women were “women.” There wasn’t a whole lot of difference, as Steinem and some others in the mainstream Second Wave framed it, between the issues that a woman of color had and a white woman. And, probably coming from a working-class background as Steinem was , she probably felt she was in solidarity because her white femaleness was mitigated privilege where white women from that socio-economic group were (and are still) viewed as “trashy.”
However, as much as the film did not address race and racism in the mainstream Second Wave and how Steinem may have shaped that conversation, I do think Steinem herself did shift her ideas about race and feminism–and the film didn’t reflect that, either. That moment came when she was publicly called out by Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry on Democracy Now! for her New York Times op-ed challenging then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s qualifications to lead the country (transcript here):
Steinem, as per the Second Wave rhetoric, starts to say that “women struggle as women.” Dr. Harris-Perry checks that—she, who has not only the lived experience as a woman of color in the US, but more than likely studied the writings of hooks, Davis, Anzaldua, Walker, Smith, Hull, Moraga, and many other feminists of color.
I think the best example of Steinem’s post-debate shift is what I saw at the screening of the doc last Thursday. A friend of mine, Loop 21’s Keli Goff, asked Steinem about her thoughts on the anti-Black anti-choice billboards and how activists should move forward against future ones. Steinem responded by asking Goff if she heard about the activism that happened in NYC. Goff said no. That’s when another friend of mine, SisterSong NYC’s Jasmine Burnett raised her hand and got Steinem’s attention. All Steinem said to the audience was, “This is what we call networking.” Burnett got up and spoke very eloquently to Goff and the group on how a cohort organization, Trust Black Women, and SisterSong NYC helped galvanize people to take down the sign, the feelings of the pro-choice mom whose daughter’s photo was on those billboards, and the current situation with the ads. The only other thing Steinem did was ask Burnett to mention SisterSong’s Loretta Ross. Other than that, Steinem fell back for Burnett: an older white feminist—an icon at that!—stepped aside for a younger feminist of color. And Steinem looked rather content in that role. I suspect that, if that call-out didn’t happen, Steinem would have interrupted Burnett and attempt to talk about the signs affecting “all women” and said and done other off-putting things.
Gloria: In Her Own Words is, if not a form of haigiography, a “legacy film”: Steinem is getting her bequethal in order for those people who may never pick her books or will wade through 60+ years of documentation about the second wave. With that understanding, I enjoyed the film: I understood her a little better. She, like me, came from Toledo, OH; she took care of her mom, who suffered a nervous breakdown; she suffered the loss of her dad, who she didn’t see transition due to being on the road for feminism; she married late in life and became a widow a short time after she married. Those details humanize Steinem when people are so used to discussing her as a controversial figure or icon to love or hate or debate about. The doc is a good summation of one person’s wide-ranging and deeply influential life.
As for the future of feminism, this is Steinem’s benediction: “Don’t listen to me, but listen to your own hearts about what’s best for feminism.” And, if it’s in our hearts to make that film about race, racism, and feminism, then I think Steinem would fall back about it.