The audience broke into applause as Gloria Steinem strode onto the stage at the end of Jan. 30 opening night performance of “Gloria: A Life” at Harvard’s American Repertory Theater. The legendary feminist activist assured the crowd that civil rights and feminism have won majority support across the United States.
“But it also means we have a backlash,” she said. About a third of Americans were “born into an old hierarchy and still want it.”
“But we are in the majority and we have each other,” Steinem said, “and fuck them.”
The crowd cheered.
“Gloria,” authored by Emily Mann and directed by Diane Paulus, runs at the A.R.T. in Cambridge from Jan. 24 to March 1. The 90-minute production—followed each night by an “Act II” post-show “talking circle” (which Steinem doesn’t usually lead)—originated as an autobiographical show starring Steinem, though she bowed out of performing before it premiered at New York’s Daryl Roth Theatre in 2018.
“I never had to show up at the same time and place every day, much less create magic on demand,” Steinem has written. “I could do talks in groups, but only because they were spontaneous.”
But the one-woman show structure remains in “Gloria”’s bones. The stage is decorated with rugs and cushions and piles of books, like a teach-in or consciousness-raising session, with the audience arranged on all sides. Patricia Kalember—joined by an ensemble of six actors—does noble work channeling Steinem’s look and voice and wit. She speaks directly to the audience in a we’re-all-friends-here tone. She breezily recounts Steinem’s inspiring story of weathering sexism, refusing to accept being told she couldn’t do things because she was a woman, navigating conservative backlashes.
“I’m a self-proclaimed hope-aholic,” Kalember’s Gloria says, “…because I know we’ve made some progress.”
Steinem, who turns 86 in March, grew up in Ohio, dreaming of dancing with The Rockettes. She struggled to help her mother, who was addled by mental illness and addiction to tranquilizers that were prescribed to her.
Steinem studied at Smith College, where she learned about its racist enrollment policies, and had a dalliance with the CIA (unmentioned in the show). She moved to New York to become a political journalist, but found herself stymied by the white newsmen who believed women were only capable of reporting on food, makeup, babies and celebrities. In 1963, she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny to write an expose for Show magazine on the New York Playboy Club. “This costume is so tight is would give a man cleavage,” Kalember jokes.
A turning point in Steinem’s embrace of the women’s movement was reporting on a 1969 women’s speak-out about abortion. Steinem would later publicly acknowledge having an abortion herself when she was young. She says the doctor made her promise: “You will do what you want to do with your life.”
Steinem had protested for civil rights and against the Vietnam War, but “I thought protesting for just women was frivolous,” Kalember says.
As Steinem moved toward the women’s movement, male colleagues at New York magazine told her, “You have worked hard to be taken seriously, you must not get involved with these crazy women.” As feminism opened her eyes, she felt humiliated by the ways she had been complicit in patriarchy.
The women’s movement, as the show describes it, was fueled by women comparing life stories and dreaming new futures at community discussions and consciousness-raising groups.
As Kalember shares anecdotes, the ensemble momentarily coalesces into vignettes of women recounting their abortions, sexists in a taxi, a television interview. The ensemble reenacts the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality by marching across the stage under a banner reading “We Strike for Peace and Equality” and shouting: “Power to the woman! … Sisterhood is powerful! We demand equality!”
Steinem and African-American feminist child-welfare activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes went on a speaking tour, beginning in the South. Kalember and ensemble member Gabrielle Beckford, as Hughes, reenact an iconic 1971 Esquire magazine photo of the two of them with their fists raised. “I learned feminism from Black women,” Kalember says, pointing also to Pauli Murray, Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker.
Steinem tried to write articles asserting that women are full human beings only to have white male editors reject the idea, insisting they would simultaneously have to publish an article saying women are not fully human next to it to be objective. “You can’t make this shit up,” Kalember says—a refrain in the play. This fueled Steinem’s cofounding of the feminist magazine Ms. in 1971.
Steinberg worked with the feminist, anti-war, pro-gay rights New York Congresswoman Bella Abzug, who secured Congressional funding for state women’s conferences that lead up to a 1977 National Women’s Conference for gender quality in Houston, which Abzug chaired. (Joanna Glushak powerfully portrays both Steinem’s mother and Abzug.)
A counter conference across town—led by “family values” (anti-feminist, anti-gay) activist Phyllis Schlafly—signals a conservative pushback that continues into the Reagan 1980s. Steinem visits Wilma Mankiller, the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, to regroup and recharge. Mankiller teaches her about the indigenous inspirations of American democracy and the power of women leaders.
The show rushes forward through Black Lives Matter to the 2017 Women’s March on Washington to the anti-gun activisim of the young survivors of the 2018 shooting massacre at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“Gloria” is inspiring and acidly funny, and rueful about the bigotry Steinem has faced down. But I wish this “Gloria” had more of the real Steinem’s sharpness, her fierceness, her “fuck them” attitude.
The crowd exploded into cheers as the real Steinem walked onto the stage after the Jan. 30 performance to lead that night’s post-show “talking circle.” “I don’t have time for you to applaud because we have a lot of organizing to do,” she quipped.
She joked, “The bravest thing I’ve done in my life is to follow myself.”
Audience members shared how moved they were by Steinem’s presence and inspiration. A father said he was seeking to be a better man. Women said they were dismayed by rollbacks of abortion rights.
“Democracy begins with control over our bodies, men and women,” Steinem said.
“Gloria” playwright Emily Mann told the crowd that when she graduated from Harvard’s Radcliffe College in 1974, she was told that women couldn’t write or direct in professional theater, and was encouraged to work in children’s theater instead.
People talked about how they were hurt by anti-feminist peers or trans-phobic college admissions officers. “The feminist movement does fuck up from time to time,” Steinem said, before adding, “If you speak up with your personal experiences that will help everyone.”
Steinem said, “Our job is not to make young women grateful. Our job is to make them ungrateful,” Steinem says, as they recognize the improvements still to be made and take action.
Asked about whether women presidential candidates are “electable,” Steinem said, “We have to stop saying who can win? We have to say: we’re going to make them win. … It’s up to us.”
Wrapping things up, Kalember said, “Promise you will do at least one outrageous thing in the cause of social justice.
“In the next 24 hours,” Steinem insisted.
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