New Steinem biopic shines light on a sisterhood of activists

Among the pithy quips attributed to Gloria Steinem over the years is this reply to why she wasn't interested in getting married: "I can’t mate in captivity."

She did eventually marry, to her own surprise, at age 66. But that scene takes up barely a minute in Julie Taymor’s 139-minute long new biopic about Steinem, "The Glorias," not just because it came late in a long (and still actively ongoing) life, but because there are so many other important relationships to focus on, namely the key women who partnered with Steinem — in friendship, and in activism — on her long journey to becoming America’s most visible feminist.

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Women like Bella Abzug, Florynce Kennedy, Dorothy Pitman Hughes and Wilma Mankiller, all of whom (and more) are portrayed in the film, giving moviegoers a quick but valuable education in the history of the women's movement.

"One of the great things about this movie," Steinem, 86, said in a recent interview, "is that it will lead viewers into knowing more about these women." Women who, perhaps excepting Abzug, were not nearly as familiar to the public as their very recognizable colleague.

Lorraine Toussaint, who gives a memorably vivid turn as Kennedy, the prominent Black activist and founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus, said Steinem herself helped guide her performance.

"We realized we had a champion, and that was Gloria herself," Toussaint said in an interview. "She was very, very helpful for me in terms of her memories with Flo Kennedy and her appreciation of Flo. She speaks so candidly and openly of figures like Flo who did not get the credit she believed they deserved."

History, added Toussaint, has not heard much about Black women in either the suffrage movement or in second-wave feminism. "But Gloria tried to give these women credit," Toussaint said. "The press wasn’t particularly interested in giving them credit, but Gloria certainly spoke out as often as she could."

In the film, based on the memoir "My Life on the Road," there are poignant scenes with Steinem and longtime speaking partner Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), the Black activist with whom she appeared in a famous 1971 photograph, fists raised. And with Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), another close Steinem friend and activist who became the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.

Then there was Abzug, played by Bette Midler in the film opposite Julianne Moore's Steinem. (Moore is one of four actors playing her at different stages of her life.)

Outwardly, the two women could not have appeared more different. The New York congresswoman, nicknamed "Battling Bella," was unapologetically brash and exuberant, recognizable immediately by the large hats she always wore. Gloria Steinem was known as a "quiet warrior," in Taymor's words, with a natural Midwestern reserve, long streaked hair and those iconic aviator glasses.

But their friendship ran deep. "She was my teacher and my friend," Steinem said in the interview. "She was enormously funny. Absolutely New York, you know. And I used to say things like, ‘Oh, you’re the person I should have had as my mother.’ And she would say, ‘I’m not old enough to be your mother.’" (Steinem told the same anecdote, through tears, at Abzug's 1998 funeral.)

Moore says she was unfamiliar, before making the film, with Steinem’s close relationship with Abzug.

"We had so much research available to us, and one of the things I drew on was just how much Gloria loved Bella," the actor said in an interview. "You could see it in the research, the way she looked at her. And so Bette and I hadn't met before and I fell in love with her right away, and I thought it was wonderful to have our relationship and base it on Gloria’s love for Bella at the same time."

Midler, too, was struck by the relationship between the two women.

"There was so much respect there, so much respect and so much fun," she said. "I think they had a great time together. I think they howled. And I wanted to make sure people knew that it wasn’t the kind of adversarial relationship that lots of people seem to have with Betty Friedan, although I worship Betty Friedan ... but that wasn’t the case with Gloria and Bella. That was real love."

Taymor says her favourite moment between the two women happens in the offices of Ms. Magazine, which Steinem co-founded. Abzug is explaining to the conflict-averse Steinem that she can't shy away from conflict with Friedan, the feminist leader and author.

"The difference between them is that moment in the Ms. office where she says ‘You can’t avoid conflict, and if you try to avoid conflict, conflict will seek you out,’" the director said. "And they were very different personalities. Gloria ... didn’t want to have women fighting women."

"And Bella said sometimes we argue, sometimes we fight, sometimes we don’t get along. You know, she understood that women aren’t superwomen, but we’re after the same thing."

Midler said she considered one of the achievements of Taymor's film to be how "You see them together planning, step by step and being in a room and actually making this movement from scratch. I thought it was very exciting. ... these women stayed together for over 50 years, as a clan. They really did. And they moved mountains."

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