In honor of this year’s July 4th celebration, I am honoring a woman who, once “woke,” began to live her life in earnest as a free woman. Gloria Steinem’s journey is the journey of most women I have known, those who looked for their equality and once found, couldn’t go back to the way it was. This is such a great play and Christina Lahti nailed the performance. You could tell she was honored to play the part, say the words, inspire the audience.
Fifty years after Gloria Steinem began advocating for women’s equality and championing the equality rights of others, her vision remains highly relevant. Starring Academy, Emmy and Golden Globe Award winner Christine Lahti as Steinem, the play features an all-women cast playing both male and female roles. Act one focuses on Steinem’s life and path to activism. Act two consists of a “talking circle” with the audience to discuss the play’s themes, moderated by Gloria Steinem herself. This unique theatrical format offers a forum for Steinem’s philosophy on the necessity of conversation as a catalyst for change. The New York Times theater critic Jesse Green described the experience as “powerful” and “a kind of place where you’d like to curl up to share stories, and in sharing them, amplify them…. The hope seems contagious.”
When Ms. Steinem takes the stage for Act 2, it was phenomenal in the interaction with audience members who shared their stories. This got my juices excited in the genuine sharing of the stories, something Gloria advocates. One of her mentors was Wilma Mankiller, Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Wilma Mankiller is remembered as the first female Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation but her life was filled with activism from the beginning. In order to understand how I operate, it is necessary to understand that I came from an activist family, Mankiller says of her upbringing. It was in the home that she began to care about social issues but her distinctly native approach to solving those problems was developed outside the home. Her role was played by her niece, who was honored to portray her Aunts legacy. During the play Wilma, in the talking circle, explains how the Cherokees have no words for genders, like he, she, man, woman. She also explains how the native nations helped draft the US Constitution, along with the Iroquois Confederacy.
Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1996
Christine Lahti Statement
“Gloria Steinem saved my life in the early 70s. She helped give me feminism, which became a life jacket for me to navigate through a world that didn’t like or respect women very much. It was one of the greatest honors of my life to play her in Gloria: A Life. I feel it’s illuminating, for young people especially, to see how someone like Gloria who was ‘unwoke’ until she was 35—and survived a difficult childhood with a mother who she felt didn’t matter—could become a world leader who has dedicated herself to making sure all women matter. If she can do it, anyone can do it! This play also teaches us how many extraordinary black women were responsible in teaching Gloria about feminism; and that second wave feminism was NOT primarily founded by white women. In addition, it explores how much feminism can help men free themselves from the straight jacket of patriarchal masculinity. Her story is inspiring, complex and completely relatable. And as Gloria stated early on in the development of this play, if the first act is going to be about her, then the second act has to be about the audience. The talking circle that is the second act of Gloria: A Life is equally as moving as people tell their own stories. As Gloria always says, there is healing in the telling.”
Another wonderful insight was in the telling of the mother’s stories. As Gloria said so eloquently, many women feel they are “living the un-lived lives of our mothers.” Lahti said she connected on that level, so really wanted to get into the relationship between Gloria and her mother. “We’re both from the Midwest, we both are fierce feminists. Although, I would say I’m like a little baby activist compared to her. But we share so much of the same passion to help make all women matter, to help make all people matter, because we both grew up feeling like our mothers didn’t matter.” Most women can relate, just as most men relate to their male dominance roles. Time’s they are a changing!
The supporting actors took on the roles of other main activists, like Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Florynce Kennedy, Wilma Mankiller. They added depth and inspiration to the movement. And then there was her stint as a Playboy Bunny, which helped further her career by getting the story from the inside.
Ms. Magazine. It was because of the dictionary. Ms is for “unmarried” women or those not taking the husbands name. I liked how the play spoke to this and how the magazine changed women’s lives across the world. Letters received at the office proved they were doing the work to get the movement to all corners of the country, after being told it wouldn’t fly. It not only flew, it sold out within days.
Final thoughts: We are in this moment of mass protests around race, the #MeToo movement and a global pandemic that has brought attention to inequality. Are you feeling hopeful about positive change?
Steinem: I do think hope is a form of planning, and we should not allow that to be taken away from us, because then we’re defeated from the very beginning. COVID has revealed a huge amount of injustice which is up to us to do something about. I also think it’s changed our consciousness in a more transformative way, because the virus doesn’t observe race or gender or class or national boundaries. So we are seeing ourselves as passengers on spaceship Earth, which we are, more than at any time I’ve ever witnessed. We’re all vulnerable. COVID does not care about labels we put on ourselves.
Lahti: I’m really hopeful. It was such a seismic shift culturally with the #MeToo movement. I feel the same way in terms of racial injustice right now. I think the focus on racial injustice is past due. It is urgent. It is necessary. Just like with the #MeToo movement, there are a lot of men who weren’t overtly sexist but had to look at their unconscious sexist bias and say, “Do I interrupt women?” Not just “Do I touch them inappropriately?” I think that’s what a lot of people are now doing about race, and I think it’s so important that it starts [at] a personal level.