Gloria Steinem has been in the public eye for more than 50 years, but the feminist leader, who turned 86 in March, is having an undeniable pop culture moment. In January, she visited the Sundance Film Festival to promote "The Glorias," a biographical film directed by Julie Taymor. And this Friday, she can be seen in "Great Performances -- Gloria: A Life," a presentation of the off-Broadway play starring a longtime friend, Christine Lahti. (There was also "Mrs. America," but Steinem was not involved in the FX on Hulu limited series.)
"I feel as if I'm part of a big consciousness-raising group. I'm contributing my story in a way that I hope encourages other women and men to tell their stories," Steinem says via Zoom. After spending most of the last few months isolated in her New York apartment, Steinem is in California, and she joined Lahti at her Santa Monica home (where they were socially distanced in separate rooms) to talk about "Gloria: A Life."
The first act of the play briskly recaps Steinem's life story, including her difficult childhood in Ohio, the abortion she had as a young woman, her pioneering journalism career, the founding of Ms. magazine and her work with other feminists, particularly women of color such as Florynce Kennedy and Wilma Mankiller. Act 2 of the performance is a "talking circle," a Q&A session in which Steinem fields inquiries from audience members and listens to their experiences.
The idea for "Gloria: A Life," which was written by Emily Mann and directed by Diane Paulus, originated with actress Kathy Najimy, who suggested that Steinem should do a one-woman show about her life's work.
"I tried it and discovered no way could I possibly do it," she says with a laugh, noting the difficulty of conjuring authentic emotion night after night. "I have such respect for what actors do now."
When the project was reimagined as a play, Steinem was thrilled to be portrayed by Lahti, whose performance in the off-Broadway production of Suzan-Lori Parks' play "F -- A" had left an impression on her. "She spoke an entirely invented language. So I thought, 'This woman can do anything.'"
"Gloria: A Life" ran at the Daryl Roth Theatre in New York in late 2018. The confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh were fresh in the minds of many audience members during each evening's talking circle. "So many women were already triggered by that -- just open wounds," Lahti says. Other women spoke for the first time of abortions they'd had, and Steinem recalls an older white man who spoke movingly about being restricted by the masculine role. "It felt unexpected and right at the same time," she says.
The experience impressed on both women the importance of teaching younger people about the intersectional history of the feminist movement and the fight for social justice. "One of the most gratifying things was when young women would say during the talking circle, 'I wanna go home and call my mom,'" Lahti says. "So many young women haven't understood the battles that Gloria and our generation fought and are still fighting and how far we still have to go. Understanding that historical perspective is really important."
Were you overwhelmed at the prospect of playing someone so well-known?
Lahti: When it was offered to me, I jumped at the chance, and it took me a quarter of a second to say yes. But it was daunting, because Gloria has been a longtime friend and I wanted so badly to get it right and (to Steinem,) you were so forthcoming and so open, and I would call you up and say, "Tell me the worst thing you ever did to your mom and if this is too painful don't tell me," and you'd always say, "If it's not honest, it won't be helpful."