On Tonight: Gloria Steinem, Reluctant Heroine

The TV Critics Association summer press tour came this year in bunny ears.

There was a visit to the Playboy Mansion so they could introduce their programming. NBC presented a panel on its new drama series “The Playboy Club.”

And a woman who earned her name going underground as a bunny in one of those clubs and exposing it in journalism was feted for her work in forwarding the women’s movement.

In introducing Gloria Steinem,  subject of the new “Gloria: In Her Own Words” (HBO, 9 p.m.), the network’s documentaries chief Shiela Nevins gave the kind of tribute few get.

“I probably wouldn’t be behind this podium today if it weren’t for Gloria Steinem,” Nevins says. And no matter how many times you tell this magnificent woman how inspirational she is and how she’s changed your life and the lives of women who grew up with you, in this business and in other businesses, I don’t know how deeply it goes because she’s always going to try to make things better. I haven’t met anyone who’s met Gloria who doesn’t say ‘I love her.’”

And for Steinem, 77, it’s a bit embarrassing to be the focus of a film on her life.

And in fact she turned down the filmmakers who “had asked me about using my life as a way of looking at the whole movement, and I said, ‘No, that won’t work because the whole movement is too big and too diverse for anybody.’”

But in the end she talked them into making a bigger multi-part history of the women’s movement for PBS while still agreeing to sit for an interview about her own life.

“It’s really scary to just give up total control and submit your life to somebody else,” Steinem says.

But having secured the larger film, she adds, “I felt okay about doing this personally. And I like the form very much because it’s it is in your own words. You sit for an interview, and they do all the rest.”

Ultimately, she says, “I just think it’s so important to tell our stories. Otherwise people look at somebody who has done something and they think, ‘Well, I couldn’t do that because they’re different than me.’ So it seems very important to be truthful and to say personally what our stories are so that other people feel empowered by that. That’s my hope for this documentary, that people will see an imperfect person with all kinds of different things who did this, and then they will say, okay, if she did that, maybe I can do it, too, and figure out what the future should be.”

Contrary to some belief, Steinem says the modern young woman is more feminist than they are given credit for.

“They’re much more if you look at the public opinion polls, they’re actually much more supportive of all of the issues of equality.”

But society has a ways to go.

“Look, the Miss America contest, I believe, in all the states, I believe, are still the single biggest source of scholarship money for women in the United States. This is bananas.”

I asked her about embodying a whole movement – she gets the praise from most of the professional women in attendance, for example. But she also bears the brunt of criticism.

It’s a huge gift because I meet people, and it’s a whole movement. I’m not crazy enough to think that it was about one person. But because I symbolize it, I get the stories. People will say to me, “Oh, I want to tell you what happened and how my life has changed and how…” It is amazing. Wonderful stories.”

On the other hand, she says, I remember some guy saying to me on the street. “I employ 20 women, and I pay them half what I pay men. If I had to pay them more, I’d fire them. What do you think of that?” So I say, “What’s your name? You’ve broken the law. What’s your name?”

“You get attacked,” she says, “But mostly I get attacked by people that if they liked me, I’d know I was doing something wrong.”

“Gloria: In Her Own Words” premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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