“The Glorias”: 4 Lessons for Young Activists From the Gloria Steinem Biopic

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The Glorias is a cinematic testament to the culturally-transformative life and work of an American feminist icon.

The film, which was released for streaming September 30 on Amazon Prime Video, is based on Gloria Steinem’s 2015 memoir My Life on the Road. Artfully adapted to the screen by famed Frida director Julie Taymor, The Glorias depicts Steinem’s life from her poor, unstable childhood in Toledo, Ohio, to her moving 2017 speech in front of hundreds of thousands at the Women’s March on Washington — and her decades-long career as a journalist and activist in between. The film pays tribute to the success and personal sacrifice of a woman who has devoted a lifetime to toppling the patriarchy and making feminism mainstream.

Ultimately, though, the value of The Glorias lies not in its powerful portrayal of its central character, but in the lessons Steinem’s story holds for future generations. The struggle for gender equality and women’s rights is as real today as it was during the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s (the social movement in which Steinem played a prominent role), and The Glorias gives audiences an ample dose of activism inspiration to continue the feminist fight.

Here are some of the film’s most memorable words of wisdom for young activists.

“If You Hope People Will Change How They Live, First You Should Know How They Live.”

Early in the film, Gloria (played by Alicia Vikander and, later in her life, by Julianne Moore) is fresh out of college and traveling through India. She is invited to accompany Indian women from village to village to bear witness to other women’s stories of sexual violence and oppression. As they set out on their journey, Gloria’s host and travel companion advises her: “If you hope people will change how they live, first you should know how they live.” Gloria spends an evening listening to the lived realities of village women. Afterwards, the women thank her for listening and express surprise that “anyone outside their village cared.”

While many activists might see themselves as leaders whose most important roles are to educate, inform, and testify to injustice, Steinem’s success seems grounded in her commitment to listen to injustice. Quoted in journalist Annie Groer’s 2014 article for The Washington Post, she says: “I was witness to what happens when women talk to each other…if you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them.” These words are a benchmark of Steinem’s activism and organizing in The Glorias, suggesting that sometimes simple acts of silent solidarity can touch people in ways words cannot.

“The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off.”

After launching her journalism career, Gloria is frustrated by a lack of serious assignments, blatant sexism, and workplace harassment. One editor informs her that girls do research and men write, and he later asks her to drop off mail then meet him at a hotel suite. A colleague asks her to make coffee, while another suggests she consider “going undercover in the pornography business.”

It is not until an exchange at the Civil Rights March on Washington that some of the first seeds of Gloria’s social justice activism are sown. The movie shows that Gloria is impressed when Mrs. Greene, a Black woman standing beside her at the march, questions an organizer about the lack of women speakers. She compliments the woman’s courage, and remarks that she usually shares her feedback through men, rather than to them, because they are more likely to listen to other men than women. The woman responds, shaking her head in frustration: “You white women, if you don’t stand up for yourselves, how are you gonna stand up for somebody else?”

Those words are not just a call to action, but a wake-up call for Gloria: Passive acceptance of personal injustice will not change the world, but channeling anger into activism will.

“A Movement Is Lots of People Moving…Not One White Woman.”

As a rising star of the women’s movement, Gloria is shown in the film being pressured to pose for a cover photo for Newsweek magazine. She refuses, insisting that “a movement is lots and lots of people moving…not one white woman.” Newsweek features her on the cover anyway.

Despite the media’s unrelenting focus on making her the face of second-wave feminism, the film makes clear that Gloria is shaped as much by the movement as the movement is by her. She comes into her own as an activist and organizer through the mentorship, friendship, and partnership of an all-star cast of feminist civil rights leaders. Women like Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Florence “Flo” Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), Dolores Huerta (Mónica Sánchez), and Bella Abzug (Bette Midler) are equally worthy of cultural acclaim and recognition for their world-changing work.

The Glorias honors all of the women of color who built the feminist movement. It highlights that when American women thank Steinem for her lifelong commitment to gender equality, they need to thank these women too. This is a glaring reminder of the media’s racist history of ignoring and undervaluing the critical contributions of Black people, Indigenous people, and more people of color. Effective social justice movements are not only diverse and inclusive, but equitable. The Glorias reminds us that “we are linked, not ranked,” and that this principle of equality must be reinforced whenever a white person is prioritized over a person of color—even (and especially) within social justice movements.

“The Path Up Is Always a Jagged Line, Not a Straight One.”

In the film’s final moments, we hear Steinem’s personal reflections on Hillary Clinton’s crushing loss in the 2016 presidential election as she composes an article at her computer. Her reminder that “the path up is always a jagged line, not a straight one” is poignant and somehow makes the sharp sting of Clinton’s defeat somewhat easier to bear.

Like the highways the ever-itinerant Gloria navigates throughout her life, The Glorias underscores that the road to equality is long and takes lifetimes to travel. For activists, this message can be as heart-wrenching as it is heartening. But a question from adolescent Gloria (Lulu Wilson) to her even younger self (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) sums it up best: “I feel like we’re going in circles. Haven’t we passed that sign ten times?” Young Gloria: “A gazillion times.

While the “path up” is familiar and paved by those who came before them, it’s up to those who follow in their footsteps to forge ahead. When asked what impact The Glorias might have on young viewers, the film’s director Julie Taymor tells Teen Vogue she hopes it teaches them to speak up and get politically active.

“Get your comrades, your friends, the people who are like-minded, and get out there and raise your voices,” Taymor says. “You don’t get laws changed if people aren’t out there saying, ‘We’re not going to take this anymore; we’re demanding things change.’”

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Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: Women’s Equality Day 2020: 5 Young Feminists Reflect on Their Work

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