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By Aishah Shahidah Simmons
Gloria Steinem is a Second Wave White Feminist pioneer who, for over 40 years and counting, has been at the forefront and often a spokesperson for women’s rights in the United States and globally. Since the late 1960s, Steinem has either founded or co-founded several women-led organizations, which have impacted the lives of millions of women across this country and internationally. These organizations include the Women’s Action Alliance, the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Ms. Foundation for Women, Choice USA, and most recently the Women’s Media Center. A co-founding editor of Ms. magazine in 1972, she still serves as a consulting editor in 2011.
Throughout the majority of her activist life, Steinem has had strong alliances and been engaged in political and professional partnerships with a wide range of known and unknown Black women activists and writers. In the August 15, 2011 SFGate article “Gloria Steinem had strong influence on [B]lack women,” Black feminist author Evelyn C. White wrote:
“As national treasurer of the 1970s-era “Free Angela Davis” campaign, Steinem was a critical link in the legal defense of the Oakland scholar then jailed for her radical politics. She crafted the television speech that black Rep. Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) delivered in her historic 1972 bid for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. And it was at Steinem’s direction that Ms., in the early 1970s, began to publish Alice Walker and later appointed her one of the first black editors at the magazine. This, long before the author won international acclaim for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple…
Steinem’s activism and journalism have played a pivotal role in co-creating a feminist lens on a wide range of issues including but not limited to reproductive rights, political activism, union organizing, politics of representation in media/journalism, opposition to wars in Vietnam and the Gulf (past and contemporarily), lesbian and gay rights, female genital mutilation, pornography, and same-sex marriage. Her essays, articles, and bestselling books are viewed as classic feminist writings from which many view as road maps on their own activist journeys.
I am a 42-year old Black feminist lesbian who identifies as a member of the generation of Third Wave Feminists. I was raised in two households (my mother’s and my father’s) where women’s liberation was never viewed as being in contradiction to Black liberation. My mother, Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, was the first self-identified feminist I ever knew. I would definitely say that based on how they lived their lives, my grandmothers and great-aunts were feminists, though they never used that term to describe themselves. As a result of my rearing from both my mother and my father, Michael Simmons, I always thought both women’s liberation and Black liberation were necessary. Since adolescence, I’ve understood that I could not have one without the other. I have been consciously pro-choice/pro women’s reproductive freedom since I was ten years old. I have called myself a feminist since I was a teenager.
Additionally, in both of my homes, a subscription to Ms. magazine was as important as a subscription to Essence magazine (this was in the 1970s and 1980s when Essence was a much more radical magazine than it is today). Gloria Steinem’s writings occupied space on the bookshelves in both of my divorced parents’ homes. When I came of age as a young woman, I purchased Gloria’s books for my own emerging library(along with the books of numerous Black feminist writers including but not limited to Toni Cade Bambara, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, ntozake shange, Barbara Smith, bell hooks, Pat Parker, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, and Pearl Cleage). I also subscribed to Ms. and Essence magazines. Up until 2004, I don’t believe I had any direct contact with Gloria Steinem, but I certainly was inspired by her activism and followed it closely.
I virtually met Gloria Steinem in the fall of 2004 through Kevin Powell, a dear friend, comrade, and one of the earlier supporters of the making of my documentary NO!. At that time, I was in my tenth year of financially struggling to make this feature-length documentary, which would unveil the realities of rape, other forms of sexual violence, and healing in African American communities. I literally thought I was at the end of my rope; and couldn’t take another step further. I wrote and sent out an email to group of people including, definitely, Kevin. The email was a serious cry for help. In response to my plea, Kevin forwarded my email to a select group in his network of friends and colleagues with the hope that someone would be able to financially assist me and help push me either closer to or over the finish line. Gloria Steinem was one of those people to whom Kevin forwarded my email.
Upon receiving the email from Kevin, Gloria immediately reached out and applauded me on my efforts and commitment to forge ahead in spite of the resistance. She reminded me that feminist truth telling is very rarely easy and hardly ever rewarded. Gloria also shared information about the “Gloria Fund” at the Ms. Foundation for Women, a possible funding source. Now, I need to underscore that while I knew who Gloria Steinem was, I did not know Gloria and she did not know me. Gloria wrote me without having viewed a trailer or the rough cut of NO!. To the best of my knowledge, other than reading Kevin’s email introducing me followed by my email, she had no additional information about NO! (i.e., no proposal, brochure, flyer, etc.). And yet, she responded to her friend and comrade’s, Kevin Powell’s, call to support a Black woman making a film about addressing and ending sexual violence in African-American communities. She wrote me to offer moral support and to strategize about how I may be able to secure funding.
There are many instances on my 11-year journey to make NO! where I was completely humbled. Many of those instances include receiving support, both behind and in front of the NO! camera lens and from trailblazing women whose activism, scholarship, and cultural work literally broke the ground upon which I stood. Gloria Steinem reaching out to me was one of those profoundly memorable moments.
I received a post-production grant from the Gloria Steinem Fund of the Ms. Foundation for Women, which literally kept me from failing financially. Equally as important, Gloria’s email in response to my email via Kevin (which I have in my NO! archives), arrived in my inbox at that right moment. I will always be grateful to Kevin for his unwavering support of NO!, expressed in a myriad of ways, including his introducing me to Gloria Steinem. I also remain grateful to Gloria Steinem for reaching out to a stranger trying to and ultimately completing her Black feminist documentary.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to view Gloria: In Her Own Words, during its broadcast run on HBO. Unfortunately, I don’t have HBO. I look forward, however, to viewing it either online with a friend/colleague who has a subscription to HBO, or when it’s available on DVD. I have, however, made note of my Sister Shelby Knox’s appreciation of the HBO documentary while also wishing for a deeper treatment of Gloria Steinem’s philosophy and activism. Additionally and again admitting that I have not seen the program, based on what I read about the documentary, by Dana Goldstein, I’m concerned that there may not be many voices (not solely archival footage of) of women of Color who worked with Gloria over the past 40-years.
Clearly, there have been and are struggles around race and (mis)representation in the mainstream feminist movement. As a result of these struggles, tremendous inroads were made in this movement over the past 40-years. I believe that is a testament to the multi-racial metaphorical and literal kitchen table gatherings where some of the most difficult and at times painful dialogues took place. Gloria initiated some of those dialogues. She existed as an integral part of many of those dialogues. Furthermore, she has been challenged and, as a result, has changed because of those dialogues. This is a part of Gloria’s legacy that younger feminists of all races need to know, as many of these struggles remain as real today as yesterday. One need not look any further than the overwhelming Black feminist critical responses to the recent release of the film The Help in comparison to the minimal White feminist critical responses to the film.
As a documentary filmmaker, I know the power the moving image to document her/histories. While I’m elated there is a documentary film that chronicles significant parts of Gloria’s journey called life, I most definitely agree with my Sister Shelby, who is almost twenty years younger than I, when she wrote “…those of us who consider ourselves active duty members of today’s feminist movement, would be better served with more information about Gloria the radical, forward-thinking activist that she continues to be than about ‘St. Gloria.’”
If you missed Gloria: In Her Own Words, and have a subscription to HBO, it is available for viewing online through HBO Go until December 31, 2011. If you’re able, view it and join the Women’s Media Center’s “In Your Own Words,” campaign.
Aishah Shahidah Simmons is an award-winning Black feminist lesbian documentary filmmaker, published writer, international lecturer, and social change agent. Her internationally acclaimed film NO! The Rape Documentary, which is subtitled in Spanish, French, and Portuguese, has won several awards and is being used as an educational tool with racially and ethnically diverse audiences throughout North America, and in numerous countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, South America, and the Caribbean. Her essays are featured in several anthologies and journals. You can follow her on twitter, connect with her on Facebook, and/or read her AfroLez®femcentric blog.