By guest blogger Maureen Murdock; editorial review by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson.
Last year my partner, Bill and I went to a matinee performance of “Gloria: A Life, ” Emily Mann’s play about Gloria Steinem. The setting at the Daryl Roth Theater in lower Manhattan was arranged as if we were in a consciousness-raising group. The stage area was in the middle, carpeted with Persian rugs like Ms. Steinem’s own apartment. We, the audience, sat around the stage in bleacher-style rows covered with multi-colored pillows. Six aisles allowed for non-Gloria characters to come and go as scenes changed. Images of Gloria’s life were projected above the stadium seating on two opposite walls. Christine Lahti, looking exactly like the feminist trailblazer in black bell-bottoms and tinted aviator glasses played Gloria.
The first act traced Gloria’s life from small town girl taking care of her mentally ill mother in Dayton, Ohio through her rise to become an icon of the Second Wave of Feminism. What was poignant is that Gloria became a journalist to get away from her mother and found out years later that her mother had been a newspaper journalist herself before Gloria was born. Her mother was then abandoned by her husband and became terminally depressed. Gloria realized, like so many of us who have had depressed mothers, that she ended up living her mother’s “unlived life.”
Film clips of Gloria from her time undercover as a Playboy bunny, to her early reporting on the women’s movement, to her involvement in the creation of Ms. Magazine (with many others in her living room), to images of her addressing the crowd at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D. C. appeared on the walls around us as the play evolved. Other actors played many other feminist leaders such as Florynce Kennedy and Wilma Mankiller, black and Native American leaders often left out of standard histories.
When her husband of three years died of cancer, Gloria turned to Wilma Mankiller. Wilma told Gloria a story about her own near death experience in her forties which included such a feeling of ecstasy that she didn’t want to return to the living when given the choice. However, she did make the decision to live and assured Gloria that her husband probably was also gifted with an ecstatic release from his suffering in death. The whole idea of death being an ecstatic experience gave me hope.
Gloria had her own #MeToo moment before the movement was named. A New York Times editor suggested to Steinem that they “discuss her work in a hotel room this afternoon”; and in 1963, when she was sitting in a cab ride in between Gay Talese and Saul Bellow, Talese said, “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl.”
Perhaps the most important part of Gloria’s coming of age was finding her voice by listening to others in consciousness-raising groups and speaking with other women. It surprised me to learn that she had a fear of public speaking and so she always invited another feminist like Florynce Kennedy or Bella Abzug with her colorful hats to share the stage with her. “Social justice movements start with people sitting in a circle,” she says in the play and that’s exactly what the second act consisted of. At the end, there was a 20-minute talking circle in which we, the audience, were invited to share our own responses to what we had seen in the play or what we had lived. The guidelines were principles enunciated by Black Lives Matter projected on the walls in big letters: “Lead with love, low ego, high impact, move at the speed of trust.”
The lights came up and the first person to raise her hand for a microphone was a 16-year old girl. I was pleased to see such a young woman present because most of the audience—almost all women and the few men—looked like survivors of the nineteen sixties. She said, “ I’m 16 and I grew up with a mother who always told me I could be anything I want to be. I appreciate the sacrifices that Gloria made for all of us and I’m really grateful to my mother for giving me the confidence that I can be anything I want to be.” Impressed by how articulate she was, we all clapped as Christine Lahti said, “There is the next Gloria Steinem!”
An older woman, sitting high up in the bleachers said, “I want to tell you what it was like in the ‘60s. My husband was a student at Yale and I worked in the library to support us. There was a man who worked with me in the library and I found out that he was making more money than me. I talked to some of the other women who worked there and we went to our boss and asked for a raise. Our supervisor said, “Well, he’s a man. Someday he will have to support a family!” The woman replied, “Well, I am supporting a family. My husband is a student and I work to support us both.” (I nodded, thinking back to how I worked on a psych ward while my first husband was in law school). Having received no satisfaction from her supervisor, she went above him to one of the Deans, who eventually gave her a raise. She interrupted our applause by saying, “Wait! There’s a happy ending to that story. I got promoted and now that man works for me!” We all roared with approval.
There were a couple of men who raised their hands to speak. One man, who appeared to be in his early ‘50s, said, “I work for a company whose name is not important. I wanted to give a woman who works with me a 20% raise. I was told by the HR department (managed by a woman) that I could only give her a 10% raise. So I said, ‘Oh, I see. She’s a woman. We always pay a woman less.’ We all groaned. As he gave up the mic, he said, “She got the 20% raise. It works every time.” We hooted and hollered!
Another man, with thin graying hair, on the other side of the theater, took the mic and slowly said, “I have been crying throughout this entire performance. It touched me deeply.” We all got quiet and the woman sitting next to him put her arm around him. He continued through his tears. “I have been thinking about how oppressed I have felt throughout my entire life.” His comment surprised me.
When he spoke the word “oppressed,” I thought he was going to admit to situations in which he had oppressed women and apologize. Or that in seeing the play and identifying with women, it began to dawn on him that he had been oppressed during his life as well. But he didn’t explain how he felt oppressed and I began to feel cynical. This show was about how women have struggled against inequality and I felt that he was co-opting Gloria’s story for himself. He continued, “I’m 72 years old and I was a feminist before any other man was a feminist.” The audience sighed. I wanted to scream. How dare he claim that for himself.
Here was a man pulling on our heartstrings by comparing what he saw as his own oppression to the oppression of women we had just witnessed on stage. The principle of Low Ego had been abandoned: instead the man was inducing the audience into expressing sympathy and taking care of him. Christine Lahti could have explained that the play wasn’t about male oppression, or called attention to the message on the wall. She didn’t do either, at least not on this afternoon. Instead, she fell into the trap of equating men’s and women’s circumstances by saying–with great warmth–“Thank you so much for your courage and your tears.”
He successfully hijacked the moment. But I am sure I wasn’t the only one who had noticed that the self-proclaimed first male feminist hadn’t grasped the concept of low ego. And a moment is not the journey. As Gloria—A Life, Gloria Steinem herself, and many of the other speakers that day showed us, when you encounter high egos blocking the way, it’s a call to step around them–and keep moving.
Maureen Murdock, Ph.D. teaches memoir writing at UCLA and in Pacifica Graduate Institute’s memoir certificate program, “Writing Down the Soul.” She is the author of the best selling book The Heroine’s Journey, which delineates the feminine psycho-spiritual journey, as well as four other books: Unreliable Truth: On Memoir and Memory; Fathers’ Daughters: Breaking the Ties that Bind; Spinning Inward; The Heroine’s Journey Workbook, and Blinded by Hope: My Journey through My Son’s Bipolar Illness and Addiction published under a pseudonym.
You can find her blog on her website: www.maureenmurdock.com