The conservative impulse to re-litigate the cultural revolution of the 1960s and ’70s has made what otherwise might be dismissed as historical artifacts — like the foundation of modern feminism — seem unexpectedly timely and relevant. So it is with “Gloria: In Her Own Words,” an HBO documentary in which activist Gloria Steinem recounts her personal and political journey, dating back to an era where, she says, “There was no word for ‘sexual harassment.'” Now in her 70s, Steinem remains a potent force and skilled raconteur — and a compelling prism through which to view 40 years of women’s rights advocacy.
With abortion still as divisive as ever, Steinem begins by recalling her early days as a journalist as well as her decision to have an abortion. She discusses how an editor casually asked her to go to a hotel with him, or how she famously made her mark infiltrating the Playboy Club, leading to the expose “A Bunny’s Tale,” an experience she in hindsight regrets.
Steinem’s striking looks (she drew her style, she says, from Audrey Hepburn’s character in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”) were certainly at odds with some of the cruder stereotypes associated with women’s lib, many of them presented here. These are depicted through fascinating clips and old interviews, including then-CBS journalist Harry Reasoner’s remarkably dismissive commentary about the launch of Ms. magazine, suggesting there would be nothing to write about after the first edition.
This is, clearly, a valentine to its subject from producers Peter Kunhardt (who also directed), Dyllan McGee and HBO’s Sheila Nevins, much like Kunhardt’s earlier ode to Ted Kennedy using the self-narrated “In His Own Words” approach. But the brisk hour deftly captures Steinem’s pioneering role in the women’s movement, along with what frontiers still remain unconquered.
Rich as the subject is, the mix of first-person reminiscence with archival material doesn’t overstay its welcome by a moment. As such, it’s a wholly satisfying portrait, even if the view is every bit as rose-colored as Steinem’s glasses.