Christine Lahti’s portrayal of Gloria Steinem in PBS’ “Gloria: A Life” reflects both a veteran artist’s skill and a passion for the subject.
Lahti’s discovery as a young woman of Steinem and other feminist leaders opened her eyes to sexism and inequality and “saved my life,” as the Oscar-nominated actor (“Swing Shift”) puts it.
In the “Great Performances” presentation of Emily Mann’s play (Friday, check local listings), Steinem’s life and journey to social activism are dramatized in act one, with an all-female cast playing both male and female roles. Act two involves the theater audience in a discussion of the play’s themes, with Steinem herself serving as moderator.
If Lahti’s admiration for Steinem didn’t put enough pressure on the actor, the two also are friends.
“I remember the first run-through we had, she came to that and was sitting 5 feet from me,” Lahti said. “I have never felt more nervous in my life, and I’ve been on many stages and Broadway and on sets.”
In an interview with The Associated Press, Lahti discussed her own feminist journey and why the play has appeal beyond the converted, with remarks edited for clarity and length.
AP: When did Gloria Steinem and her work come on your radar?
Lahti: I was at the University of Michigan from 1968 to ’72, and I entered a completely un-woke, complicit-in-my-own-oppression product of suburban Detroit, ’50s, housewife-mother, doctor-father patriarchy on steroids. I thought women just were intrinsically, biologically second-class citizens, inferior. Then my world exploded: Vietnam, and Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Robin Morgan, all these incredible feminists. I dropped out of my sorority after one semester and changed my life, and I have not looked back.
AP: When you brought these new ideas home from college, was there a clash with your parents?
Lahti: It really threatened their way of life. But my mom went on to embrace feminism, to say, “Carry the banner for me, things have to change.” I said to her, “You can carry your own,” and she did. She went on to become a professional artist, a painter, and then a pilot. I stand on her shoulders, like my daughter is standing on mine, and the view is different.
AP: What does feminism look like to you now compared to then?
Lahti: One of the main things I loved about this play and the PBS film of it is the emphasis on Black feminism and how Black feminists taught Gloria Steinem everything she knew about feminism. And they were completely ghosted out of the media because they wanted to put the pretty white woman on the face of feminism. There were all these Black leaders, like Shirley Chisholm and Flo Kennedy and Dorothy Hughes, that no one knew about. The feminism that I understand now and embrace, and this is largely due to my daughter, must be intersectional and focus on how racism and sexism are so intertwined.
AP: The play explores Steinem’s ideology but also her life, including a very difficult childhood. Is it important that we understand her background?
Lahti: The reason I most wanted to do the play was to show the world that if someone like Gloria Steinem can do what she’s doing, anybody can. She came from a very working-class family. Her mother was mentally ill. The father had left the family, and Gloria ended up having to care for her from the age of 11 to 17. For this woman to get to be the leader that she is, with all that struggle in her past, is really inspiring.
AP: We live in a polarized country, and there are people who would take exception to some or all of how you explain the world. Is there something in this play for those who don’t already share that viewpoint?
Lahti: I think there’s a lot in the play for people who don’t think they’re feminists or don’t believe that others are oppressed. First of all, this play really helps define what feminism is, which is just somebody who believes that women and men should have equal rights. And I challenge any man or woman to say that they don’t believe that women and men should have equal rights. Feminism has nothing to do with being anti-male or even wanting the same kind of power that is ascribed to by the patriarchy. It’s a whole different definition of power. It’s not about a hierarchy that some people are above others. It’s about everybody lifting each other up.
Lynn Elber can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/lynnelber