Gloria Steinem on Marilyn Monroe
VTR Date: January 7, 1987
Writer, editor of Ms. Magazine, and political activist Gloria Steinem
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GUEST: Gloria Steinem
Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. Nearly a decade ago, when today’s guest joined me on another of these series, I gave away my age, noting how it placed me squarely in the generation of American men who first experience the breadth, and scope, and total visceral impact of the feminist movement upon our most cherished manners and morals, upon our very sense of what it means to be a man. Men of my generation, after all, have witnessed the most abrupt disruption and, hopefully, the most profound “sea change” in our own ideas and ideals relating to men and women, to family and home, to work and play, to both the innermost and the outermost expressions of ourselves. And I argued that since we needed so badly to gain some comforting perspective on the feminist revolution, what better source could there be than my guest then, as now, Gloria Steinem… writer, editor of Ms. Magazine, political activist, and as someone put it so well, feminist and gentle woman who has taught us that feminism and humanism can be synonymous.
And it was that program and ones we did together when her earlier Henry Holt book came out Outrageous Acts And Everyday Rebellions that led someone rather close to chastise me for being quite so smitten with Ms. Steinem that I don’t press her anywhere as vigorously as I sometimes do others at this table. Today, perhaps, will be different.
Anyway, Henry Holt has just published Marilyn, its new handsome volume about another American star, Marilyn Monroe, with photographs by George Barris, and text by Gloria Steinem, a text that shocks us with the realization that had she lived, Marilyn Monroe would now be in her sixties, and a text that quite honestly puzzles me enough to begin The Open Mind today by asking, why Steinem on Monroe? Fair question, I think.
Steinem: Mmmmmhmmm. That was a wonderful introduction, right up until the part about pressing me about…
Heffner: Well, I’m going to try to.
Steinem: Okay. It’s a hard question to answer for me because it seems so evident that it becomes difficult to explain. I think she was an exaggerated version of what woman are very often encouraged in general to be. All the more so in the forties and fifties, when she was alive, but even, even still. That is that she was encouraged to be childlike, to be ornamental, she was valued for her looks rather than for what was in her head or in her heart. She played a role of the role; that is the classic dumb blonde role. And in addition to that she was encouraged to conceal the real Norma Jean who was inside her in somewhat the way women… men, too… but I think even women more so, are encouraged to hide behind the stereotype. Yet that internal woman had experienced a lot of the things that we now know have happened to large numbers of women. Being sexually assaulted as a little girl. I mean when she was alive she may have felt quite alone in this experience, but since her death many more women have come forward and… and talked about this. And we know more know about its consequences. Fearing aging, much more than men do. Wanting desperately to be taken seriously and not being able to. So her existence in the culture is this massive mythical figure who exaggerates what women are supposed to be, and thus conceals her real self, is a kind of larger projection of the individual woman for a lot of us. So I got hooked. I got hooked on trying to find out who she was inside that mythic projection.
Heffner: Well you know, when I say the review of the book, knew you had done it, asked you to appear on the program, I went back to the earlier book of essays and read the piece you’d written then, years ago, on Marilyn Monroe. And I guess the question that I want to put to you is whether, was there really that much more that would have surfaced and would have developed if we were then as far along as we are in the feminist revolution?
Steinem: Well, it’s hard to know what would have surfaced, but I think there’s a good chance that she might be alive. And that’s very important. I mean if… if a movement can save lives what… what more important is there to do?
Heffner: She died then because of…
Steinem: She… well, I… she, she was, she felt very alone, very isolated. She was a child-woman who was trying to grow up but was rewarded for being a child, she was trying to play serious roles, but wasn’t allowed to be. She was trying to get her identity through a man as we were then taught to do… to marry whoever it is we wanted to become. An American hero in her case, Joe DeMaggio. A serious person, Arthur Miller. And so on. I mean she… she, she was trying to, to come to terms with that person inside herself, as we all are, I think. And had the movement been around to let her know, movement just means people moving, I mean I don’t mean in any formal sense, but women telling the truth. Perhaps she might not have felt so alone.
Heffner: Wait a minute. You don’t really mean not a movement, but people moving, do you?
Steinem: Yes. I think that’s what a movement is. A movement is not just… is not even primarily national organizations or words that end in “tion” as…its, its ways that you and I behave differently every day.
Heffner: And how do we behave differently now? How would it have affected her? You said she would have talked. She could have given expression to…
Steinem: Well, she, she did talk, but I mean she, she would have known when she spoke that she was not entirely alone in those experiences. She would have known for instance that about one in six little girls is sexually assaulted by somebody in their households. And would have had other people to confirm what the consequences are. That, that you feel as if you have no value, but a sexual value. And that it’s somehow your fault. Or…you know, I mean it’s pretty long-term consequences. She might also have had other actresses who were saying as she is, was saying, “I want to be taken seriously. I don’t want to play dumb blonde roles, I want to be a whole person on screen.” And she might have had a few more roles which, which were serious roles. She might have had her own identity instead of having to marry it. I mean we can’t know, we can only speculate. But there seems very good reason to believe that if she had been born later or the movement had been born earlier, she might be with us today.
Heffner: You say very good reason to believe… very good reason to believe in terms of the researches you did for the book?
Steinem: Yes, just in terms of what her life experiences really were, yes.
Heffner: A person of real talent then?
Steinem: I think so. I, I think she’s now recognized as a wonderful comedienne and also quite a serious actress in some of her earlier movies especially, though she never was given the scope or you know to, to really do a wide variety of work. Nonetheless, she’s, she’s spoken of by Strasburg and others as you know, one of his most talented pupils. He places her there with Marlon Brando.
Heffner: What a mind-blowing thing though, to… realizing, to realize as you wrote that she would have been in her sixties, albeit early sixties now. I kept asking myself what does it say about me and my generation? And I wanted to ask you a question that, that I haven’t asked you other times that you’d been here. You’re saying now that she would be alive, perhaps, had the feminist movement, the “moving of people” taken place earlier. I wanted to ask you what the downside would have been in regards to the life of Marilyn Monroe, whether there would have been any, in terms of what has happened with this movement?
Steinem: Well, I don’t think so because you know, she, she… it isn’t as if she enjoyed or loved being thought a dumb blonde, in which case the movement might have had a downside for her. She, she wanted very badly to be a… to be taken seriously. And the end of her last interview was just that. She plead with her interviewer to say, “say what I really believe”, she said. I believe… you know, the world peace and you know, serious subjects… please don’t make me a joke. Of course the interviewer didn’t use that at all.
Heffner: I was very much taken by that, “please don’t make me a joke.” Obviously you felt that that was a motif in her life.
Steinem: Yes, I, I think that she, she feared very much being humiliated, being laughed at and yet she was in this bind in which to become successful and to become visible, she had to take those roles.
Heffner: Well, let me move the question of downside slightly. Move it away from Monroe. Has there been, in your estimation, any downside? Ahhh, that’s a silly question. What has been the downside, because there has to be? If there’s an upside and it prevails, there’s always got to be some downside. And I wonder, as you look back now…
Steinem: Well, I don’t know, you see it’s… I, I know what you mean and yet I sort of question, I mean, would we say what has been the downside of combating anti-Semitism?
Heffner: Good question. Fair. But you say you know what I mean. So on some level…
Steinem: Well I, I think that, that, that the incline is up. The trendline, as they say, is clearly up. I mean women are living longer, we’re healthier, we have much less incidence of depression and mental illness, we’re less addicted to tranquilizers and other things that we used to be. We’re… we report ourselves to be happier, we’re… the American Psychiatric Association said the Equal Rights Amendment was necessary for the mental health of women. I mean, you know, it’s, it’s… the trendline is up. But, of course, until you are… you really have equal power in society, then anything you do to some extent, will be used against you.
Heffner: But I thought there were a number of people who were, ahmmm, stating that indeed for many women or for women generally, there were many areas in which they were taking on the problems, as well as the power of men. Is this not true?
Steinem: Well, but the… women had more problems anyway. I mean there is this… there is this kind of part of the backlash which says success will make you sick, you know… it’s sort of a well, if… women take on men’s jobs they will get men’s diseases and therefore…
Heffner: Not true?
Steinem: No, actually it’s not true. Women are living longer and are healthier. And, and part of the reason that women are having more heart attacks is because we’re living longer after menopause when hormones cease to protect you from heart attacks, and thus having more heart attacks. But it doesn’t mean we’re not… it’s precisely because we’re living longer… that we’re having more heart attack, if you see what I mean. And in fact the group that always had the highest incidence of, of stress produced illness, ahh, is and was, poor black women. In other words, the idea that rich white exec… male executives had, you know, stress and health problems and so on, I mean I have a lot of empathy for their stress and health. But they’re not the group that has it the most. What produces stress, it seems, is a feeling of being out of control. That’s a primary component of, of stress. And that is much more likely to happen among poor people than well-to-do people.
Heffner: You mean it is not power that tends to corrupt, but powerlessness.
Steinem: Yeah, I think powerlessness corrupts absolutely.
Heffner: And do you think that at this point, we’re moving into a period where there is more of a feeling of power on the part of women and therefore…
Steinem: More, but there are other problems that are, that are very, that are transitional problems that are very tough. I mean now middle class women now have the problem that previously poor and disproportionately black or minority women had, which is having two jobs. I mean you are both working in the labor force, paid labor force and you have to come home and take care of your own children and the house and so on.
Heffner: Well, why do you call that a transitional problem?
Steinem: Well it’s, it’s a transitional problem because it’s, it’s on, it’s on the way to men being equal parents for which we need to change the job patterns. Which we’re beginning to do. So that men get parental leave and can stay home when new babies arrive. So that there’s a shorter work day or a shorter work week for both the parents of little children. So that there’s equal sharing of parenthood and work outside the home. Instead of giving, you know, two jobs to one person. And, of course, you know we’re the, the only industrialized democracy in the whole world that does not have some national system of child care.
Heffner: You see any potential for that soon?
Steinem: Well, the last time we really had full-fledged national legislation that was possible, however fragmented, as you remember was in the Nixon Administration. It was passed, but Nixon vetoed it. And since then there hasn’t been any real opportunity for national legislation. But we have made a number of advances in terms of tax deductions for child care expenses, tax deductions for… tax rewards for corporations that provide child care, either on-site or through a chit system, you know. So there have been little, little advances, but not the kind of broad national policy… pro-child policy that we need.
Heffner: You say, pro-child. You think it has been a matter of our not really having been concerned with children as Americans always touted themselves as being?
Steinem: Yeah, I’m afraid so. I mean it’s… you know, we just… if we look at the way the society treats children and how much we welcome them into the work place or public buildings or… you know, I mean we segregate kids terribly. When I give a lecture, very often there will be a parent, I mean usually a woman, but sometimes a man, with a baby, at least one if not more, and the baby will start to cry. And that parent always feels… frequently feels bad and like they have to leave. And I always stop the lecture and I say, “Please do not leave.” I mean a child crying is much more human and pleasant sound than a jet overhead and we put up with that. Why can’t we include children in our lives? I mean at MS Magazine we have children in the office.
Heffner: I noted, ahhh, once again I guess it was one of the earlier essays, the business about kids in your office. Why is that… why is that of such significance to you?
Steinem: Well, our, our staff is not totally, but mostly women. I mean the men are welcome to bring their, their children, too. But things being what they are, it’s even more in demand because the staff is mostly women. And it, it means that they can come to work on days when perhaps the school is having a holiday or the child is, you know, feeling grouchy and doesn’t want to go school or whatever it is. It means that our authors can come in and correct a manuscript and, and have toys for the child to play with while, while the author is there. And I must say it’s wonderful for those of us… especially, I think, for those of us who don’t have children. Because we then get to have kids in our lives. And it’s, it’s wonderful for the kids because they get to know lots of different adults and they seem wonderfully secure, they don’t… they aren’t like the kids who, you know, who kind of… are real upset when, when their parent or parents leave. I mean they know a lot of different adults and they seem quite happy and they wander around the office with little signs saying, “Don’t feed me”, you know, ’cause we’re all so indulgent. And it, it, it somehow brings proportion and a sense of reality and a sense of the real world to our work.
Heffner: Talk about reality and the real world. Of course there have been those who have been saying in the last few years that there is a reversal. We’re not going back to the bad old days, but that there is a movement away from embracing the very kinds of ideas and ideals that you just talked about. Do you have any sense…
Steinem: Well, there’s certainly a backlash, yeah. Absolutely.
Heffner: Backlash implies truly reactionary movement away. You think that’s true?
Steinem: Well, I think… I think that’s true. And I think it’s, it’s very easy to think that it’s bigger than it, it actually is be… because for one thing it’s represented in the White House. I mean Ronald Reagan is a representative of the backlash in this regard, in terms of equality whether, you know, on race and sex both, he stands against the major concerns and legislation and gains and so on. But if you, if you consider that a backlash is in itself a proof of success, if you know what I mean. That is you don’t, you don’t get serious organized opposition until you are, in fact, taken seriously and also that the public opinion polls have been getting steadily better. Newsweek did a cover story on, on women in the labor force not long ago. And the cover story was full of sort of quibbles and pessimism and so on and so on, but the public opinion poll that they had sponsored was fabulous. I mean it was, it was saying that more than sixty percent of women feel that the women’s movement has positively affected their lives, more than half, I’ve forgotten all the figures, but consider themselves feminists. I mean… it was, the poll was, was almost the opposite of the article.
Heffner: Of course I didn’t really mean an organized backlash. I really didn’t mean the, the political movement, which as you say is a sign of success in itself. You don’t move against something that hasn’t achieved a considerable amount of success. I really meant what one hears about the attitudes of women themselves, women who had been involved to a considerable extent in the movement toward changing.
Steinem: You know anybody who wants to go back?
Heffner: Go back that’s, that’s not a fair… that’s not a fair presentation. But I rather felt that… attitudes towards motherhood perhaps, toward what one could do, toward an appropriate relationship to children, that there has been some feeling that the, well, the almost anti-motherhood attitude…
Steinem: Did I just sound anti-motherhood?
Heffner: No, no, not you.
Steinem: Okay, but who sounded anti-mother? You see I don’t think… I think that only the women’s movement has been trying to make pro-child attitudes and legislation and trying to, to honor motherhood and to honor work that’s done in the home, and so on. Here’s the problem, I think. It’s a problem in perception which I, I don’t know what to do about it. I think it’s almost inevitable. If… when, when, when women rebel it’s assumed that they want to be like men. Because, because what could be better, you know? And we never said that, actually, we never said we wanted to be like men. We wanted to be like people, we wanted men to be more like people, too. We wanted to, to share all of the human qualities. So, so there was a feeling that women who wanted equality didn’t want to be mothers because men were not mothers. And didn’t want to be housewives because men were not housewives. That’s never been the case. We want everybody to be able to be everything.
Heffner: But you know, I remember years ago, and it was indeed, many, many years ago, I’d been asked by a local cable company to do a number of programs. And you and I believe, Betty Friedan and two other members of a very new and very aggressive movement, feminism, spoke together. And I said at the beginning of the program I think we, men, needed the compassion that you’ve demonstrated, expressed. I don’t think and I don’t… I had the feeling at that time, many years ago, that you didn’t think that all of your sisters were quite so involved in that kind of compassionate and humanist approach to this movement.
Steinem: Well, I think the women who actually were homemakers were the most bitter.
Heffner: That’s interesting.
Steinem: Yeah. And they were, you know, very involved in the… they were much …they were active before I was, I mean, in fact.
Heffner: What are you saying when you say the women who were most…
Steinem: Well I think that they, they had felt marginalized and isolated, off in the suburbs and, you know, in their houses and without adult companionship and so on. I mean they, they had… they had personally experienced the, the real hardship. I mean, you know, being a homemaker is, is psychologically, physically, health-wise, economically the worse job in the United States. So their experience of that caused them to tell the truth in a way that may have made people feel and the… you know, the individual may herself have felt at that moment, that, that the very job of homemaker should be eliminated. But in fact, what, what those women really wanted and what has become certainly clear since then, is, is, is the need for respect and support and pay and, you know, for this job. Whether it’s done by, by men or by women.
Heffner: Do you think it’s still considered the worst job in the United States?
Steinem: Well, it’s not that it’s considered, it objectively is. I mean there, there is no, there is no guarantee of salary at all, it’s just room and board, legally speaking. That’s all your husband has to provide. Ahh, it, it and… what did you do with the fifty dollars I gave you yesterday? And women who are homemakers work longer hours, than any other class of worker, longer weeks, ahh, they have more incidence of, of drug addiction, of violence, I mean the most dangerous place for an American women is not in the street, statistically speaking… it’s in her own home. She’s most likely to be beaten up by a man in her own household. She has the most likelihood of being replaced by a younger worker…
Heffner: That’s an interesting point.
Steinem: I think it, just objectively it isn’t that the intrinsic work, I mean the intrinsic work is really interesting. Raising baby humans is a lot more interesting than a lot of what goes on, you know, in this building and factories and you know, a lot of the paid work force. Which is why men should do it, too. I think men would, would enjoy it. But when it’s privatized and pushed off in the corner and not rewarded and isolated and, you know, it, it gets to be very tough.
Heffner: Do you think it has, has anything very significant has happened about changing that privatization, pushing it off in the corner, making it very tough.
Steinem: Well, I, I think that, that two things have happened. One is that, that women’s influx, huge influx into the paid labor force have, has reduced the amount of time they have to spend in the home and also encouraged some men, I wouldn’t want to over-sell the number of men who are doing a lot of work in the home, but there are some who, who are now helping with the child-rearing. Helping, I say advisedly, not sharing. But at least helping. Hmm, and that, that has, that has made a difference, I think. And also precisely because women now are in the paid labor force and still expected to raise children more than men do, there is a kind of baby strike going on, as you may have noticed.
Heffner: A baby strike now…
Heffner: I thought that had ended.
Steinem: No, it’s still going on. It’s just that, that woman, I mean in other words, fewer women are having fewer children, but because women are also having them older, a new group of women is now having children, if that makes sense, but, but the, the per capita birthrate is still very far down.
Heffner: Do you think there’s any chance that we will get to the point at which there is, ahmmmm, not just helping out, but doing on the part of the father?
Steinem: Well, there… we have to. We have to. I mean we have to not just for the sake of women, but for the sake of men and children. I mean children are…. Have father hunger now. I mean, you know they always have had. The only real difference, it seems to me, between a welfare mother and an absent husband and a corporate wife with an absent husband is money. But the husband is still absent.
Heffner: Course you say it has to happen. That doesn’t mean it will.
Steinem: No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t. But I think…
Heffner: So the question that I put to you…
Steinem: But I think if, if the… I mean the, the right wing sort of so-called pro-family groups are now trying to restrict birth control, restrict abortion, you know, all the things that we know. In large part because they’re alarmed by the plummeting birth rate. And if they want the birth rate to go back up again, what we need to do is not to force people to have children, but to make it possible for people to have children. And to, to provide childcare and to, to, you know, allow a work pattern that, that means that fathers can be real parents.
Heffner: I hope that what you’re doing is predicting that that will happen.
Steinem: Well, I, I don’t know the answer is blowing in the wind. I mean it’s it, it depends on what you and I do every day and what everybody who’s watching does every day. Which is why I say literally a movement is what we do every day. I, I’m always real worried about thinking that a movement is organizations or, you know, top down activity because revolutions like houses, just don’t get built from the top down.
Heffner: Gloria Steinem thank you so much for joining me today and thank you for this beautiful book on Norma Jean… on Marilyn Monroe.
Steinem: Thank you.
Heffner: Thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wien; Pfizer Inc.; The New York Times Company Foundation.