Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in The Glorias

Julie Taymor’s Gloria Steinem biopic takes a fanciful approach to the feminist leader. We break it all down.

A black-and-white photo of Gloria Steinem is seen side by side with a scene of a fictional portrayal of her in The Glorias.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jay Godwin/Wikipedia and Amazon Prime Video.

The Glorias, director Julie Taymor’s film adaptation of feminist activist Gloria Steinem’s 2015 memoir, My Life on the Road, is not a conventional biopic, beginning with the source material: Steinem’s memoir is not an autobiography but an episodic collection of lessons she’s learned while traveling, arranged thematically rather than chronologically. The screenplay for The Glorias, by Taymor and playwright Sarah Ruhl, wrenches the stories and incidents from Steinem’s memoir back into chronological order but then adds fantastical elements: imaginary sequences that bring images and ideas from the memoir to vivid life and a framing device that has versions of Steinem at different ages interacting with one another. (She’s played by four actresses: as a child by Ryan Kiera Armstrong, as a teen by Lulu Wilson, in her 20s and 30s by Alicia Vikander, and in her 40s and above by Julianne Moore.)

The result is an idiosyncratic portrait of Steinem in which individual scenes and sequences adhere to biopic conventions, but there’s no attempt to tell Steinem’s life story comprehensively. You won’t find her time at Smith College here, or her work for the CIA, or her stint writing TV comedy for That Was the Week That Was; it’s not that kind of movie. Taymor explained to me in a phone interview what she’d cut and what she left in:

It’s not about her love affairs. It’s not about her marriage. It’s not about the men in her life except for the people she worked with. I knew that this was a love story about the women who became a part of her life.

But although The Glorias doesn’t try to cover its subject cradle to grave, the facts that do make it on screen are mostly accurate. Here’s what’s fact and what’s fiction in The Glorias, according to Steinem’s memoir and contemporary accounts.

The Steinem Family

The Glorias spends more time than most biopics do on Steinem’s early life and her relationship with her parents. That’s true of My Life on the Road as well, because Steinem credits her love of travel to her father, Leo (Timothy Hutton), a small-time antique dealer who took her along on his yearly road trips. This section of the film lines up with Steinem’s recollections, although the screenplay employs the common biopic technique of taking a general statement and dramatizing it with a specific incident that may not have actually happened. For instance, it’s true that Leo Steinem managed a dance pavilion at Clark Lake in Michigan in the summers, and it’s true that he booked big-name acts. No doubt the risks Steinem describes in this passage from her memoir were real as well:

Of course, paying the likes of Guy Lombardo or Duke Ellington or the Andrews Sisters meant that one rainy weekend could wipe out a whole summer’s profits, so there was always a sense of gambling. I think my father loved that, too.

The Glorias dramatizes this passage with a scene in which the Andrews Sisters cancel a show at Steinem’s pavilion because of rain, which probably didn’t happen. (The Andrews Sisters played there on Aug. 6, 1941, and definitely went through with the show because afterward, Patty Andrews was in a car crash that made the news.) Along similar lines, Steinem trained as a tap dancer and hoped it would be her ticket out of Ohio, but if she had a formative experience tap dancing with a Black friend in a Black barbershop, it didn’t make her memoir. She still breaks out her tap moves from time to time, though:

Beyond the standard biopic fuzziness, however, The Glorias version of the Steinem family is basically true to her memoir, from her father’s death to the mental illness that plagued her mother, Ruth Steinem (Enid Graham), a frustrated journalist.

Steinem as a Journalist

Gloria Steinem, and Alicia Vikander as Gloria Steinem in The Glorias.
Gloria Steinem, and Alicia Vikander as Gloria Steinem in The Glorias. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by the Library of Congress and Amazon Prime Video.

The Glorias presents a compressed view of Steinem’s early career in journalism, mostly taken from My Life on the Road, in which Steinem alludes in general terms to her difficulties getting the assignments she wanted from male editors. The film gets more specific: We see Steinem working on “How to Find Your Type (and if Necessary, Change It),” an article that ran in the February 1964 issue of Glamour (sadly not online), and there’s an entire sequence dedicated to “A Bunny’s Tale,” Steinem’s breakout exposé about working at the Playboy Club. That article, which ran in two parts in Show magazine in May and June of 1963, didn’t make My Life on the Road—Steinem regretted writing it for years—but you can read part one and part two online.

Steinem’s journalism was the thing that led her to her life’s work, not the work itself, so some of her odder and more colorful jobs—she worked for Harvey Kurtzman at Help!—get left out, but what’s on screen is accurate. Incidentally, the film shows two writers condescending to Steinem while sharing a cab ride with her—one says: “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”—but doesn’t identify them by name. My Life on the Road is less reticent: The men in the cab were Gay Talese (speaking) and Saul Bellow.

The March on Washington

As seen in The Glorias, Steinem attended the March on Washington in 1963 and, in her telling, was next to a Black woman named “Mrs. Greene” (played by Deetta West on screen) who was unhappy with the lack of women speakers at the March. Greene’s dialogue is taken straight from Steinem’s account.

Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe)

Dorothy Pitman Hughes, and Janelle Monáe as Dorothy Pitman Hughes in The Glorias.
Dorothy Pitman Hughes, and Janelle Monáe as Dorothy Pitman Hughes in The Glorias. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Ms. Foundation for Women and Amazon Prime Video.

Steinem met Dorothy Pitman Hughes in 1969, when she wrote about the multiracial, multiclass child care collective Pitman Hughes founded. The two became fast friends and, as seen in the movie, speaking partners and co-founders of both the Women’s Action Alliance and Ms. magazine. (It’s Pitman Hughes next to Steinem in the iconic photo giving the Black power salute, which they re-created in 2017.) Pitman Hughes eventually had to cut back on her travel to spend more time with her children—the incident where a flight attendant tells her she can’t breastfeed on a flight is in Steinem’s memoir—and relocated to Florida in the 2000s, but she has remained an activist, and she and Steinem still occasionally share a stage. Also, she’s actress Gabourey Sidibe’s aunt!

The Harvard Law Review Speech

The Glorias spends some time re-creating a Harvard Law Review banquet Steinem spoke at in 1971, and the furious response her speech provoked from professor Vernon Countryman. Ira Lupu, who attended the speech as a student at Harvard Law, published his recollections of the incident, including excerpts from the speech Steinem delivered, and their memories more or less align. The one liberty The Glorias takes with the record is having Steinem respond to Countryman’s deranged anti-feminist rant by pausing, then telling the audience, “I didn’t pay him to say that.” In My Life on the Road, she says she learned this tactic after the speech, from Florynce Kennedy.

Florynce Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint)

Florynce Kennedy, and Lorraine Toussaint as Florynce Kennedy in The Glorias.
Florynce Kennedy, and Lorraine Toussaint as Florynce Kennedy in The Glorias. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Anthony Calvacca/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images and Amazon Prime Video.

Lawyer and activist Florynce “Flo” Kennedy became Steinem’s speaking partner after Dorothy Pitman Hughes stepped back, and she was as flamboyant and brassy in real life as she appears in The Glorias and as depicted in the miniseries Mrs. America earlier this year—People magazine called her “the biggest, loudest, and, indisputably, the rudest mouth on the battleground where feminist activists and radical politics join in mostly common cause.” Here’s some footage of Kennedy at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami from Sandra Hochman’s 1973 documentary, Year of the Woman—Steinem is in the background:

In My Life on the Road, Steinem recounts her frustration at reporters who directed questions about women to her and questions about civil rights to Kennedy or Pitman Hughes, a dynamic you can see in both The Glorias and this 1972 footage of reporters and cameraperson alike ignoring Kennedy to focus on Steinem:

Kennedy died in 2000.

The St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church Controversy

in Minneapolis, which caused a minor church scandal. Rev. Harvey Egan invited her to speak without getting permission from the archdiocese, conservatives and anti-abortion activists were outraged she was allowed to speak at all, and eventually Egan was reprimanded by the archbishop. Shortly afterward, the pope banned sermons delivered by laypeople. LeRoy Vague, who was the song leader at the church at the time, kept some audio from her speech:

Bella Abzug (Bette Midler)

Bella Abzug, and Bette Midler as Bella Abzug in The Glorias.
Bella Abzug, and Bette Midler as Bella Abzug in The Glorias. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by the Library of Congress and Amazon Prime Video.

Bella Abzug, the lawyer-turned-congresswoman who represented Manhattan’s West Side and part of the Bronx in the 1970s, doesn’t get all that much screen time in The Glorias (she gets more in Mrs. America), but Bette Midler makes a meal of it. The Glorias includes an Abzug story that didn’t make My Life on the Road: When Screw magazine caricatured Steinem, nude, in a “Pin the Cock on the Feminist” cartoon, Steinem complained to Abzug that the drawing had “my face and my head,” and Abzug apparently replied, “and my labia”—a story Steinem has frequently told since. Abzug died in 1998.

Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez)

Dolores Huerta, and Monica Sanchez as Dolores Huerta in The Glorias.
Dolores Huerta, and Monica Sanchez as Dolores Huerta in The Glorias. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Jay Godwin/Wikipedia and Amazon Prime Video.

Labor activist Dolores Huerta gets a big scene in The Glorias in which she and Steinem discuss abortion rights during the National Women’s Conference of 1977. Huerta, a devout Catholic, was against abortion when she began her career but came to believe reproductive freedom was an essential prerequisite for women’s liberation. Huerta has credited Steinem and Eleanor Smeal with changing her mind—but it isn’t very likely that Steinem invited Huerta to abandon an anti-abortion protest to check out the National Women’s Conference, because Huerta was already a delegate. This scene, like the Andrews Sisters canceling, is another example of biopic shorthand: a fact that is generally true is dramatized with a specific incident that probably didn’t happen.

Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero)

Wilma Mankiller, and Kimberly Guerrero as Wilma Mankiller in The Glorias.
Wilma Mankiller, and Kimberly Guerrero as Wilma Mankiller in The Glorias. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images and Amazon Prime Video.

Cherokee activist Wilma Mankiller plays a large role in The Glorias’ final section, which shows Steinem working on Mankiller’s 1987 campaign to become the first woman elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. That happened—although the movie doesn’t make clear that Mankiller was already serving as principal chief at the time because she’d been deputy chief when Ross Swimmer was appointed to a position on the Bureau of Indian Affairs—and Steinem’s friendship with Mankiller and her husband, Charlie Soap (Mo Brings Plenty), shows up on screen just as it does in the memoir. Similarly, Steinem’s marriage to David Bale (Christian Bale’s father!) happened at Mankiller’s house in 2000. And in 2010, when Mankiller was dying of cancer, Steinem traveled to Oklahoma and was there when she died. (Per her wishes, Charlie Soap really did take her leg brace out back and shoot it.) One thing that didn’t make it into the film was the summer Mankiller spent in Boston undergoing chemotherapy: Steinem cancelled a scheduled trip to Australia to help with her care. According to her memoir, they spent the summer binge-watching Prime Suspect.

The Bus Out of Time

To our knowledge, four versions of Gloria Steinem at four different points in time have never shared a cross-country Greyhound bus trip, which is probably for the best, given the risk of time travel paradoxes. Taymor told me she landed on this framing device by thinking about The Glorias as a road movie:

I looked for what I call an ideograph, which is to take the entire concept of the story—a road movie, what is that? What is the road? What is the journey?—and I came up with the concept of a Greyhound bus, because that’s such an archetypal image for America about travel and moving city to city. So with that black-and-white imagery of the Greyhound bus, I could have a bus out of time. And those Glorias, either by themselves, or in twos and threes, or all four of them, are on this bus, forever going to Washington to march, forever going to the next speech about women’s rights.

The footage of Steinem at the Women’s March was a stand-in for Taymor’s original plan: using documentary footage she’d shot of Steinem from the night of the 2016 election. Given how the election turned out, “it was just too depressing.”

That Part Where Gloria Steinem Summons the Tornado From The Wizard of Oz Into a TV Studio After a Male Reporter Comments on Her Appearance

This incident is based on a 1971 Eyewitness News interview Steinem gave in which, according to printed accounts, Bill Beutel told her, “I hope you forgive our masculine notion that you’re an absolutely stunning sex object.” She replied, “Well, I should comment on your appearance but I don’t have the time.” It’s unlikely that Steinem summoned the tornado from The Wizard of Oz into the TV studio, it’s unlikely that a terrified Beutel was blown into the air while Steinem cackled wildly, and it’s unlikely that apparitions of the younger Steinem appeared around the tornado to cackle about Beutel’s misfortunes. Since video of the Eyewitness News segment never made it online, though, it’s impossible to know for sure. Until we can sort all this out, we would recommend television reporters refrain from asking Steinem inappropriate questions.