Why On Earth Did It Take So Long For Jane Fonda To Become A Feminist?

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We love a good feminist awakening story! Those who identify as a “feminist” often come to be part of the movement in very different ways, and they are stories worth sharing. Gloria Steinem once said “the personal is political” and in essence that is what makes feminism such a powerful (and as a result, sometimes very polarizing) force. Our personal experiences, discriminations, and realizations can become the pathway to finding the movement that advocates for the social, political and economic equality of all genders.

We especially love stories from people who come from a place where they weren’t particularly interested in feminism in the first place, much like actress and all-round screen legend Jane Fonda, who was distracted by another huge issue before she started calling herself a feminist.

In an essay for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter titled ‘My Convoluted Journey To Feminism’, the ‘Grace and Frankie’ star began by confessing during the Women’s Liberation movement in the 197os, she remembers hearing about a demonstration advocating for legalized abortion, and this is what she wrote in her journal at the time about it:

“Don’t understand the Women’s Liberation Movement. There are more important things to have a movement for, it seems to me. To focus on women’s issues is diversionary when so much wrong is being done in the world. Each woman should take it upon herself to be liberated and show a man what that means.”

She says she it glad she kept that journal as a reminder of how far she has come. It was 1970, three years before the Roe v Wade Supreme Court case would legalize abortion in all 50 states, and Jane had returned from living in France, armed with a a new cause – anti-war activism.

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During a two month road trip around the country, President Nixon invaded Cambodia and she became heavily involved in anti-war activity, to the point of getting arrested 5 times. There was a G.I movement happening where active duty soldiers who were against the war and people like Jane started gathering to talk about their views. The group she would meet with was led by a woman named Terry who would spark the first feminist flickerings for Jane.

“The moment I was in Terry’s presence, I felt something shift…I watched the way she dealt with the soldiers. She didn’t judge the young men who were on their way to Vietnam…I watched as she engaged them in what I now call “heartful” listening — listening not just with her ears, but with her heart…I think she was simply modeling in her everyday life the sort of democratic society she was fighting for, where everyone deserved respect and compassion. She manifested this with the soldiers and with me,” she said.

During one of the meetings Terry brought along a women’s movement representative to talk to everyone, and at first Jane was confused as to what this person could want to talk to soldiers about. But after that night, it was like a light bulb went off in her head regarding equality and feminism.

“I remember the talk well. The woman said that if there were true equality between women and men, it would be good for both sexes: men wouldn’t feel that they alone have to carry the burden placed on them by the system. ‘It’s not a matter of women taking a piece of your pie,’ she said to the rapt men sitting on the floor of the packed room. ‘It’s about us sharing the pie and making it bigger. It’s a win-win. Boys, men, women, girls, the Earth, everything.’ Her talk helped me understand that for feminists, a belief system is the enemy, not men. ‘Patriarchy’ is what she called it. Up until then, I assumed being a feminist meant being angry with men,” she said.

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From then on Jane identified as a feminist but it would take a number of years before the recognized the many ways sexism had affected her life.

“The culture that incubated in me since childhood insists that to be loved, a female has to be perfect: thin, pretty, having good hair, being nice rather than honest, ready to sacrifice, never smarter than a man, never angry. This didn’t matter so much when I was a strong, feisty tomboy during childhood. But when I hit adolescence and the specter of womanhood loomed, all that mattered was how I looked and fit in. My father would send my stepmother to tell me to lose weight and wear longer skirts. One of my stepmothers told me all the ways I’d have to change physically if I wanted a boyfriend,” she recalled, which sadly are familiar cultural sexist issues that still exist today.

After developing an eating disorder as a result of the physical pressures put on her, going through a phase of feeling validated and important when men wanted to date her, and being OK with not getting equal pay simply because she felt she didn’t deserve to be paid as much as male actors, she realized that her feminism was still more cerebral, than lived out the way she wanted.

“For me to really confront sexism would have required doing something about my relationships with men, and I couldn’t. That was too scary. When I turned 60 and entered my third and final act, I decided that, no matter how scary it was, I needed to heal the wounds patriarchy had dealt me. I didn’t want to come to the end of my life without doing all I could to become a whole, full-voiced woman,” she recalled.

One of her passions as a feminist is to help people understand that it is not about simply replacing “patriarchy with matriarchy”.

“It’s about transforming social and cultural norms and institutions so that power, violence, and greed are not the primary operating principles…Feminism means real democracy. There’s no road map to get there. It hasn’t happened yet. Women and men of conscience have never had a chance thus far to make our revolution,” she explained.

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That is no exaggeration. We talk a lot about the inequalities facing women around in countries where they are not treated as equals, yet the US has never ratified the Equal Rights Amendment, we are the only industrialized nation in the world not to have any form of federal paid family leave scheme, we are yet to elect a female President (although that may change this year with the prospect of Hillary Clinton becoming the 45th president) and women’s access to reproductive rights and safe abortion care is under greater attack than ever before.

Jane explains that part of what helped fuel her deeper understanding of feminism was reading book by feminist authors such as Bell Hooks and Gloria Steinem, and learning that she was not alone in the sexism she face in her life.

“The personal became political, and I became an embodied feminist. I had gone from believing that women’s issues were a distraction, mere ancillary problems to be addressed after everything else had been taken care of, to the realization that women are the issue, the core issue. We will fail to solve any problem — poverty, peace, sustainable development, environment, health — unless we look at it through a gender lens and make sure the solution will be good for women,” she concluded.

And on the note of electing our first female president, at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, Jane unashamedly declared her affinity for the Democratic candidate.

“Hillary will be president,” she said, adding that her experience and ability to “hit the ground running”, despite some not warming to the idea of her as commander in chief, is key.

For Jane Fonda today, the personal became political and let her to find feminism. This is her story and she is sharing it with her fans, and we love her for that. To read her full Lenny Letter essay, click here.

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  1. Pingback: 10 famosas feministas: segunda parte - Blog Instituto del Bienestar

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