‘Gloria – A Life’ Sparks Mix of Emotions


I’ve got 24 hours to do something outrageous.

I’m not sure what it will be – suburban life leans toward the safe side of things. But I’m committed. I’ve been assured the world will be a better place if I do one thing today in the name of social justice and activism.

The challenge came at the end of a “talk back” at the conclusion of the play Gloria – A Life in New York City. I attended Saturday’s matinee with about 35 members of NOW’s Connecticut chapter.

The play tells the story of women’s rights activist Gloria Steinem, from her heartbreaking childhood caring for her mentally ill mother in Toledo, Ohio, to her rise as editor and co-founder of Ms. magazine in 1971.

Along the way, it traces Gloria’s years at Smith College (about 80 Smith students were at Saturday’s show) and her budding career in journalism, which included “A Bunny’s Tale,” her expose of her 11 days as a Playboy bunny in New York in 1963. Patricia Kalember, who plays Gloria, has done her homework. In addition to being a dead-ringer with her over-sized aviator glasses, streaked hair and slim frame, she embodies Steinem’s attitude and wit.

When she entered the stage in an all black outfit, I did a double take. For a minute, I thought it might be Steinem, who lives in New York, making a cameo. During the talk-back, Kalember clarified Steinem’s position on many subjects, taking exception when an audience member said she hated all men.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say you hate all men. I think you hate what’s happening now,” she said. “Never give up. As Gloria would say, ‘Be a Hopeaholic.'”

I rarely go to New York City or plays, which made this trip a treat. Chapter president Cindy Boynton said she planned the road trip because she loves Steinem, and wants to offer a broad range of activities for NOW members.

“Not everyone wants to march at a women’s rights rally,” said Cindy, who has feminist lectures, knitting circles, happy hours and wellness programs in the works. “Some people want to be involved in NOW in other ways.”

Cindy said she’s offering activities that women feel comfortable attending alone. The vast majority of women attending the play and January’s bus trip to the Women’s March on Washington, D.C., went alone.

I like that NOW is offering these activities because it’s allowing me to break out of my routine and explore things that my husband has no interest in. I invited him to the play – a few men accompanied their wives – but he politely declined. Ordinarily, I might be nervous going my myself, but it’s fun traveling with the NOW group.

Our charter bus dropped us off at the Daryl Roth Theatre, a colorful theater-in-the-round that feels a little like sitting inside a kaleidoscope, and gave us a few hours to grab a bite  before heading home. We opted for Pete’s Tavern, a New York landmark with walls peppered with signed photos of famous guests. We sat under portraits of Soupy Sales, Peter Graves, Claire Danes, Bill Hader and my favorite, Johnny Depp.

I planned to attend the play solo when Cindy told me that there were a few extra tickets. I asked my 17-year-old daughter Maura to go and she agreed to join me. She made it clear that she had no plans of actually conversing with me on the bus, scrambling to find her wireless headphones on Friday night.

That was fine with me. As the family’s chief driver, I look forward to these bus trips for chilling out and reading, maybe even looking out the window. One of the most disappointing days of my life was a train trip to NYC with my son when he was nine. I was looking forward to doing nothing while he spent two hours talking non-stop about Pokémon and Digimon. I thought I’d lose my mind.

But spending time with my girl is special because it’s so rare. I still remember my devastation when I asked her to go roller skating a few years ago and she brushed me off.

“Why don’t you just go yourself?” she said.

She likes her space, so much that I often have to remind her that I live in our house too. She finds me annoying, and has no problem telling me how she feels. She often leaves the room as soon as I enter, but texts me from school. I don’t get it.

I’d be offended if I hadn’t gone through the same thing with her 21-year-old brother from age 13 to 19 in one of the world’s longest rebellious stages. He had no use for me, and often let me know it. It’s a good thing I’m not easily offended.

We sat across the aisle on the bus and next to each other in the theater. I gave her the aisle seat and was gratified that she paid attention and got the funny parts of the play.

When I asked her what her favorite scene was, she said: “the crazy Russian lady with the hat.”

“You mean Bella Abzug?” I said. “She was a Jewish Congresswoman from New York.” I can see her assuming Abzug was Russian, but the actor’s Bronx accent was spot on. I don’t know how she confused the two, but I’ll give her credit for singling out Bella. With her trademark hat and outsize personality, she was known as “Battling Bella” and was larger than life.

I smiled throughout the play, maybe channeling the energy of the ensemble cast in the intimate theater. Many audience members were emotional and wept, but I couldn’t stop smiling. Perhaps it was my glee about being in NYC instead of Marie Kondo-ing my pantry back in Guilford.

Or maybe it was my joy about how far women have come under Steinem and other leaders of the women’s movement. I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s when women were burning bras, breaking down barriers in the workplace and championing the sexual revolution.

I attended an all women’s college to further my education – not to grab a ring by spring – and kept my maiden name after I married. Though I insisted it was for professional reasons, it was personal: I didn’t think it was fair that women had to give up their surnames upon marriage. OK, that’s my first sort of outrageous act. I’ve never admitted that to anyone before. I kept my name for most of my marriage because I felt like it. And I have Gloria to thank.

I didn’t know any professional women while I was growing up – all of the mothers in my neighborhood left their jobs in their 20s to get married and raise families. But my generation was different, and we aspired for more. Most colleges went co-ed, and friends went to medical, law and graduate schools, and managed to build careers along with families. A lot changed in about 25 years.

Times were changing very, very quickly. And while there were growing pains along the way, the world is a much different place today than it was when I was born in 1958. Girls are raised to chase their dreams instead of boys. And while many women feel defeated by the current political climate in Washington, Gloria-A Life reminds us just how far we’ve come.

The play made me smile, reminding me that change is possible if you’re patient, persistent and believe. At 84, Gloria hasn’t given up, and neither should we.
Carolyn Milazzo Murphy is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Connecticut chapter’s blog. You can follow her blog at thegsandwich.wordpress.com.

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