By Jane Fonda Written for Lenny: My Convoluted Journey to Feminism


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​The legendary Jane Fonda on how she came to define herself as a feminist​.

Lena asked me to write about my journey to feminism. Lena asks, I do. So here it is.

For starters, I was slow getting here.

In 1970, when I was 33, I learned that 5,000 women in New York City were demonstrating for legalized abortion. I wrote in my journal:

“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.”

Yeah, sure. I’m glad I kept that journal as a reminder of how far I’ve come. I had been married and living in France for eight years and had just come home to become an anti-war activist. It was a very different country from the America I’d left, so I decided to spend two months, that spring of 1970, driving cross-country to New York, where I was to start filming Klute. I needed to get to know the USA again.

Two weeks into my trip, Nixon invaded Cambodia; four students were killed at Kent State, two at Jackson State; 35,000 National Guard troops were called out in 16 states; a third of the nation’s colleges closed down; and before I arrived in New York, I’d been arrested five times for distributing copies of the Uniform Code of Military Justice outside military bases.

Yet what I remember most vividly was none of that. It was a woman I met. Terry was her name. She ran a G.I. coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, near Fort Hood. These coffeehouses — springing up outside major military bases around the country — were meeting places for active-duty soldiers who were questioning the war. I had just become involved as a civilian supporter of the G.I. Movement and was spending as much time at as many such coffeehouses as I could.

The moment I was in Terry’s presence, I felt something shift. Not something I had been missing or was looking for, because I hadn’t known it existed. But I felt different in her presence. I watched the way she dealt with the soldiers. She didn’t judge the young men who were on their way to Vietnam. She knew most of them were from working-class or poor, rural, and inner-city environments with few alternatives or fancy lawyers to get them deferments. I watched as she engaged them in what I now call “heartful” listening — listening not just with her ears, but with her heart.

It wasn’t until much later, when I read Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, that I discovered the early 1970s were when new feminist psychologists were bringing empathic, relational listening — the opposite of the Freudian approach — into their therapeutic professions, with revolutionary results. It turned out that heartful listening can initiate a healing process for people who’ve been violated physically or psychically. I doubt that Terry knew this. 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.

Terry seemed to see me. Not the “movie star” me, but a whole me that I myself didn’t even know yet. I don’t think I’d ever felt seen before. She was interested in why I had become an activist and how I had gotten involved in the movement.

While we planned an upcoming rally, she asked my opinion and included me in all decisions. This was new for me. When the male staffers printed flyers for the rally without consulting the women, Terry called them on it. It was my first time experiencing what I later realized was feminist leadership and sisterhood, and it was powerful, palpable.

One night, Terry brought a feminist to the coffeehouse to speak to soldiers about the women’s movement. At first I was shocked. Why was it important to talk to soldiers about the women’s movement? 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.

I began to identify myself publicly as a feminist, although it would be many more years before I would be brave enough to look within myself and locate the multiple ways in which I had internalized sexism and the profound damage that it had done to me. As the Indian sage Kristnamurti said, “You think you are thinking your thoughts, you are not; you are thinking the culture’s thoughts.”

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. Meanwhile, I sort of … hollowed out. Almost everything interesting about me scooped itself out and took up residence alongside the empty, disembodied me.

It’s hard to be embodied if you hate your body. Like three of my father’s five wives, I developed an eating disorder (probably to fill the emptiness), and given that it was, at least partially, an inauthentic me that I presented to the world, I instinctively chose men who would never notice because of their own addictions and “issues.” Ah, but they were interesting, charismatic, alpha men, and they validated me.

If he’s with me, I must be someone.

And, of course, I continued to try to be perfect on whatever level the man I was with wanted, willing to forgo emotional intimacy and betray my own body and soul if honestly speaking with my true voice might mean losing him. (Trust me, my Oscars should be for my private life.)

It wasn’t even that I depended on any of them financially, as many women do who turn themselves into pretzels for their men. I always supported myself. (Since the issue of equal pay has been raised in this newsletter, I want to admit that back then my self-esteem was so low I assumed I was paid less than the men and that I didn’t deserve more.)

What the public saw was something else. They saw a feminist. And I was one, in that I supported women candidates, brought gender issues into my movie roles, produced women-centered films, and made exercise videos to help women get strong physically. But my feminism was theoretical, in my head, not my blood and bones.

For me to really confront sexism would have required doing something about my relationships with men, and I couldn’t. That was too scary. It would have been like stepping off a cliff without knowing if there was a trampoline below.

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.

I worry that the word patriarchy makes people’s eyes glaze over with the assumption that it means “Men are bad, and we need to change to a matriarchy.” Of course, given all the ways we’re now learning women differ from men, a brief dose of matriarchy might not be the worst thing: a course correction to restore some balance. My third husband, Ted Turner, is fond of saying, “Men, we’ve had our chance and botched it. It’s time to turn it over to women.” (On some level, he really means it. Then again, he never liked me to talk too much.)

But this is not about replacing one “-archy” with another, it’s about transforming social and cultural norms and institutions so that power, violence, and greed are not the primary operating principles. It’s not about moving from patriarchy to matriarchy, but from patriarchy to democracy. 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.

The journey is both external and internal, political and personal. For me, the personal meant becoming a single woman, no longer silencing my voice, slowly becoming the subject of my own life. My friendships with women grew deeper and more fulfilling. I read books I’d read before, by Carol Gilligan, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Gerda Lerner, bell hooks, and Jean Baker Miller, among others, but I understood them in a new way. In the process, I discovered that what I’d thought were just my issues were, in fact, shared by other women.

I was not alone. 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.

It took me 30 years to get it, but it’s OK to be a late bloomer as long as you don’t miss the flower show.

Jane Fonda is an actor, activist, and writer.

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  1. Hi Jane!
    Thanks for posting this here, otherwise I don’t think I would have seen it. I have read your books and have been a fan of yours for many years, so I was already aware of your story. But it’s nice to read about it again. It helps me to look at my own life and cut myself some slack. I have a tendency to be really hard on myself at times about many things and, as I get older, it seems to be more frequent. Meditation helps. Believe it or not, I got the idea to start meditating from your most recent book. Then I saw a documentary called “Awake” and learned about “The Autobiography of a Yogi” which I have started reading. I am also a student of A Course In Miracles. However, with all of these spiritual tools at my fingertips, it seems to be a constant struggle with me to find peace with myself. That’s why reading your story helps me to see that it’s never too late and to keep on rockin’. Thanks for that.

    • You got it, Mel. Meditation is hard. As my friend Elizabeth Lesser says, “you can’t, and you can’t and you can’t and then you can.” I think I need a mantra. I’ve been doing mindfulness meditation for 6 years which is silent following the breath, but am going to try Transcendental Meditation which uses mantras. Dont give up.

      • Wow…that’s a perfect quote! Very descriptive of my fledgling experience with meditation. I think some of my issues come from the fact that I was raised in the Catholic faith (complete with 12 years of Catholic school, nuns, a very large family on both my mother’s & father’s side…you name it) and there is still some guilt related to the past that I am having trouble forgiving in myself. So, the last several years I’ve been trying to work out in my mind my relationship with God, which is very important to me. I’ve tried both doing mindfulness meditation and Transcendental meditation. I’m not sure which one works better. I think it just depends on where I am at the time as to which one is more helpful. Thanks for the encouragement. I won’t give up. 🙂

  2. I loved reading about your journey. It got me thinking on a whole new level. I never thought about feminism. I grew up black in the projects and had other fish to fry. The women I knew in the projects were feminists by default. They were strong. They had to be. Most were head of household. My mother, a tiny little thing, was head of household. She never took crap from anyone. She picked bad men, but got out of the marriages and eventually went her own way on her own, working a factory job. She paid a high price on one level (when she went on vacation from her factory job, they had to hire three people to replace her; yet she never got a commensurate raise. The excuse used to be that men supported families, so they needed more money. Well, what about women who support families?), but she succeeded on so many others (she managed to raise strong women and successful grandchildren). I got my desire to fight from my mother. I wanted out of the projects and I made it all the way to law school and being a judge. I’m retired now and am doing freelance editing. My mother finally made it out of the projects (she hated all the rules that govern life when you live in government housing). She picked up and left for North Carolina all on her own. She loved N.C., and made lots of friends, but again could only afford to live in government housing, where she couldn’t have pets. She always took in strays, animal and human. Government rules seemed to follow her because she was on the poverty end of the spectrum, and could only afford government housing. So, she ended up in Florida, in a trailer, but it was her trailer. No rules. She finally ended up living with me in NYC for a blissful six years, the best six years of our lives together. She was no feminist, but she lived like one. I don’t think she even knew what the word meant (she was 94 when she died). She was a feminist out of necessity, as many single female parents are.

    As for Democracy, I’m not so sure I think it’s that great. It is great in theory–a government of the people. Sounds good, but it doesn’t work well in a capitalist society. I think socialism is the way to go. In a democracy, the majority wins, but in a true democracy, everyone should win. That can happen only when the whole of society is taken care of–socialism.

    Anyway, that’s just me thinking out loud.

    • Ah, Diedra, you think well out loud. Democracy is the goal, I think. I’m not sure capitalism as we know it, anyway, goes together with full democracy. In the past, we have been able to say with some truth that the U.S.A. had political democracy, but since the Supreme Court changed the rules on campaign financing, it’s no longer democratic. Sanders is right about the handfull of multi-billionaires who buy elections and thus put elected officials in their pockets to protect their gas/oil/coal/pharmaceutical etc companies. And now with voting rights and polling places being cut back, well, political democracy is shrinking by the week. We MUST reverse the campaign financing rules FAST. The question I don’t know enough about to answer is: can there be an economic democracy within a capitalist system? I fear not but not certain. Anyway, this country isn’t working within a purely capitalist system. Federal subsidies to various industries, agriculture and research, for example, is more socialistic. I think moving in what is called the “Third Way” is in order—part free market, part socialist, as in the Netherlands, Norway etc.

      • Hi Jane,

        I just got to read your reply. I’ve been busy, busy, busy. I agree with you about the “Third Way.” Part free market, part socialist is the way to go. I have faith that we will see a major change in our system. We can’t go on as we have. The current political environment is a disaster. Something’s gotta give!!

  3. Hi Jane,
    I just watched documentary on Nora Ephron on HBO. If you haven’t seen it, don’t miss…..
    At the end in an interview with Charlie Rose she mentions that she made a list of what she’d miss if and when she dies, like saying she would miss bacon. ( she was a foodie ) My favorite of hers was, having dinner with friends in other cities. Jane, after family and friends by name what would you miss?

  4. This was fascinating to read. What a journey of growth and realization! I have had misconceptions in the past about what feminism really was. Also, I had thought in the past that there were so many more important issues out there that should be addressed. What was I complaining about? Then I began following your blog. I have learned so much from you. I have learned how a woman’s voice in public issues could truly change the world. I have learned that even a person like me could help make a difference. Thank you for all that you do.
    Have you kept in touch with Terry?

  5. Interesting, I thought because you’ve experienced, learned, and listened more than most people in life I thought your list would be longer……

  6. Hello Jane,

    Once again, your words have moved me. One part in particular rocked me to my core. As I have mentioned in earlier comments, my mother left my family several years ago. She emotionally abandoned me by the time I could speak. But that’s okay. I’m a big girl now with a baby of my own on the way (who is making me bigger and bigger everyday! I’m loving all of the belly pats). But when you said “I don’t think I’d ever felt seen before”, that really hit close to home. And I have never thought about it in that way until you said it. I didn’t either, not for a long time. But a woman came into my life when I was 17 and flipped my world upside down. And she’s been here for me ever since. Just last week, she had major heart surgery (17 years overdue) and she came through like the tough lady she is. Her surgery was back home in NC, so I couldn’t be there. But I’m going down on Friday to help her around her house and I can’t wait to see her. In my mind, she is my mother and that makes things okay. But she is the first person who ever really made me feel seen. And it is still the most powerful thing I’ve ever felt. So thank you for putting words to my feelings.

    Just… Wow.

  7. Thank you for mentioning those killed at Jackson State, not just Kent State.

  8. Hi again!
    What a warm and cozy, heartfelt coffeehouse you have over here. Jane, I have a question. WHY weren’t you a professional dancer? Did you not think you were good enough? Were the studios not good enough to prepare you to go pro (or did you?)? Or were there sick expectations that you couldn’t measure up (or down) to? I say this because I had a wonderful day last fall visiting The Boston Conservatory, seeing their contemporary dance students. I almost broke down with an otherworldly sense of joy, tinged with remorse. These young artists were many shapes, sizes and colors, spectacularly individual, yet cohesive as a corps. They are beautiful, healthy and WHOLE. Your ballet training shines through all your videis, your energy and your poise. I see the tiny dancer within.She WAS enough, despite what anyone else might have thought. Now let’s talk about young women. You met my daughter when she was 7 years old. As time goes by (she’s 19), I’m in awe of her approach to relationships. She enjoys dating, but isn’t defined by who she’s with. She is committed to her own professional path (acting…pray for me) and is confident in herself, with or without a boyfriend. I revel in delight that she feels “whole” at such a young age. I hope the feminist movement continues to carry these young women into an ongoing sense of freedom in the years ahead. My heart breaks for your earler years. Glad you made it to the other side. Thanks for being a strong voice for a new generation.

    • Thanks, Becky O. I am grateful for my ballet training–it was basically the only real exercise a female had if she wasn’t a jock. And it has given me good posture. BUT, I have known all along that I didn’t have the talent to be a real dancer. That’s ok. I do other things. xx

  9. Jane,
    Have you ever been to a quaker meeting?

  10. Hi Jane 🙂 I’ve read your books and listened to many interviews so I’ve heard this stuff before, but I always love hearing it again. You’re an inspiration. I’m in a bit of a funk at the moment, wasting away days and finding it hard to get the motivation to make positive changes….I wish I could get some of your strength and drive. Hey ho, as the weather improves maybe I’ll get there. Sending love from across the Atlantic x

  11. Jane Fonda, you are a credit to us women. Us, all over the world. So proud to live in the same time/era as you. Thank you for everything you are and everything you stand for.
    Isabel xxx

  12. Ahh..that line that you wrote “it’s hard to be embodied if you hate your body”, really hit me. I can relate to feeling like you have to be perfect, and a lot of the other things you wrote about in this post. I’m working on loving myself more- in therapy. I so enjoy reading your posts, I relate a lot…(found your blog just recently so I am reading some of the older ones as well) Appreciate that you’re so open and real. We need more of that!

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