Jane Fonda gained worldwide renown not only as an Oscar-winning actor, but for her feminism and social activism. She was born in New York City to screen legend Henry Fonda and socialite Frances Seymour Brokaw, and in her late teens joined Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio. She won an Academy Award for her performance in the thriller Klute (1971), and a second Oscar for Coming Home (1978). Among her five other five Academy Award nominations were the classic They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969), and On Golden Pond (1981), in which she co-starred with her father, and Katharine Hepburn.
Despite her success, her left-liberal political views and committed social activism often saw her dealing with a different kind of public attention, and she became the subject of heated controversy after her 1972 visit to the North Vietnamese capital of Hanoi, then being bombed by American aircraft during the Vietnam War. In this speech in 2004, she reflects upon the feminist movement and her own attitudes to feminism, and recounts two memorable incidents from her visit to Hanoi in 1972.
‘When my daughter read the brochure for this conference, she said, “Oh, mom, it's so New Age. Yoga, meditation. Inner peace. I thought it was going to be political. The elections are two months away.” Well, I understand her reaction. I would have had that reaction when I was 35. Or 45. Or 55.
Before I realised that if I was going to become an effective agent for change, I had some healing to do. And that things that we consider New Age, like music and dance and painting and drama therapy and prayer and laughter can be part of the healing process. I know that it was while I was laughing when I first saw Eve Ensler perform The Vagina Monologues that my feminism slipped out of my head and took up residence in my body. Where it has lived ever since ... Embodied at last.
Up until then I had been a feminist in the sense that I supported women. I brought gender issues into my movie roles. I helped women make their bodies strong. I read all the books. I thought I had it in my heart and my body. I didn't. I didn't. I didn't. It was too scary. It was like stepping off a cliff without knowing if there was a trampoline down below to catch me. It meant re-arranging my cellular structure. It meant doing life differently. And I was too scared. Women have internalised patriarchy's tokens in various ways, but for me I silenced my true authentic voice all my life to keep a man. Because God forbid I should be without a man. Preferably an alpha male. Because without that, what would validate me.
And I needed to try to be perfect because I knew that if I wasn't perfect, I would never be loved. And as I sat on the panel yesterday, my sense of imperfection became focussed on my body. I hated my body. It started around the beginning of adolescence. Before then I had been too busy climbing trees and wrestling with boys to worry about being perfect. What was more important than perfect was strong and brave. But then suddenly the wrestling became about sex and being popular and being right and good and perfect and fitting in. And then I became an actress in an imaged-focussed profession. And being competitive, I said, “Well, damn. If I'm supposed to be perfect, I'll show them.” Which of course pitted me against other women and against myself. Because as Carl Jung said, perfection is for the gods. Completeness is what we mortals must strive for. Perfection is the curse of patriarchy. It makes us hate ourselves. And you can't be embodied if you hate your body. So one of the things we have to do is help our girls to get angry. Angry. Not at their own bodies, but at the paradigm that does this to us, to all of us. Let us usher perfection to the door and learn that good enough is good enough.
There's a theory of behavioural change called social inoculation. Maybe some of you have daughters. Social inoculation. It means politicising the problem. Let me tell you a story that explains this. In one of the ghettos of Chicago, young girls weren't going to school any more. And community organisers weren't going to school any more and they found out they didn't have the right Nike Jordan shoes. So the organisers did something differently. They invited all the boys going to school into the community centre and they took a Nike Jordan shoe and they dissected it. They cut off one layer of the rubber and they said See this? This is not a god. This was made in Korea. People were paid slave wages to make this, robbing your mothers and fathers of jobs. And he cut off another slice. And so it went. Deconstructing the Nike Jordan sneaker so the boys would understand the false god that they had been worshipping. We need to name the problem so that our girls can say, “It's not me and we're going to get mad.”
We also have to stop looking over our shoulder to see who is the expert with the plan. We're the experts. If we allow ourselves to listen to what Marion Woodman calls our feminine consciousness. But this has been muted in a lot of us by the power-centred male belief centre called patriarchy. I don't like that word. The first night Eve spoke about the old and new paradigm and never said the word. I guess I'm too... it's so rhetorical. It makes people’s eyes glaze over. It did for me. The first time I ever heard Gloria Steinem use it back in the 70s, I thought, “Oh, my God, what that means is men are bad and we have to replace patriarchy with matriarchy.” Of course, given the way women are different than men, maybe a dose of matriarchy wouldn't be bad, maybe balancing things out. My favourite ex-husband Ted Turner - maybe some of you saw him say it on Charlie Rose. Men, we had our chance and we blew it. We have to turn it over to women now...
I never told these stories in a context like this, but I'm going to tell you two stories. I went to Hanoi in 1972 in July. And I was there while my government was bombing the country that had received me as a guest. And I was in a lot of air raids. And I was taken into a lot of air raid shelters. And I noticed that every time I would go into a shelter, including one which was in a hospital because I had a broken foot, so I was with patients in an air raid shelter during a bombing raid. And the Vietnamese people would look at me and ask the interpreter - probably they thought I was Russian - who was this white woman. And when the interpreter would say American, they would get all excited and they would smile at me.
And I would search their eyes for anger. I wanted to see anger. It would have made it easier if I could have seen what I know what I would have in my eyes if I were them. But I never did. Ever. And one day I had been taken several hours south of Hanoi to visit what had been the textile capital of North Vietnam that was razed to the ground and we were in the car and suddenly the driver and my interpreter said, “Quick, get out!” All along the road there are these manholes that hold one person and you jump in them and you pull kind of a straw lid over to protect you from shrapnel if there's a raid. I couldn't even hear bombs coming... I was running down the street to get into one of these holes and suddenly I was grabbed from behind by a young girl. She was clearly a schoolgirl because she had a bunch of books tied with a rubber belt hanging over her shoulder and she grabbed me by the hand and ran with me in front of this peasant hut. And she pulled the straw thatch off the top of the hole and jumped in and pulled me in afterward. These are small holes. These are meant for one small Vietnamese person. She and I got in the hole and she pulled the lid over and the bombs started dropping and causing the ground to shake and I'm thinking, this is not happening. I'm going to wake up. I'm not in a bomb hole with a Vietnamese girl whom I don't know. I could feel her breath on my cheek. I could feel her eyelash on my cheek. It was so small that we were crammed together.
Pretty soon the bombing stopped. It turned out it was not that close. She crawled out and I got out and I started to cry and I just said to her, “I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry.” And she started to talk to me in Vietnamese. And the translator came over. She must have been 15, 14. And she looked me straight in the eye and she said, “Don't be sorry for us. We know why we're fighting. It's you who don't know.’
Well, it couldn't have been staged. It was impossible for it to have been staged. And I thought this young girl who says to me it’s you - you have to cry for your own people because we know why we're fighting. And I'm thinking this must be a country of saints or something. Nobody gets angry.
Several days later I'm asked to go see a production of a play - a travelling troop of Vietnamese actors is performing. It's Arthur Miller's play, All My Sons. They want me as an American to critique it to say if the capitalists are really the way they look. Two toned saddle shoes and a polka dot tie and I was like, OK, that will work. It's a story about a factory owner who makes parts for bombers during the Second World War. He finds out that his factory is making faulty parts for the bombers, which could cause an airplane crash, but he doesn't say anything because he doesn't want to lose his government contract. One of his sons is a pilot and dies in an airplane crash. The other son accuses - attacks his father for putting greed and self-interest ahead of what was right.
Well, I watched the play and I kept thinking why are they... why are they... there's a war going on. Why are they performing All My Sons, a Vietnamese travelling troop of actors in North Vietnam. And I asked the director, “Why are you doing this?” And he said, “We are a small country. We cannot afford to hate you. We have to teach our people there are good Americans and there are bad Americans. So that they will not hate Americans because one day when this war ends, we will have to be friends.”
When you come back home from a thing like that and people talk about enemy, you think, “Wait a minute. Will we ever have a government here that will go to such sophisticated lengths to help our people not hate a country that is bombing them?”... Their government taught them to love and to separate good from evil. That to me is a lesson that I will never ever forget.
So there's a dual journey to be taken. There's an inner journey and an outer journey and there's no conceptual model for the vision that we're working for. There's no road map for the politics of love. It's never happened.
Women have never yet had a chance in all of history to make a revolution. But if we're going to lead, we have to become the change that we seek. We have to incubate it in our bodies and embody it. When you think about it all the most impactful teachers, healers, activists are always people who embody their politics...
Throughout history many of the most patriarchal regimes and institutions - Hitler, Pinochet, the Vatican, Bush, have been the most opposed to women controlling their reproduction. The life of the foetus is only the most recent strategy. In other countries at other times it's been national security, upholding the national culture. There have been many strategies.
But we have to understand reproduction and sexuality are keys to women's empowerment. Child bearing and child rearing is a - they're complex undertakings that can't be decided by a medical doctor or by policy makers or aging bishops. Celibate on top of it. Because that makes a woman an object. It dismisses her knowledge about her own body and her own life. And instead of enhancing her dignity and self-respect it belittles and disempowers her. Robbed of her reproductive health and contraceptive decisionmaking, a woman loses an essential element of what it means to be human. We have to hold this reproductive choice as a basic human right.
I want to talk about men for a minute. Because it's important - one of the things as I've been through three marriages now and I'm writing my memoirs so I thought deeply about the marriages and my husbands and my father and I feel it has made me love them even more because I have come to realise that patriarchy is toxic to men as well as women. We don't see it so clearly because in some ways it privileges them and it's kind of - well, men will be men. That's the way things are... But it's why men split off from their emotions. Why the empathy gene is plucked from their hearts. Why there's a bifurcation from between their head and their heart.
The system that undermines the notion of masculinity, what it means to be a real man, is a poison that runs deep and crosses generations. Fathers learn the steps to the non-relational dance of patriarchy at their father's knees and their fathers probably learned it at the grandfather's knees. So the toxins continue generation after generation until now. We have to change the steps of the dance for ourselves and for our children...
So our task is to bring back the balance. In ourselves, in our families, our communities, and in the world. It's so hard because patriarchy has been around so long that we just think that's life. It's ordained. An argument can be made that there was a time in history when it was necessary to build civilisations out of societies that were hunter-gatherers. Somebody has to be in charge. But you can also make an argument that that paradigm has - it's not only outlived its usefulness. It's become - it's destroying everything. It's destroying balance. It's destroying nature. It's destroying men. It's destroying women. So our task is to bring back balance.‘
Speech to the 3rd Annual Women & Power Conference, New York City, 13 September 2004.
This speech is from my book, "Speeches of War and Peace", published by New Holland Publishers
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