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Conversation with Jane Fonda

jane fonda

Jane Fonda focuses the bulk of her time on activism and advocacy on environmental issues, human rights, and the empowerment of women and girls. In 1995, she founded the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (G-CAPP.) In 2000 she produced a film with the International Women's Health Coalition, entitled Generation 2000: Changing Girls' Realities.

She is a member of the Women & Foreign Policy Advisory Committee of the Council on Foreign Relations, The Grady Health System Board of Visitors, the Screen Actors Guild Advisory Board, the Advisory Board of the Native American Rights Fund, and she sits on the V-Counsel of V-Day: Until The Violence Stops. In 1994, Ms. Fonda was named Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Population Fund. She established the Jane Fonda Center for Adolescent Reproductive Health at the Emory School of Medicine and has endowed a faculty chair in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics in Emory University School of Medicine.

Her work on stage and screen has earned Oscars (Best Actress in 1971 for Klute and in 1978 for Coming Home); an Emmy for her performance in The Dollmaker. As a film and television producer her credits include Coming Home, The China Syndrome, Nine to Five, Rollover, On Golden Pond, The Morning After and The Dollmaker. In May 2005, she published her memoir, My Life So Far, which immediately went to #1 on The New York Times bestsellers list. At the same time, Monster-in-Law, her first film in 15 years, became the #1 film, making Ms. Fonda the first person to simultaneously have a #1 book and #1 movie.

In February 2009, Jane Fonda will be returning to Broadway for the first time in 46 years in Moises Kaufman's 33 Variations.

Jane Fonda is on the Advisory Board of Feminist.com.


Marianne Schnall: I can’t start without just telling you how much your work has meant to me on a personal level. Thank you so much for all of your amazing writings and speeches, and all of your activism on so many important causes. I also just wanted to let you know that “My Life So Far” is probably one of the most important and inspiring books I’ve ever read in my life. And I hear from friends who are my age, and from my mother – it’s really a book that connects and truly deeply touches the women who read it. I recommend it all the time. So thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, and for all that you do and all that you are.

Jane Fonda: Thank you – that moves me a lot – thank you.

MS: You recently launched two new ventures, co-founded with a few other women like Robin Morgan and Gloria Steinem, a non-profit organization called The Women’s Media Center, and GreenStone Media, the first talk radio network for and run by women. Can you tell us a little bit about these ventures, and after all these years of activism on behalf of so many causes, what drew your interest and focus to women’s media?

JF: I was at a weekend retreat with Gloria and Jessica Neuwirth and Robin and about fifteen other women from around the world. It was an Equality Now retreat. And it was right after the last election and we were reeling still from the results, and particularly the fact that a very important poll – the name of which I can’t remember, but anyway it could have been from John Hopkins - it was a much publicized poll that showed that the majority of people, maybe three fourths of the people who voted for Bush, thought they were voting for the exact opposite of what actually his policies stand for. That was really disturbing to us, and we began talking about mainstream media, and how it had caved, and really let us all down, and what could we do about it. And so it really grew out of that. It was Gloria who said, the other side trains people to stay on message, develop the message, wordsmiths, teaches people how to do press conferences, and I said, “Let’s do it. Let’s do it. Let’s just do it. We don’t have very much money or anything, but let’s do it.”

And I am really, really proud of the Women’s Media Center. We’ve just gotten started but the website is very good, and we have regular lunches with women who are involved in the media, both here and around the world. We want to be global. We funnel stories about women that are being missed by mainstream media. We develop our own stories. We have contacted all of the women programmers and they are very excited and we agreed to help them, because they don’t have budgets to do stories, to research stories, and identify stories, and identify people who can be interviewed. Before 9/11, only 11% of the talking expert heads were women, and after 9/11 it dropped to 7%, so there’s not enough women on air, behind the cameras. Rural women who need help knowing how to do press conferences, and use radio and so forth. So that’s how we started. We are going to do a stylebook of language that Gloria and Robin are working on. We do training. And I think there is a lot of excitement about it.

The first baby that we gave birth to was GreenStone Media*, which is for-profit, as you know. And we didn’t realize at the time that it was an interesting moment of opportunity, because radio is changing so much. People are going elsewhere to get music, so there is an opportunity for the music stations to become talk radio stations. And women are leaving talk radio because of the nature of it. The very rasping, rough-edged, judgmental, argumentative, shouting nature of talk radio doesn’t appeal to many women, nor men either, for that matter. These shouting, polarizing, talk shows do have their core base, but women are leaving in large numbers. Last fall, we did an in-depth poll that showed that if we could provide programming for women, that spoke to the things that interest them that they would come back in large numbers. And what are they interested in? Current events – global as well as domestic. They want to laugh – laughter was a biggie. We have to remember that laughter is not just silly. Laughter is healing, laughter is community-building. Laughter is what you do when you have a-ha moments. Laughter is great. So, a number of our radio talk show hosts are funny – they’re stand-up comedians who are also very smart. And right now we are on Monday through Friday from six in the morning to six at night. We have three hour drive time with two stand-up comedians that are very good. And then we have Lisa Birnbach from nine to noon – and those are done are out of New York – we have Rolanda Watts from noon to three, and from three to six, Mo Gaffney and Shana Wride, and those come out of California. And we’re circling around a dozen stations in various parts of the country. It’s terrestrial, although we hope to also be satellite – AM and FM. It’s slow, but it’s happening.

MS: If you didn’t know, at Feminist.com we feature links to the Women’s Media Center exclusive stories in our News section, and we are also helping promote GreenStone Media. In fact, the Women’s Media Center will be doing a column at Feminist.com to help promote their issues and work.

JF: Cool! That’s great.

MS: What can people do to support both of these ventures?

JF: Well, let’s see. Let’s start with GreenStone, the for-profit. Any people with money can invest. You can call in – because we’re so new, we don’t have enough call-in listeners and we’d love to have that. And if you like what you hear, you could pressure your local radio station to put us on. You know, most of the radio stations, like maybe 95%, are owned by men. And again, very high numbers of the programmers are men. And not that they’re not good guys, but it’s hard to program for someone you don’t look like or think like [laughs], or live like, so we do need women to program a women’s talk show.

MS: How do you think incorporating women’s voices into the media – through stories about women, stories by women – how will that transform both the media and the messages that get out there?

JF: I think because women – to quote Gloria – women want less heat and more light. [laughs]. They want to be enlightened and they don’t want so much yelling. I think that the news can be more enlightening, richer and more in-depth about things that matter to women, such as balancing life – I mean that’s a biggie – how do we work and still remain emotional, nurturing creatures to ourselves and our children and our partners? And parenting issues – how do we connect with our adolescents? How we protect them from the Internet? How do we nurture friendships? Relational things are very much at the center of our lives and our hearts and what we care about. And so that would be more up front and center. But also, all of the news, whether it’s social security, bankruptcy laws, the economy, the wars – they’re never looked at through a gender lens, and they all impact women differently than they do men. Welfare reform – all of that. And we’re the majority of humanity. So it’s as though people who do news now act as though current events are gender neutral and they’re not. They’re not. So just putting a gender lens on how we look at news, and how wars affect women and children. You know, we can see over and over again, that if women are asked to solve conflicts, they will! It’s one of the things that I’m so moved about in the work that Jessica Neuwirth does with Equality Now, and Eve Ensler with V-Day – bringing together Israeli and Palestinian women. And I’ve been there and met with both sides and there’s just no question in any of our minds, that if it was up to women, it would be over. And we’re not heard.

MS: I do think it’s an important niche to be filled and I am thankful that both the Women’s Media Center and Greenstone Media are doing the work they are doing.

JF: And as for the Women’s Media Center – we need money [laughs]. We need money. We spend our lives raising money.

MS: This amazing book just came out, Jane Fonda's Words of Politics and Passion, which features an incredibly diverse collection of powerful and impassioned writings and speeches that you have made on behalf of varied causes throughout the years. What was it like to see them all in one place, and what do you feel are some of the common themes?

JF: I don’t know – this was not my idea – I never would have done it [laughs]. I think that Mary Hershcberger wanted to do this because she read my FBI files [laughs] when she was researching “Jane Fonda’s War”, which is the book that she wrote - a very, very well-researched book about me and North Vietnam and what the government did and all that stuff. And in the process, I let her look at my FBI files and I think she discovered a lot of speeches and decided to do this. And so she asked me to send my speeches that weren’t in the FBI files, and I did. And she put them together, but I haven’t seen them. I haven’t read it all in one place, so I don’t what the themes are. I think they moved from war to women. From war and peace to gender, which is not unrelated [laughs]. And I don’t know whether any of the speeches include when I began to understand the relationship between war and gender – they might, I can’t remember. And then of course there’s a big blank part when I was married to Ted Turner when I wasn’t doing public speaking. Or actually I did but I just didn’t save them [laughs]. So I don’t know, I haven’t read it.

MS: Well, it’s pretty amazing to see it all in one place – you’ve obviously always felt a calling to speak out on the causes you felt impassioned about. Have these activist urgings always been a passion you just couldn’t control – that you sort of had to be this way?

JF: No! Oh, god – are you kidding? I never would have imagined in the first part of my life that I could have stood up and said anything, but the war in Vietnam really changed my life. You know, I grew up a patriot because my father was in the Navy and he was awarded the bronze star – I just grew up believing that if our soldiers were fighting somewhere, it was the right thing to do. And so when I discovered – rather late in the game, I might add – the true nature of the Vietnam war, and what we were doing to our own men, as well as to the Vietnamese – I don’t know, it just turned me inside out and upside down. I was so angry that I think probably – I don’t what speeches she used – but they were probably not very well considered [laughs]. And I studied and studied and I kind of filled up with rhetoric and anger and spewed it out. You know, I was famous. And that was what I could do. I wasn’t particularly wealthy, but I was famous, so I could talk, and I could listen, and I did a lot of listening, especially to soldiers. And then spoke, and that’s what people wanted me to do, because I could draw a crowd. So, I don’t think it was always very good or thoughtful, or as I said, well considered, but it was what I could do. And you know I say in my memoirs – I married Tom Hayden, who was one of the founders of SDS and had really been part of the civil rights movement, and he’d been a social activist and organizer all his adult life. And so here is this woman who had just made “Barbarella,” who has no depth of experience as an activist, and I’m like a loose canon in a way. I mean, I’m famous, and I can draw crowds, but I don’t know how to protect myself. And as I wrote in my memoirs, sometimes I wish I’d shut up, but anyway – I marry this guy who has such depth of experience, and I learn so much from him - but it was his narrative. And I was very aware of that.

There was a moment in my public speaking around ’73 – the war was still going on – when I very slowly began to intrude my personal self into my speeches. I will never forget it. It was Kansas. Kansas City. I was making a speech – there must have been 5,000 people, and I said, ‘you know I grew up thinking that a woman couldn’t change anything’ and I was numb and I came from a very personal place, and said, “If I can change – anybody can change.” And I remember that felt right. But frankly [laughs] I didn’t do it very much because I thought that it wasn’t political enough. And I didn’t think Tom would think I was smart enough. I was wrong there, but I had so little confidence. But I remember thinking, ‘What’s my narrative?’ It’s his narrative, and it’s wonderful, and he has such a great expansive worldview, but I hope before I die I will have my own narrative. And it took me a long, long time. And I guess that one of the things that this collection that Mary’s put together might show, is the morphing from my husband’s narrative to my own. And something that becomes more personal. And of course – duh – what I’ve discovered is that you can be so much more powerful if you’re talking from your soul, from your core self, and I don’t have any problem doing that basically. I mean, the writing of the memoirs helped me get to clarity there. But maybe that’s part of being an actor is you’re used to getting in touch with yourself and your emotions.

MS: In our society it can take even longer for women to be in touch with their true selves, in order to even come from that authentic place in whatever they’re doing.

JF: Yes. I don’t want to minimize the journey. For me it took until I was 62. [laughs]. It’s only been a few years here.

MS: Actually, that reminds me of a quote that you had in “My Life So Far” - you describe how it was sometime later in your life that “my feminist consciousness slipped out of my head and took up residence in my body, where it has lived ever since”. What did you mean by that?

JF: It happened, by the way while I was watching “The Vagina Monologues.” For me – and I think that this is rather universal, but I am just going to speak for myself – my issues were with men. And as long as I was in a relationship that was not authentic – that is to say, a relationship where I could be totally who I am, and not leave my voice on the sidewalk, when I walk into the bedroom say – you can’t truly accept feminism, because it’s too scary. It’s why it took me so long to even be able to, in a theoretical way, embrace the women’s movement, because my identity and my validation depended on men for so long. And one of the reasons that I wrote the book is because I wanted to show that you don’t have to be dependent on a man financially - you can be famous and successful and financially independent - and still have these feelings that if I’m not with a man, I don’t really exist. And so, while theoretically – not just theoretically, I made movies from a feminist place, starting with “Klute” I approached my work from a feminist perspective, and I read the books - but in my body, in the center of me, I couldn’t be an embodied feminist. Because somewhere I knew that if I did, my husband would not stay with me [laughs] and of course he didn’t. But by that time – and it was late in life, I mean I was 62 – by that time it was OK. And it was right after that – I mean literally a matter of weeks after I became a single woman again, that I saw “The Vagina Monologues” performed by Eve Ensler in New York, and I was ready, you know? Not everybody would necessarily have this response but it changed me. Isn’t it great when we have a life that’s full of epiphanies? [laughs] I feel like I have epiphanies every other day [laughs].

MS: When you’re ready and open to them, they are definitely there!

JF: Totally.

MS: Running a site like Feminist.com, probably one of the most popular questions we get to the site is “What is feminism?” – this is not just from women, but from men too. There are so many misconceptions about what feminism is, that even some women don’t want to call themselves feminist, or are even anti-feminist. It seems like that there is a wide spectrum of what that word means to people. What does modern day feminism mean to you, or what do you think it should mean?

JF: I am going to do something very different, probably, than other people who have been asked the question. I am going to answer it as a Christian. I believe as a Christian that Jesus’ teachings were teachings of feminism. If you read the Gospel of Thomas, which of course is not included in the Bible, which is understandable given the group of men who decided what was going to be included and what wasn’t. It’s a series of, I think, 21 riddles that Christ said, or was supposed to have said, and if you can figure them out, then you enter the Kingdom of Heaven, which I believe means you become whole. And one of them says: when man becomes woman and woman becomes man, and outer becomes inner, and inner becomes outer, you enter the Kingdom of Heaven. And I think that what he said right there, and in many of his other preachings, was that humankind reaches its maximum development and most contains God when the two genders merge. And that means when women own their strengths, and men own their hearts. That to me is what feminism is - is when our full humanity is claimed. You can talk about equal rights, and you can talk about – but essentially feminism will come into wholeness when we achieve a social paradigm that allows men and women to become full human beings. Rather than women muting themselves and men hardening themselves, which I think it the root of all the problems – including war.

You know, having become an activist during the Vietnam War and wanting to really understand it, I read the Pentagon papers. And it was an amazing document because what it showed is that five administrations knew they couldn’t win in Vietnam, and yet they kept sending men there to die. And the big question for me over the years was why? And as I was writing my book and trying to figure this out, I read a book, “The Secret Papers” by Dan Ellsberg, and then I read Doris Kearns’ biography of Lyndon Johnson, and Lyndon Johnson put his finger on it. He said, ‘If I withdraw, they’ll call me an un-manly man.’ Think about how many Americans have died so our leaders could prove their manhood! This is so deep. And I don’t need to say that this culture of toxic masculinity is alive and well right now in this country and it’s tragic.

MS: We have been getting increasing numbers of e-mails from men asking how they can help the feminist movement, and we now have a column at the site called “Men’s Voices, Men as Allies.” It is such an important point that men must be included. In what ways do you think feminist work should seek to address issues that are affecting men and boys, since it is so intrinsic to feminism?

JF: Well, first of all I think it’s really important for feminists to understand that patriarchy takes aim at girls’ voices, but it takes aim at boys’ hearts. And it happens real early with boys, like five. And just really wrapping ourselves around that will open our hearts with empathy to boys, and men. We have to raise our sons to remain emotionally literate, and not allow this bifurcation to take place. And it’s not always the fathers that are responsible, it’s sometimes mothers who will be the ones that infuse their boys with this toxic masculinity. Carol Gilligan’s husband, Jim Gilligan, has written the definitive book on violence. It’s called “Violence”. And it’s the only book I know that views violence through a gender lens. And what he says – I’m going to paraphrase it – is we have to create a masculinity that is not so vulnerable to shaming. That’s our task. That’s what we have to do. Feminists have to do that and we have to invite men in. I also encourage people who are interested in men’s issues to read Terrance Real’s “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” I read it to better understand my father and ended up understanding him and all the main men in my life…up until now.

Feminism is for men as well as women – I cannot emphasize that enough. And it’s the only way we are going to make it, is if we understand it and speak about it. You know, I do a lot of public speaking, and I look out at the audience, and there’s always men as well as women, and when I talk about this, I can just see the tension go out of the men’s shoulders. It’s like, ‘I’m included. I’m included in this.’ And a lot of men can step out of the armor and be reborn. And some can’t. The ones I’ve married can’t [laughs], but not because they’re bad or dumb or anything – it’s just sometimes the wounds are real deep, and it just takes more courage than some are capable of going there and peeling it away. But what we can do for men is help them see that this is not attacking men. On the contrary. On the contrary. And it’s like the opposite of patriarchy is not matriarchy – it’s democracy.

MS: This reminds me that I heard that when Ted Turner was on David Letterman recently, and Dave asked about his belief that women should now have a shot at running the world, Ted said, “I've been advocating for years that I think men all over the world should be barred from holding public office at any level for a hundred years.” It seems like more and more men are starting to realize that the world might benefit from having more women in leadership and helping troubleshoot the problems that face our world. Weren’t you proud of him for that statement? It’s great when a man says something like that – it takes a lot of courage.

JF: I quoted him in the book too. He has been saying that for a long time. He gets it in his heart. He really does. But you know – let’s face it, we could have a woman president and it might not be any different if the woman, in order to get up the ladder, has armored her heart and become like a man – I won’t name names, but we can all think of them. I call them ventriloquists for the patriarchy. So while it would be great to have a woman president, what may be more important is their consciousness. Whether it’s a man or a woman – do they have a feminist consciousness? And of course what we would have to contend with – if there was a man running who had the consciousness – well, we know the names that would be hurled at him, and given our culture, it would be really hard. He’d be called a pansy, effete, and on and on and on - it takes a lot of courage for a man in this culture to claim his emotional literacy and his heart. And we have to rally around both genders. It’s the consciousness. It’s less about gender sometimes and more about consciousness.

MS: I have 2 daughters, and I had this interesting conversation with one of them, who was 8 at time - she was learning about all the presidents in school and she hadn’t even realized that we never had a woman president – it just hadn’t occurred to her. And she was just dumbfounded and couldn’t understand why. Nobody had ever pointed it out to her, and she was like amazed – that it has almost so much a part of our society, that we just don’t even notice it or question it. What do you think are the realistic chances of having a woman president any time soon?

JF: Oh, I think very real. I think very real. I don’t want to get into names, but yeah, it can happen. But it’s hard.

MS: Right now the world has so many serious problems on so many levels. We look out at the world, whether it’s global warming, or the wars, poverty, hunger - what do you see as the root cause of all the problems we face in the world today?

JF: Patriarchy. Patriarchy. The alienation from Earth, the alienation from other species, the sense of entitlement to dominate over animals, over nature, over children, over girls, over women, over people of color – I think that’s at the core. But we may need to specifically do something about global warming right away, just so we’ll have enough time to do something about the patriarchy, which will take longer! [laughs] And one of the key things about global warming is we have to not have so many children – I mean population growth is a biggie. And of course what do you do about population growth? You empower women. Educate girls and empower women. Empowered women and educated girls don’t want big families.

MS: In fact I know this is one of your main causes, through the organization you founded, the Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention, which has done amazing work. Why to you is the subject of adolescent reproductive health is so important?

JF: Well, when I discovered that pregnancy prevention, either here or in other parts of the world, is really about gender issues and empowerment, then it became my fight. My life growing up and especially when I hit adolescence was so twisted and distorted because of lack of self-esteem. Because of trying to be a good girl. And if I couldn’t be good, then I would be a bad girl [laughs]. Addictions. Acting out. All because I had no one to go to, and no one to talk to, which shows, you don’t have to be poor to have these problems. And so I was married to Ted, and he had a foundation that focused on population and the environment, and my way to address population was adolescence. Adolescence and dealing with them above the waist. Because it’s my passion and I have a lot of empathy. And I discovered that a lot of people who work with adolescents don’t like them. And certainly very few who work with adolescents are trained in adolescent development – we’re not trained to look at it as a very distinct period of development that’s different from adulthood and different from childhood. And it’s during those ten years, roughly the second decade of life, that determines really what that person is going to be when they grow up. It’s when the identity is formed.

And so the work I do in Georgia – it’s on-the-ground services and programs, but it’s also with the Jane Fonda Center at the Emory School of Medicine, it’s also training professionals to understand adolescents and to understand their developmental issues, and how poverty, and racism and abuse impacts those developmental stages. And what I see is that it’s not rocket science, and that you can really save lives and change lives dealing with that stage of life. You know, people care more about little babies – it’s easier in a way to work with babies – it’s hard to love an adolescent. [laughs] They’re prickly. So that’s where I wanted to focus. And then after I had already started this organization, I discovered Carol Gilligan, and that kind of added a whole conceptual framework for the work we’re doing.

MS: Right – Carol Gilligan’s research that shows the girls tend to lose their voices right around that time.

JF: Yeah. She has had a huge impact on me, in my understanding of both girls and boys. She knows a lot about boys.

MS: That goes back to what you said before about how it’s around five that boys tend to lose their voices. If you were able to offer words of wisdom or instill one message in girls, what would you want to have them understand?

JF: We need to help them really internalize the message that good enough is good enough. We don’t need to be perfect. We’re not supposed to be perfect. We’re supposed to be complete. And you can’t be complete if you’re trying to be perfect – it’s a no-winner.

MS: When I was an adolescent myself, I had everything from eating disorders, to blow drying my hair straight for hours every day – all the work that went into to trying to be popular and beautiful. And I know that in “My Life My Far” you discuss your own struggles with bulimia over the years. And it’s still this major epidemic and it’s not just young girls – it affects many adult women. As someone who has also had eating disorders as part of your past, what have you learned, and what advice would you give to others that are going through those type of issues?

JF: The Jungian psychologist Marion Woodman says that we’re like chalices. And if we’re empty, we are going to fill our chalice with addiction, when what we really want to fill them with is spirit. Food addictions are mistaking spiritual hunger for physical hunger. And when I really understood that, for the first time I understood AA and this notion of the higher power because like a lot of people it seems like many people in my life have been addicts of one kind or another. And Jason Robards would talk to me, years ago when we were making a movie together, about AA and about higher power and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, come on.’ [laughs] You know, it sounds so touchy-feely. But in fact, I now realize that’s what makes the twelve-step program work. Is when you – it doesn’t have to be religion – but spirit, higher power, whatever you want to call it, when you allow that to infuse you and fill that empty, hard, dark place at the center of yourself that starting at adolescence for girls, fills with anxiety, and so we do things to numb it, like compulsive shopping, or food, or whatever. And so we have to understand and be helped to open ourselves to spirit, which is not so easy when you’re very young. But the twelve-step program I think is good.

MS: Talking about Eve Ensler, in the book that she wrote “The Good Body,” one of the main themes is that girls and women spend so much time and energy fixating, obsessing about and altering our bodies, that it’s perhaps at the expense of ever discovering our true purpose or gifts and contributing ourselves into the world. Do you agree with that?

JF: Totally. Yes. Absolutely. We grow up being told, ‘be a good girl’. When you’re told to be a good girl that assumes that we’re not inherently good, and that we have to get rid of whatever is bad, so that we will become something that we’re not inherently. And for girls it becomes attached to their bodies. You know, if I can get rid of myself physically then I’ll become good. I sure identify with that.

MS: By the way, speaking of Eve, Feminist.com goes way, way back with V-Day as a partner since the early days of its formation, so I can really appreciate everything she has accomplished, which is pretty mind blowing. And you have been a wonderful friend and supporter of Eve’s and V-Day’s

JF: I feel so blessed that Eve is a part of my life. We all need friends like that, who put starch in our spine, and keep us on the track. And we do it for each other. And she’s just amazing.

MS: I know that in addition to your close friendship, and also performing in productions of “The Vagina Monologues” - I was at that amazing fundraiser at Madison Square Garden – I know that you have also traveled quite a bit with Eve to many countries visiting with women and trying to help them, often women who have survived varied forms of violence and abuse. What have you learned through your experience with Eve and V-Day?

JF: I have learned about the power of listening. I think that’s the most powerful thing I have learned traveling with Eve. For example, we were in Jerusalem – we went to a shelter for girls who were victims of violence, and she asked to meet with about six or seven of them. And we only had two hours, and they were all there, and she began at one end of the line and began to interview them. And I thought, oh my god – it’s like opening up Pandora’s Box, and then, we’re gone - this is going to result in catastrophe! But instead, as I watched Eve, I learned that sometimes people just need to be heard. She has a way of asking questions, and listening from her heart. And these girls had never really been heard. Like they would describe what happened, but then she would probe, ‘How did you feel?” She would take them to a place in themselves that they had not been taken to, number one. Number two, they had never heard each other’s stories. So that’s the other thing is - community. The importance of breaking the wall of silence in a nurturing community. That is one of the main things that Eve knows how to create. And it’s a powerful lesson.

MS: Speaking about violence against women issues, I don’t know if you saw that recent editorial that was written by Bob Herbert of The New York Times

JF: I have it right in front of me and as soon as I hang up I’m going to read it.

MS: In it he points out that in all these recent school shootings, like the one that took place at the Amish school and the school in Colorado, no media coverage seemed to pay attention to the fact that these were hate crimes – they had quite obviously singled out girls. He pointed out that if it were black children, or Jewish children who had been specifically targeted, there would have been mass outrage and a call for action and our nation’s reflection, but that, "None of that occurred because these were just girls, and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected." Do you agree with that assessment?

JF: Totally. The most important thing that happened to me while I was writing my book, which I dedicated to my mother - because I figured that would force to discover who she was, she killed herself when I was twelve. And I got her medical records, and when she was admitted to Riggs they’d asked her to write her biography. It was about twelve pages typed by her with notes in the margin. And there is where I learned that she had been sexually abused. And the minute that I read that I understood everything I needed to know about her. Why she was the way she was. I just tell that story to show this has been going for millennia and it’s so much deeper than a physical trauma, it’s a form of brainwashing.

And the movie that I just finished, it’s coming out next spring called “Georgia Rule” - it’s about incest. And I was at dinner with the head of the studio, Morgan Creek, and I was telling him about how so many women that I’m close have been incested. And he said, ‘Well, why is this?’ He said, ‘Don’t tell me it’s about power’. I said, ‘Yes, it is.’ It is. It’s about, again, this toxic masculinity and I think the vulnerability to shaming, and the need to control. We have to expose it and talk about it. Herbert puts its finger on it. It’s the same thing as Columbine. When Columbine happened and then there were several other school shootings and the press was all about ‘What’s happening to our teens?’ It’s not what’s happening to our teens, it’s what’s happening to our boys. It’s what happening to America’s sons. And it goes back to the very beginning of GreenStone Media and the Women’s Media Center. We don’t look at things from a gender perspective. Race, ethnicity - but not gender. And until we do, we’re not going to be able to solve it.

MS: You were talking earlier about traveling with Eve, listening, and how healing it was for these women to share their stories in safe space. What was amazing to me – I went to two women’s gatherings in the span of one week – one was at the Women’s Media Center with Sheryl Sandberg from Google, and the other one was at the Enlightened Power conference at Omega, and one of the main themes at both seemed to be this need, almost like a hunger, for women to really talk truthfully about our lives, talking honestly about coping with the personal challenges we face, and being honest about the messy realities of our lives. That it really is healing and important to do this type of sharing. It reminded me a lot of what I think was so empowering about your book, is that you did that, and as a high profile public person, it was even more powerful, to be able to hear this – from our point of view – this famous, beautiful, successful powerful woman, and to see you sharing all of your insecurities and your vulnerabilities - many of which all of us women can relate to - was just so comforting. And also to see that it while it was difficult, you were able to transcend them and grow from them. Do you think this type of sharing is important right now for women?

JF: I think I quote Robin Morgan in the book – I think it came from “Demon Lover” when she says – I am going to paraphrase it – breaking the wall of silence is the first step to freedom. We have to break through silence and speak our truth, and Muriel Ruckhouser said, “When one woman tells her truth, the world explodes,” – or something like that. Yeah, it’s quite amazing. You know, I spent a year and half traveling around many countries, but including the U.S., and the number of women who even just in a fleeting moment at the table where you’re signing books, who would lean in to me, and describe something that had happened in her marriage because of reading the book and her husband reading the book, had altered things. We need to speak our truth.

MS: As you pointed out earlier, one of the major issues right now for women is how to create balance in our lives, whether it’s our work and families, or even just factoring our selves in – finding time to nurture ourselves. You’re such a busy person – how do you do it?

JF: I’m going to spend the entire month of November by myself in New Mexico. I have this software that does a month for one page, in other words there’s the page that has October, November, December, with all the dates. And I choose chunks of time and I yellow them in that are sacrosanct. When I am either by myself, or in school or just reading - where I don’t do anything except what I want to do. And that’s real important to me. So, yes I will be busy for a finite period of time, and very public, and then I’ll just disappear. I sent the software to Gloria in hopes that she would use it. [laughs] I’ll tell you one thing, this last two weeks when we’ve been doing media together and traveling together – gosh, what a joy to be with her, and to listen to her and to watch her and learn from her. What a blessing.

MS: We were talking earlier about helping women learn to accept themselves and their bodies. How can women learn to embrace the aging process rather than fear or fight it? I’m 39 and when people ask me my age, I would never think to lie about it – for me, I wouldn’t go back to my twenties for anything. I feel like every year I have a deeper understanding of myself, and I can feel how much wiser I get with each year. But this isn’t always the case for so many women. Yet this is a time when women should be coming into their true wisdom and valuing their wisdom and power, and enjoying that time of their lives – how do you think women can learn to do that, or the media can help women to do that – how can that change?

JF: It’s not by accident that I call my third act in my book - I call it “The Beginning.” Because that’s what it feels like - I agree with you. I think, first of all, we need to very intentionally have women friends. And we need to seek out women who are braver, who challenge us, who can teach us, and who together with them we can face age with more courage. And I’m speaking as someone who fell victim to all the - ‘I’m not good enough. My breasts aren’t big enough’ – all that kind of thing.... But, it’s sort of like we have to focus on global warming until we can destroy patriarchy – we need to inoculate girls against the media, until we can change the media. Help them understand what the media is doing – playing with our brains. Filling us with anxieties.

In fact, my center is developing a curriculum for middle school kids called “Media Madness” that is an attempt to politicize the media. It’s actually theory-based – it’s the social inoculation theory. Dr. Mary Pfeiffer talks about it in “Reviving Ophelia.” If you can politicize what the media does and the fashion magazines do, it’s easier for girls and boys then to step back and be a little less vulnerable to it.

MS: To jump to another issue that I know is dear to your heart – the environment. You’ve also been a long time activist on behalf of environmental issues. How do you see the present state of the environment and the problems that we face?

JF: I think we’re in serious trouble, that’s why I loved Al Gore’s movie so much – is that he, with great clarity and documentation, he shows us the peril that we’re facing, but he also says we have a decade - if we do these things. Now it’s interesting, there too is this lack of gender – he mentions in the list of problems that we can address – he lists population, but he doesn’t go the next step and say the way we address population is by empowering and educating women and girls. This is a gender issue. But still it’s a very important movie that fills me with hope, because I think a lot of people are seeing it and being affected by it.

MS: It’s interesting, when you were talking about the environment as a gender issue – the other site that I run with my husband is an environmental site called EcoMall.com, and it seems like there’s such an interrelationship of all the various forms of activist movements today – whether it’s feminism, or environmental issues, human rights, poverty – there’s so much common ground - it’s all ultimately about our interdependence and living in more harmony with each other and the Earth - and our problems are all kind of interwoven together. It makes me feel hopeful that if we could just take all the energy from all these movements and realize all the common themes and connections and work together, it would become even more powerful.

JF: Totally. Absolutely.

MS: I’m not sure if you will remember this, but I interviewed you way back in 1992 at the pro-choice march in Washington when I was a reporter for Us Magazine. I was really inspired to see all these very high profile artists and entertainers speaking out on what was, and still, is a very controversial issue. It seems like over the past few years, there are more and more well- known artists and entertainers supporting important causes in increasingly meaningful ways. What do you think about the growing impact of socially and politically active celebrities today?

JF: Oh, I think it’s really important, which is why there is such a backlash against it [laughs]. There’s no question that when you’re famous, people pay attention – I mean it’s sad, but that’s just a fact. So it’s great to see celebrities taking a stand and using their voice. And there will always be an attempt to attack back, and particularly the females will be infantilized – you know, ‘Who does she think she is?’ kind of thing – and we have to gird our loins and stand up to it.

MS: As a two-time academy-award winner, what is it that you most enjoy about the craft of acting, and do you think your training as an actress has helped you as an activist?

JF: Yeah. Acting is a profession of empathy. Your job is to enter someone else’s reality, and so the innate empathy that we all have, has been killed in some of us, but for actors it’s usually not only alive but it’s honed by the profession. And because of that, I think we have a lot of compassion and empathy for people who are victims of trauma or injustice. So we tend to be progressive, I think, because of that. We tend to have less tolerance of dictators. Because dictators are about black and white, and artists are about nuance.

MS: Speaking about the media - do you think the American film industry is becoming more sensitive to the needs and requirements of women both in front of and behind the camera?

JF: Well, certainly I’ve noticed on the two last films that I’ve done, and there was a fifteen year hiatus between “Monster-in-Law’ and the last film I did – many, many more women on crews. I think – especially if you’re older, it’s harder to get really good parts, because older women don’t tend to be box office the way older men can be. But I think that there’s a lot of really good parts and there’s a lot of really good actresses to fill them.

MS: That’s good. Hopefully the trend is –

JF: - in the right direction. It’s always up and down.

MS: Right now, when people look out at the world, they can feel helpless and kind of overwhelmed by all the problems that there are, and really almost paralyzed, and not even knowing how to even do something about it, to contribute to positive change. As someone who is constantly getting involved and speaking out, what advice would you give to people who would love to see the world change its direction, but feel like they don’t even know where to start?

JF: Well – first thing, stop watching FOX News because it’s not news [laughs]. You know, you’ve got to go to where objective news is - including some of the blogs. And see Al Gore’s film. Vote – make sure your friends vote. Volunteer at voting booths to be sure that we’re not going to be robbed again. Pay attention to how you’re raising your children – that speaks to what we were talking about earlier. You know - does your community have a recycling center? Does your community have a place where women can come to have their health issues addressed by people who understand and aren’t judgmental? It can range from something very, very local to - if there’s going to be a march against the war – go. If there’s going to be a march for choice, or for the environment – go. And contribute.

MS: Take small steps.

JF: Yeah – you don’t have to take big steps.

MS: Just take a step.

JF: Yeah.

MS: Feminist.com always helps to promote the Women & Power conference that Omega Institute and V-Day organize – and I know that you’ve been involved and a frequent speaker at those conferences. If you had to summarize the message of the Women & Power conferences, what would it be?

JF: Get over the feeling that the two words don’t go together – women and power. The fact is, if we don’t put the two together, and don’t understand how power changes complexion in the hands of women, then we’re not going to make it. We have to own our personal power – that’s one reason I wrote the book – I don’t want people to have to wait as long [laughs]. Own your own power, understand the power of the feminist movement, and help move it forward.

MS: And to redefine power – a new paradigm of power.

JF: A new paradigm of power – women view power differently. It’s not power over – it’s power with. It’s about empowering others. Now, again – there are some women who view power the way men do. But generally speaking, women do it differently. It’s not hierarchical, it’s circular.

MS: We talked a lot about spirit – our inner world. I wrote a piece at Feminist.com called Reflections which is ultimately about how I feel everything starts with our inner world – the connection between our outer and inner worlds. What practices do you personally draw on to keep yourself centered and stay in touch with your inner world?

JF: I meditate. Sometimes I meditate by sitting, sometimes I meditate by walking – I walk a lot. I hike a lot outdoors. For me sometimes meditating is being on top of a mountain. But drawing inward and becoming still, I think is the important thing.

MS: How do you see where we stand right now in humanity’s evolution? When you look at the course of our history and you see where we are, do you feel hopeful about the future?

JF: I don’t like the alternative [laughs]. So yes, I am a hopeful person. I don’t think that humankind was created the way we were, with this ability to evolve upward spiritually – I don’t think that that happened in order for us to then destroy ourselves. So I have to believe that – it sounds so trite – that forces of light and consciousness, in humanity, is going to win out. But we’re going to have to work hard and be very brave, and expect a backlash. And understand that it’s men and women together, with women leading the way – I’m sorry, but I think this next step in human evolution is going to be led by women of conscience, supported by men of conscience.

* Note: Since this interview, GreenStone Media has decided the window of opportunity isn't open yet. After more than a year of investment and program development, its drive-time and noon programming was successful on the small radio stations that accepted it, but medium and large size stations wouldn't give it a try. Without the capital to buy a radio station or buy unsponsored time, GreenStone couldn't reach listeners, and ceased operations in August, 2007. Jane commented: "I don't think women's talk radio is over. I think it is yet to be and will be. But we need deeper pockets and a less risk-adverse industry--hopefully with women in ownership positions andwith programming responsibility. I think, with Greenstone, important seeds were planted and amazing talent was discovered."

Note: Portions of the above interview originally appeared in Glamour Magazine.

New articles by Marianne Schnall featuring exclusive Jane Fonda quotes:

Exclusive Interview with Jane Fonda: Back on Broadway (The Huffington Post)

Communicating with Jane Fonda (The Women's Media Center)

Jane Fonda, the Today Show and the "C-word" (The Huffington Post)

Visit Jane Fonda's new blog at www.janefonda.com

Other Jane Fonda writings at Feminist.com:

Related links:
  • Georgia Campaign for Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention
  • Jane Fonda's Blog
  • V-Day
  • Women's Media Center



    Other interviews by Marianne Schnall

    * * *

    ©Marianne Schnall. No portion of this interview may be reprinted without permission of Marianne Schnall .

    Marianne Schnall is a widely published writer and interviewer. She is also the founder and Executive Director of Feminist.com and cofounder of EcoMall.com, a website promoting environmentally-friendly living. Marianne has worked for many media outlets and publications. Her interviews with well-known individuals appear at Feminist.com as well as in publications such as O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, In Style, The Huffington Post, the Women's Media Center, and many others.

    Marianne's new book based on her interviews, Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice came out in November 2010. Through her writings, interviews, and websites, Marianne strives to raise awareness and inspire activism around important issues and causes. For more information, visit www.marianneschnall.com and www.daringtobeourselves.com.

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