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Gloria Steinem... the Icon, the Girlfriend

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GLORIA STEINEM MARLO THOMAS
Courtesy Of Marlo Thomas

In the forty years I've known Gloria Steinem, we have been confidantes, soul mates and sisters. And only once can I remember feeling any worry about our friendship. I had fallen in love with a white-haired Irishman, and had decided to marry the guy. This was not going to be easy to break to my soul mate.

2011-08-14-marlo_gloria_glam.jpgUntil that moment, Gloria and I had always been philosophically synced. We were two unmarried women who were obviously not man-haters, which is how many people at the time tried to portray feminists. We were women who had loving relationships with men, and shared a passion about women's freedom -- and the concept of marriage just never fit in the equation for either of us.

In fact, both of us would often get mail from women who'd write, "I refer to you whenever my mother nags me about settling down. I say to her, 'Well, Gloria Steinem and Marlo Thomas aren't married, and they're not crazy!'"

But in 1977, I met Phil, and the idea of marriage surprisingly seemed possible for me.

But there was still Gloria -- and that had me worried. So the night before my wedding, I wrote her a long letter, pouring out my feelings, and assuring her that walking down the aisle would never mean walking away from all we believed in.

"This will be the greatest test of our sisterhood," I wrote. "We've always been a support for each other on this issue, and I hope now you won't feel abandoned by me."

As it turned out, I'd been worrying for nothing. Of course, she was fine, she told me. And she was happy for me. (Well, okay, maybe she did tell me that the first weekend was a little rough...)

And that, I suppose, is the truest example of what I believe to be Gloria's most precious of attributes (and she's got a million of 'em): Her durability. Her self-confidence. Her balance. Not only did Phil's and my marriage not change Gloria's and my relationship one whit, but she used it to remind me to keep balanced myself -- and with humor, no less. A few days after Phil and I returned from our honeymoon, she and Bella Abzug threw me a bridal shower. But balloons and ribbons were pointedly not the decoration of choice. Instead, Gloria and Bella had created little posters bearing every sassy remark I'd ever made about marriage, and hung them around the room.

"Marriage is like living with a jailer you have to please."

"Marriage is like a vacuum cleaner -- you stick it to your ear and it sucks out all your energy and ambition."

What a shock it was to see them all together like that. I laughed out loud. No wonder I'd never wanted to get married.

Like millions of Americans, tonight I plan to watch the HBO documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words, directed by Peter Kunhardt, and edited by the talented Phillip Schopper. And I know that I will sit back and marvel, all over again, at the consistency of this remarkable woman. For an entire generation, she has symbolized the very qualities of the feminist movement -- strength, courage, tirelessness -- and she has never once lost her fire. Not only has she inspired a new wave of feminists, but she stands by their side, leading the charge with them. The fight for women's equality has never been something that Gloria does. It's something she is.

And she brings that something to her friendships. We met in 1967, when a Hollywood agent brought us together for a TV-movie, with the idea of my playing the part of Gloria, who had just written a magazine piece about going undercover as a bunny at the Playboy Club. The agent's pitch meeting was a disaster, but our friendship was forged -- and that friendship would become woven into the tapestry of our activism.

I'll never forget the first time she asked me to pinch-hit for her.

"I'm scheduled to speak at a welfare mothers event this weekend in New Hampshire," she told me, "but I'm double-booked. Can you step in for me?"

"Welfare mothers?" I said. "Are you crazy? They'll hate me. I don't have any children and I'm a kid from Beverly Hills. What will I talk to them about?"

"Trust me," Gloria said. "They'll love you -- and you'll love them. You're all women."

I was terrified -- but I wanted to rise to the occasion, and I think I was curious to see if these women and I would be able to connect. So I started by talking about my family, and I made them laugh with stories about my eccentric and fiercely independent Grandma, who played drums in a beer garden in Pasadena. Then I talked about my aunts and my mother, who struggled with the dominance of the men in their marriages. And then the women talked back to me. And I listened.

That event changed my life. It educated me. It politicized me. And it taught me that Gloria's instincts were as acute as her wisdom.

You're all women.

Just so you know, despite her historic achievements as a feminist icon, as a girlfriend, Gloria Steinem is every bit as real as you and me. Her favorite expression is "bananas." She's a terrific tap dancer. And like a lot of us, her greatest fear is being misunderstood.

Okay, well, I lied a little. We're not at all alike when it comes to swapping gifts. I'll give her a trendy handbag, and she'll give me a fertility goddess bracelet from Africa.

But that's my girlfriend, Gloria.