Not only a Hollywood legend, Jane Fonda is also an icon of activism who has been risking her career, her reputation, and even her life in support of worthy causes for over 50 years. Here, the inspiring octogenarian opens up about maintaining her resistance endurance, finding feminism, and passing the baton to the next generation of leaders
It’s 11 a.m. on a Wednesday in early fall and the sun is a fiery red ball, obscured by a thick layer of smoke pluming into the air from raging wildfires. California is burning. And Jane Fonda is bummed. I can hear it in her voice when she answers the phone for our interview and I ask how she’s doing. “Well, I mean, it’s dangerous to go outside and breathe the air, the sky is orange, thousands of birds are falling dead out of the sky—it’s hard, yeah,” she says. When we speak, it’s two days before Ruth Bader Ginsburg will die from complications of pancreatic cancer, 22 days before Trump will test positive for Covid-19, 48 days before the November presidential election, and 41 days before this issue of BUST will go to print. Which means neither Jane Fonda, nor myself, have any idea what the results of the presidential election will be, or what will be happening in the world when this story is being read. We only know what is happening now: extreme weather patterns, social unrest, racial injustice, a seemingly never-ending pandemic, an increasing wealth gap, and the list goes on.
But if anyone can act as a touchstone in the midst of these infamously “uncertain times,” it’s Fonda. The 82-year-old actor (she turns 83 on December 21) has been championing progressive causes for the last 50-plus years, from equal pay to LGBTQ rights to economic equality to racial justice. And not by just paying lip service at red-carpet events. Fonda is an activist with a capital A, walking the walk, putting her fame to work, and even, in the case of climate change, launching a whole damn movement, documented in her new book, What Can I Do? My Path from Climate Despair to Action. Which is why the day’s apocalyptic pall is such an unfortunately fitting context for our conversation.
All this might come as a surprise to younger folks who know her best as the straightlaced Grace opposite one of her real-life besties, Lily Tomlin, who plays hippie freak Frankie on Netflix’s hit comedy Grace & Frankie. It might even be a surprise to some of us ’80s kids, whose Jane Fonda associations lie solidly in the realm of pastel sweatbands, high-cut leotards, and leg lifts set to synth beats—her workout video empire (which she recently lampooned with the help of Amy Schumer, Kerry Washington, and other famouses in an “exercise your right to vote” PSA) is legendary. Even fans who know her best as the sexually self-possessed, scantily clad space traveler from the arguably feminist and sexist 1968 campy cult film Barbarella might not be familiar with her ardent activism. All this to say, Jane Fonda has been a lot of things, but the through line of her life is her drive to enact change, no matter how much shit she’s given for doing so.
Consider how the octogenarian celebrated her birthday last December: by getting arrested for civil disobedience—for the fifth time. It was the culmination of a plan she had hatched on a Labor Day trip with Rosanna Arquette and Catherine Keener last year. She was reading Naomi Klein’s book about the climate crisis, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, and its urgency, as she writes in What Can I Do?, was like “a kick in the stomach.” With the help of Annie Leonard, the executive director of Greenpeace USA, Fonda launched Fire Drill Fridays a few months later, in October 2019. (The name was inspired by climate activist Greta Thunberg, and her plea for us to act like “our house is on fire.”) The weekly event, held in Washington D.C., included a Thursday night teach-in, a Friday rally near the Supreme Court building, and then a walk to the Capitol for an intentional act of civil disobedience. (Since the pandemic hit, Fire Drill Fridays has gone virtual, averaging 350,000 participants a week.) It was on that first Fire Drill Friday that, after refusing to leave the Capitol steps, Fonda was arrested in a fashion nothing short of iconic: sporting a blazing red trench coat and black-and-white checked cap, her hands zip-tied behind her back with her head held high. Fonda was hauled off the Capitol steps three more times, even spending a night in jail. She planned her fifth arrest for the Fire Drill Friday being held the day before her birthday. “I’d been warned by my lawyer, ‘If you do it again, then they’re gonna put you in jail again.’ And so, I thought, Well, that’s good, because if I turn 82 in jail, that is gonna get a lot of press,” she says. “The whole point of being a celebrity is to get the press to cover the cause.” She wasn’t jailed, but she was arrested, along with nearly 150 others. They were taken to a dank warehouse where they were segregated by gender and held until they could be fingerprinted and processed out. “The men were on one side, and they were quite quiet. And on the other side were the women, talking and organizing and figuring things out,” she says. “It was the most joyous birthday party I’ve ever had.”
“I’d been warned by my lawyer, ‘If you do it again, then they’re gonna put you in jail again.’ And so, I thought, Well, that’s good, because if I turn 82 in jail, that is gonna get a lot of press.”
Though her recent brushes with the law have been intentional, getting arrested is nothing new for Fonda. She was first placed in handcuffs shortly after her activist awakening, which came more than five decades earlier. “I spent the first 30 years of my life as a non-activist,” she says. “Even worse, [I was] unaware, and kind of depressed. I didn’t know what the point of my life was. I didn’t feel any purpose.” She was born to Hollywood royalty—her father was beloved actor Henry Fonda—yet their home life was anything but picture perfect. Her mother suffered from bipolar disorder, exacerbated by her father’s philandering. When Fonda was 12, her mother was institutionalized, where she slit her throat with a smuggled razor blade and died. At 21, Fonda decided to try her hand at acting, almost immediately receiving accolades and acclaim. Uncomfortable in her father’s shadow, she moved to Paris in 1963 where she met and married French director Roger Vadim, giving birth to their daughter Vanessa in 1968. Shortly after that she met a group of U.S. soldiers who had fought in Vietnam and deserted to Paris. And much like her climate change epiphany, it was a book that awakened her. “I got to know these guys and they started talking to me about the Vietnam War. I was very resistant at first. I really did not want to believe that my country was doing what they said we were doing there—engaging in things that can only be described as war crimes—torturing and destroying civilians. They gave me a book by Jonathan Schell called The Village of Ben Suc. I read it in one sitting, and when I closed it, I was a different person,” she says. It inspired her to change her life completely. “I thought, Oh my God, I feel betrayed by my country, these soldiers have been betrayed by their country. I want to go back and join the movement that’s trying to end the war. Because I had been watching French television that was showing tens of thousands of Americans marching against the Pentagon. I left my family, I left my husband, I moved back [to the U.S.] and I never looked back. That was the beginning.”
“I spent the first 30 years of my life as a non-activist. Even worse, [I was] unaware, and kind of depressed. I didn’t know what the point of my life was.”
She had just started an anti-war speaking tour in 1970 when she was arrested at the Cleveland airport. Police confiscated her tiny envelopes of vitamins, each labeled in red nail polish “B,” “L,” or “D” so she’d know which to take with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and she was accused of smuggling drugs, a headline the newspapers ran with. It was an arrest fabricated by the Nixon administration, but rather than tarnish her reputation and dampen her influence, it yielded one of pop culture’s most celebrated mugshots: Fonda, her hair newly shaggy, her fist impulsively raised in defiance. “See, I have double-jointed hands, so I can slip my hands out of the handcuffs very easily. And so I threw a fist before they could stop me,” she says, breaking into a bout of delighted laughter. “I had absolutely no idea how good the lighting was, thank God.” She jokes about it now, but it certainly wasn’t funny then, especially since the officers roughed her up a bit. “I was all by myself, and I did not expect to be arrested, and it was harrowing. I got put into a jail cell with a woman who was kicking heroin or something, and it was heavy. It was really heavy.”
It wasn’t the last time Fonda would be targeted by the government or skewered in the media for her outspokenness. In 1972, after several years of anti-war activism, she took a trip to North Vietnam that would get her labeled as treasonous by members of Congress, turn much of the public against her, and invoke the ire of veterans for decades to come. (In 2005, a Vietnam vet waited in line at one of Fonda’s book signings, only to spit tobacco juice in her face and call her a “traitor.”) It was on this trip that she met with American POWs, and took to the Vietnamese radio airwaves to plead with U.S. pilots to remember their humanity and stop the bombings. But it was a fateful photograph that was taken of Fonda on the last day of her trip, happily engaging with Vietnamese soldiers while sitting on an anti-aircraft gun, the kind used to shoot U.S. planes out of the sky, that was seared into the country’s collective memory. The vitriolic response was swift. The media labeled her “Hanoi Jane,” a pejorative nickname she still can’t shake, and she was villainized as a traitor. Though she has apologized numerous times to U.S. soldiers and their families for the photograph, which she calls “my mistake” in her memoir My Life So Far, she never walked back her criticism of the war, and the U.S. policies surrounding it.
Public disapproval has never stopped Fonda from engaging in a cause, and ending the Vietnam War wasn’t the only early activism she put her fame behind. Though, as an immuno-compromised 82-year-old she hasn’t been on the streets marching with Black Lives Matter, she’s been doing the work of checking her privilege long before “white fragility” was a thing. In the early ’70s, she worked with the Black Panther Party, helping to raise bail money for their political prisoners. She had just returned to the U.S. from Paris, and was living with her father at the time. Even he threatened to turn her in as a communist when he saw Black Panther leaders coming to visit her. “That movement back then, it didn’t have a whole lot of white support,” she says, “partly because the Panthers espoused armed revolution. And I used to have arguments with them about it. But I soon realized that, as a privileged white woman, I had no business trying to make myself heard. You know, what did I have to contribute to people who had experienced the kind of racism that has now become so apparent to white people? But I knew that the people who were in jail were there because they were political, and so I wanted to help be part of the movement to raise bail money for them.” Her affiliation with the Panthers would alter her life entirely more than a decade later, when 14-year-old Mary “Lulu” Williams, the daughter of former Black Panther members, one of whom was still jailed, would move in with Fonda and her second husband Tom Hayden, joining the family as their adoptive daughter. Williams, now 53 and an activist in her own right, even wrote a memoir about her experience, The Lost Daughter.
It was through her anti-Vietnam activism that Fonda had met Hayden, a civil rights organizer and anti-war activist (he was one of the “Chicago 7,” indicted for his role in the anti-Vietnam protests outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention). They married in 1973, not long before she gave birth to their son Troy, and their relationship was founded on their shared beliefs. (In fact, she created Jane Fonda’s Workout with the sole purpose of funding their Campaign for Economic Democracy, a political action committee supporting a range of social and environmental causes. It became the best-selling home video ever, and by the time she bought the rights back from the CED in 1987, it had raised about 10 million dollars for political initiatives.)
Fonda was still making movies, but the more dedicated she became to her activism, the harder it was to reconcile her role in Hollywood. In fact, 1971’s Klute might have been the last Jane Fonda movie the world would’ve seen if it weren’t for the life-changing advice she got from her friend and “political mentor” Ken Cockrel, a leader of Detroit’s League of Revolutionary Black Workers. “I told him that I wanted to leave the business because being a celebrity, I felt like it was getting in my way,” she says. “And he said to me, ‘Fonda, the movement has plenty of organizers, we don’t have movie stars. We need you to stay in your line of work and to be more intentional about what you do.’ So that’s what I did.” Fonda began to produce, and put Hollywood to work for her, starting with 1978’s Coming Home, an anti-war film about a wounded Vietnam vet, in which she plays a hospital volunteer, a role that garnered her a Best Actress Oscar.
Next was The China Syndrome, a critique of nuclear power, and then 1980’s 9 to 5, in which Fonda, Tomlin, and Dolly Parton play office workers who exact revenge on their misogynist boss. It was inspired by Fonda’s friend Karen Nussbaum and her work organizing women office workers. The film is a feminist classic, but, Fonda tells me, it wasn’t until the ’90s, during her third (and final) marriage to media mogul Ted Turner, that she truly came to understand feminism. Again, a book played a crucial role. “Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice kind of blew the top of my head off,” she says. The 1982 gender studies classic takes on the male-oriented field of psychology and challenges the way researchers have used traditionally male behaviors (like a preference for individuality) to establish a baseline for moral development that excludes feminine tendencies towards interaction and relationships. “I just saw in very stark relief what the problems were in the marriage,” she says.
Not long after reading the book, Fonda left Turner after a decade together, in order to truly come into her own. “One of the first things I did after Ted and I split up was see The Vagina Monologues. It was one of the last performances where [V—formerly known as Eve Ensler] played all of the different characters. I was by myself, and I was absolutely blown away by this piece,” she says. “I think it was during some of the really hysterical monologues, while I was laughing—because you see, when you laugh, your guard is down—that my feminism went from my head into the rest of my body and I became an embodied feminist. That’s when it really happened. I could allow myself to open myself to feminism, which I couldn’t do before because my marriages weren’t entirely honest and democratic.”
“One of the first things I did after Ted and I split up was see The Vagina Monologues...and I was absolutely blown away by this piece.”
Fonda is a paragon of perseverance. And not only in terms of her personal journey, but her socially active one as well. She has faced myriad political disappointments over the years and fought for policies that seemed impossible to achieve. Her work as an activist has led her to be surveilled by the FBI, targeted by a Presidential administration, vilified by the media, and trolled by her detractors. And yet. In her book, What Can I Do?, Fonda talks about her relationship to activism. When she was young, she writes, she considered it a sprint, working tirelessly for quick change. When she got older, she considered it a marathon and learned to pace herself. Now, she understands that activism is a relay race. She’s not going anywhere just yet, but she most certainly is readying the baton, which can only be described as a great act of hope. When I ask Fonda to impart some post-election wisdom, informed by her lifetime of speaking truth to power, she brings us back to the climate crisis. Its effects exacerbate every other issue we face. “The scientists are telling us we have less than 10 years to cut our fossil fuel emissions in half. That is one of the biggest challenges ever to confront humankind. Whichever candidate wins in November, that’s not gonna happen unless there are unprecedented numbers of people alert, organized, and mobilized, pressuring the government, shutting the government down if necessary, to force them to get rid of fossil fuels already,” she says. “Whoever wins, we have to go out and make the new president do it. Big, bold, brave actions have to be taken that will change the way we live.”
By Lisa Butterworth
Photographed By Tiffany Nicholson
Barbarella: Courtesy of Paramount Pictures. Barbarella is available on Digital platforms
"Fire Drill Friday": Courtesy of Greenpeace USA
Mugshot: Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office via AP
March to White House: Liz Gorman
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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