TEARFUL FROM THE MEMORY of her father, Jane Fonda embraced the John Steinbeck Award that she had just received and thanked a standing audience in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre.

“My father is in this statue,” said the 85-year-old film legend and political activist on Sept. 13. Her father, Henry Fonda, played Depression-era sharecropper Tom Joad in the 1940 film adaptation of Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.”

The John Steinbeck Award is given by the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University. It honors writers, artists, thinkers and activists whose work demonstrates empathy, commitment to democratic values and belief in the dignity of people pushed to the margins of society.

Fonda accepted the award after talking an hour on stage with podcaster Greg Dalton, at an event hosted by The Commonwealth Club’s Climate One project. 

Jane Fonda calls audience to activism after accepting the John Steinbeck Award at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, Sept. 13, 2023. (Ruth Dusseault/Bay City News)

“We had Steinbeck books all over the house during my childhood, and I’ve read them all,” Fonda said. “The Grapes of Wrath is my favorite. The biblical rhythm, the way every chapter starts with this panorama of masses of people moving across the earth like ants because their lives have been destroyed by rich people and by banks.”

A cancer survivor, Fonda appeared poised and animated as she shared anecdotes about her life in activism. Seeing women as catalysts, she recalled a particular woman leading at an anti-Vietnam War rally in Texas in the 1970s.

“She didn’t treat me like a celebrity. She saw me,” Fonda said. “I realized there’s a lot of these people in the world that are totally different than the people that I’ve grown up with. I wanted to be like them. They were all women. It was a profound, soul-altering experience for me.”

Fonda has spent the last decades fighting for Indigenous peoples’ rights, economic justice, LGBTQ rights, gender equality and more. She was arrested on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in 2019 protesting the climate emergency as a participant in Fire Drill Fridays, a national movement to protest government inaction on climate change that she started in partnership with Greenpeace USA.

“I realized there’s a lot of these people in the world that are totally different than the people that I’ve grown up with. I wanted to be like them. They were all women. … ”

Jane Fonda

Her latest project is the Jane Fonda Climate PAC, a national effort to elect and support climate champions. She spoke about a proposed referendum supported by the oil companies for the November 2024 ballot to roll back a 2022 California ordinance requiring a 3,200-foot setback separating new oil wells from communities.

Crowds cheer Jane Fonda in San Francisco’s Herbst Theater as she accepts the John Steinbeck Award on Sept. 13. 2023 (Ruth Dusseault/Bay City News)

In California, 2.7 million people live near oil wells and have a higher risk of asthma, birth defects and cancer, according to the Campaign for a Safe and Healthy California, a group Fonda supports.

“One of the reasons we haven’t gotten good legislation for too long in California is because of oily Democrats in the Legislature,” she said. “Right now, you can’t get much done in Congress, but down ballot, your state legislatures, city councils, supervisors, controllers, they have such power.”

Before departing, Fonda turned to the audience and shouted over the applause, “Don’t forget! When I come back and you hear there’s something going on, come out and join me!”