The Heartbreaking Home Life of the Fonda Family

Famous families often find themselves in the spotlight, whether they want to be there or not. Children of celebrities often find themselves getting chased down by paparazzi from a young age, never having the freedom to be a kid outside of the spotlight. The Fonda children were no different.

Little Frances, Frances Ford Seymour, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda / Peter Fonda, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda / Jane Fonda, Vanessa Vadim / Jane Fonda.

Source: Getty Images

The Fonda family has built their own legacy, consisting of three generations of award-winning actors in the film world. While most families have their drama, the Fonda family has suffered even more in the spotlight. The Fonda family members were more than just entertainers – they were active in a number of social causes. Though they were fighting for causes near and dear to their hearts, they found themselves at the center of scrutiny.

They’ve Never Been Afraid to Speak Up

Dating back to Hollywood’s Golden Age, the Fonda family have been vocal about several social and political issues that they care about. Naturally, opposing authority wasn’t always the best way to get support from fans – but this family didn’t seem to mind. They just cared about standing up for what’s right.

Peter Fonda, Henry Fonda, and Jane Fonda sit starring at the camera.

Peter Fonda, Henry Fonda, Jane Fonda. Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

This family is full of people who have used their voices to illuminate what matters most to them. Starting with Henry Fonda back in the day, this Fondas have made names for themselves as Hollywood’s first family, as well as activists that have been both loved and hated for years and years on end.

Henry Fonda’s Upbringing Was Unique

Born in a small town in Nebraska back in 1905, Henry Fonda was exposed to social injustices from a very young age. Long before he made his debut in Westerns, such as My Darling Clementine and 12 Angry Men, he was exposed to one of the most terrifying events that one could ever see.

A formal portrait of Henry Fonda as an adolescent.

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When Henry was just 14 years old, his father took him to witness the lynching and burning of a man named Will Brown, a Black man in their community, as reported by The Village Voice. His exposure to such a horrific event opened his eyes to the many injustices we still experience in life today, leading him to dedicate his life to fighting social injustice.

Henry Would Not Sit Idly By

Henry Fonda grew up with a salesman father in a small town just outside of Omaha, Nebraska. It’s unclear if his father took him to see the lynching to entertain him or to open his eyes to the injustices of the world; fortunately, he saw it as the ladder. He wouldn’t sit idly by while terrible things happened in the world around him.

Henry Fonda as Lt. Col. Kiley in 'Battle of the Bulge'.

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

His early exposure determined his path of standing up for what was right. He would not condone violence, and he’d spend much of his adult life fighting for social issues that would make life better for all. Even some of his work would mimic the experiences that he’d had fighting crimes against humanity.

His Films Reflected His Values… and Experiences

The patriarch of the Fonda family often took roles for more admirable reasons, even if a project was not expected to do well. His film The Ox-Box Incident came out in the midst of World War II, and his character even witnesses a lynching – much like he did in his childhood.

A portrait of Henry Fonda featured in the film Once Upon a Time in the West.

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Many other roles were taken for admirable reasons, and he even fronted some of his own wealth to make sure that projects he cared about would get made. One of those films was 12 Angry Men. Additionally, he was known for being serious and often difficult to get along with. This is evident throughout his career.

The Struggles of Frances Ford Seymour

Frances Ford Seymour was Jane and Peter’s mother, and she was distantly related to the third wife of King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour (who her daughter Jane would later be named after). Frances Ford Seymour was a Canadian socialite hailing from a prominent family of aristocrats.

Frances and Henry are sitting in a bar accompanied by friends.

Frances Ford Seymour, Henry Ford. Photo by William Grimes/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Seymour was married to Henry Fonda for 13 years and unfortunately battled with serious mental illness that may or may not have been exacerbated by her toxic marriage. She had previously been institutionalized, and when Henry asked for a divorce, things really took a turn for the worst.

Things Went Downhill, Quickly

Having already struggled with mental health issues for years, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that she was sent over the edge when her husband ended their marriage. Henry asked for a divorce in order to marry a woman 23 years younger than him, and that did not sit well with her.

Henry Fonda poses with his wife Shirlee in Taormina.

Shirlee Fonda. Photo by Angelo Deligio/Mondadori/Getty Images

On her 42nd birthday, Frances Ford Seymour took her own life with a razor blade in the mental institution she was living in. Her children were only 10 and 12 years old and were not given the true story behind her death. They were told that she’d suffered a heart attack…

How Jane Learned of Her Mother’s Cause of Death

Within a year, young Jane Fonda would be informed of the real cause of her mother’s death. In her 2015 appearance on Oprah’s Master Class, she opened up about how she found out. When you hear how she learned, your heart will break in half!

Young child Jane Fonda looks at her mothers' eyes.

Jane Fonda, Frances Ford Seymour. Photo by Jane Fonda

“A year after my mother died, I was in study hall, and a girlfriend passed me a movie magazine, in which it said that my mother had cut her throat,” she told Oprah. It must have been an incredibly traumatic experience for her. Unfortunately, that’s not where the story ends.

Jane’s Last Visit With Her Mother

While appearing on Oprah’s Master Class, Jane divulged that her last visit with her mother wasn’t short of intense, though she didn’t quite understand it at the time. She opened up about her mother visiting their house and being escorted by a nurse. At the time, she was still so young; how could she have put the pieces together?

Jane Fonda and Oprah pose together for a portrait after the show.

Photo by Richard Phibbs

At the time, they hadn’t even been told that their mother was receiving mental health treatment – they were just told that she was “away.” She asked for Jane to come downstairs to see her, and Jane refused. She didn’t know that it would be the last time she’d ever be able to see her mother. She still struggles with guilt from it.

Henry Fonda Was a Difficult Father

Henry Fonda was a difficult father to Jane and Peter. After their mother took her own life, he was increasingly harder to get along with – becoming more and more dependent on their new stepmother to provide some kind of motherly affection and warmth.

Jane Fonda and Henry Fonda are sitting outdoors.

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The younger Fonda sibling, Peter, told The Virginian Pilot, “Growing up with my father was not easy. Jane and I didn’t look forward to having dinner with him. It’s just that he was quiet and didn’t talk much, and we felt he was judging us, and we didn’t do much that was right. The dinner table was a scary place.”

Lacking Emotional Intelligence

During a Q and A session with the British Film Institute, Peter Fonda felt it was necessary to add more details about his upbringing, specifically citing the way his father was raised. His religious household had its own guidelines on how emotions should be shown.

A vintage portrait of Peter Fonda.

Photo by Bob Olsen/Toronto Star/Getty Images

Peter claimed that his father grew up in a Christian Scientist household where he was taught from a young age to “believe that if you’re hurt or in pain, you cure it by praying. Crying was not acceptable.” The Fondas remembered their father coming off as very shy – ultimately afraid to show any emotion. He only showed emotion while onscreen!

The Fonda Stepdaughter

There was another child in the Fonda-Seymour household, though she didn’t get the same kind of attention that her step siblings did. Frances Ford Seymour had a daughter, known as “Pan” or “Little Frances,” and she was frequently overlooked when it came to the Fonda family dynamic.

Peter Fonda, Frances Fonda, Jane Fonda, Henry Fonda, and Frances de Villes enjoy a picnic.

Peter Fonda, Frances Fonda, Jane Fonda, Henry Fonda, Frances de Villes. Photo by Genevieve Naylor/Corbis/Getty Image

Little Frances had endured a ridiculous amount of trauma in her short time on earth so far. Before becoming Henry Fonda’s stepdaughter, she had already lost her biological father who drowned in a swimming pool at age 51. She also had a half-sister who was killed in a car accident at age 19.

There Was a Bright Side, Somehow

Though her life was filled with constant tragedy, having lost her mother to suicide while Little Frances was in her twenties, she still managed to prevail – even if only by financial matters. Despite her life being controlled by hardship, there was still a bright side to everything that she had been through.

Jane Fonda, Frances de Villers Brokaw, Frances Fonda, and Henry Fonda enjoy a picnic day outside.

Photo by Genevieve Naylor/Corbis/Getty Images

Little Frances’ father was a lawyer hailing from a wealthy family on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. From birth, she was an heiress, inheriting “one-fourth ownership of the New York Guaranty Trust Company and one-third of all the holdings of the multi-million-dollar Brokaw corporations,” according to a UP report from 1945.

They Weren’t Close With Their Stepsister

Jane and Peter Fonda were not very close with their stepsister, and Little Frances didn’t have much interest in being in the spotlight. However, you don’t have to be close to attend your step sibling’s funeral!

Frances Ford plays with little Jane and Peter while Little Frances stands behind.

Little Frances, Frances Ford Seymour, Jane Fonda, Peter Fonda. Source: HBO

Jane attended Little Frances’ funeral in Rome when she passed away in 2008. Whether or not they had much of a relationship, it’s important that Jane showed up to give her a peaceful and kind send-off into her final resting place. That’s the kind of sister we all hope for!

Henry Fonda’s Greatest Stunt

Oh no, it wasn’t a stunt like you’d see in Hollywood films. It was actually a legal stunt – he left his own children out of his will! When Henry Fonda died back in 1982 at the age of 77, he completely shut out his kids (including his stepdaughter) from any kind of inheritance!

A portrait of Henry Fonda.

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Henry chose to leave the entirety of his estate to his widow, Shirlee Fonda, as well as his adopted daughter with Susan Blanchard – Amy Fonda Fishman. “My decision is not in any sense a measure of my deep affection for them,” he said in reference to leaving his other children out of his will.

Peter’s Toughest Days Growing Up

Peter and his father had a tumultuous relationship as he grew up, sharing that Henry had the tendency to be abusive. When he was just six years old, Peter was sent off to boarding school. This resulted in him rarely seeing his father when he was a child.

Peter, Jane, and Henry Fonda smile as they board an airplane.

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Back in 1998, he published a book called “Don’t Tell Dad: A Memoir.” In this book, he recalled some of his earliest memories of his father – specifically, how he acted upon his father’s return from World War II. He shared a heartbreaking tale of his father punishing him for taking candies he found in his dressing room.

A Punishment Unfit for The Crime

He told People that he “climbed onto the couch next to him, and he noticed I was sucking on the candy. He asked me where I got it, but the look on his face and the tone in his voice were terrifying. I told him I had just found it.”

Young boy Peter Fonda is seated on a wooden horse.

Peter Fonda. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

“He bellowed that I was a liar. I jumped off the couch and ran for my life with Dad in hot pursuit. I made it into my bathroom, locking the door, but then Dad kicked the door in. He picked me up by my small, terrified neck and carried me into my bedroom, giving me the spanking of my life.”

Jane Had Daddy Issues of Her Own

Jane and her father didn’t quite have a better relationship than her brother did with him. He left Jane with years’ worth of psychological damage. In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Jane divulged details of some of her father’s unhealthy and unrealistic beauty expectations.

A portrait of Jane Fonda.

Photo by Herbert Dorfman/Corbis/Getty Images

She believed that his expectations mostly had to do with the time period she was raised in. “I was taught by my father that how I looked was all that mattered, frankly. He was a good man, and I was mad for him, but he sent messages to me that fathers should not send: Unless you look perfect, you’re not going to be loved.”

The Hardships That Followed Jane

Jane Fonda admitted later in her life that she’d been the victim of a sexual violence and misogynistic behaviors. She was molested as a child, raped as an adult, and even fired from jobs for refusing to sleep with her boss. Unfortunately, her insecurities made her uncomfortable with saying no to men around her.

Jane Fonda in the set of the film 'Les Félins'.

Photo by REPORTERS ASSOCIES/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Jane was too afraid to say no, which is heartbreaking in its own right. She suffered from an eating disorder, bulimia, well into her thirties. She reflected on that hard point in her life as surviving on a diet of cigarettes, coffee, and strawberry yogurt.

Jane’s Love Life Wasn’t What She’d Hoped For

Growing up and witnessing her father’s many marriages, it’s no surprise that she’d follow suit. Jane was married and divorced three times. She suffered at the hands of multiple husbands and fell victim to men who were abusive and unfaithful.

Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda share their sit outdoors.

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Jane later admitted that her marriages might not have been the best moves for her; she was still finding herself when she married her first husband, director Roger Vadim in 1965. The two were married for eight years before getting divorced, but she had her own concerns beyond that.

Husbands Against Monogamy

Jane’s first husband was firmly against monogamy – he just didn’t believe in it. That added some unnecessary and uncomfortable pressure on Jane. She later admitted that she felt that he had tried to pressure her into threesomes, specifically in one instance between the couple and a call girl.

Jane Fonda walks next to Roger Vadim as they attend an event in Venice.

Photo by Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis/Getty Images

Vadim was already in his third marriage and was 10 years older than Jane. When she’d confronted him about her discomfort with the situation, his response was less than ideal: “Jealousy is bourgeois – if I have sex with someone else, it’s not betrayal because I love you.”

Picking Up the Pieces of Her Husbands

Roger Vadim was not her only problematic husband, though he proved to be difficult in his own ways. Not only did he hate monogamy, but he also had a gambling problem that often required his wife to clean up his financial messes.

Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden are taking a break at the U.S. Capitol from an anti-war protest.

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Jane Fonda went on to marry a man who appeared to be the complete opposite of Vadim, Vietnam anti-war activist Tom Hayden. The two were married the same year that her divorce was finalized with her first husband. He is seen as a driving force behind her activism work – that’s not to say that the relationship was healthy, though…

Too Many Husbands for Jane

Jane Fonda did not miss a beat when moving onto her second husband after her first divorce was finalized. Her second husband, Tom Hayden, was believed to have had something to do with her launch into activism work – later causing legal problems for her.

A mugshot of Jane Fonda following her arrest after a protest.

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Her marriage to Hayden lasted for 17 years before they called it quits; she cited his womanizing ways and controlling behaviors as reasons for their marriage ending. Her third marriage was to CNN founder Ted Turner, though it didn’t last. She was reportedly abusive toward him, hitting him in the head with a telephone after learning he cheated on her a month into their marriage.

How Old is Jane Fonda?

Jane Fonda was born on December 21st, 1937, making her 83 years old as this article is written. She’s had such a full life, filled with activism, love, loss, trauma, and triumph. Seriously, though – this woman is ageless. She clearly doesn’t look like she’s in her eighties!

A screengrab of Jane Fonda in her house.

Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images

Of her immediate family, she is the only remaining member. Her father died in 1982, and her younger brother Peter lost his battle with lung cancer in 2019. She’s been stealing our hearts through her performances since she made her acting debut back in 1960 when she was cast in a Broadway show at age 23.

Jane Has Grown Tremendously

This Fonda daughter is often known for her tall and tight physique. She’s 5’8″ of pure beauty and was well known for her fitness empire back in the 1980s. Naturally, this was the key needed to unlock the secrets of growing old gracefully.

A close-up on Jane Fonda during an exercise class.

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In her book “Prime Time,” she wrote that “maintaining a healthy weight, strong heart and bones through regular physical exercise is a major ingredient for successful aging.” She has vocalized her efforts to “be better as a human being” throughout her time on earth.

Peter Fonda Wanted to Have His Own Image

Being the child of a Hollywood star could immediately taint the image of an aspiring entertainer. In Peter Fonda’s case, he tried to get away from his father’s image by all means. His image became far more wholesome than his father’s – “All-American with a conscience,” some have said.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper are riding on the set of Easy Rider.

Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper. Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

Who could blame him for wanting to escape his father’s image? He wanted to be his own man. It was the ’60s, wasn’t it? He had a starring role in Easy Rider, which changed his entire career path. It was also believed that this film created some blurred lines for Peter, struggling to identify with reality.

His Problems With Possession

Peter Fonda was one to embrace the hippie lifestyle, and the use of recreational drugs was a big part of that (for him, at least). He would be turned away from multiple roles that he knew he deserved simply because they knew he engaged in a substance use.

A portrait of Peter Fonda.

Photo by Susan Wood/Getty Images

Peter was arrested on marijuana possession charges back in 1966, but that didn’t stop him from speaking out. The same year, he protested for the rights of young people by participating in a riot on the sunset strip. This would lead him to a life tackling political and environmental issues.

Peter Suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

While many often assume that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) only happens to those coming back from war zones, that’s not the case. PTSD comes in many forms and can have many different causes.

A portrait of Peter Fonda.

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Peter opened up about his experiences with PTSD, stating that it had been going on for most of his life. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he stated, “I knew I was nuts; I had no idea how to deal with it, and it was getting in my way. In 2004, I found what was wrong. I had never heard the term PTSD. That’s what I suffered since I was six years old.”

She Became “Hanoi Jane”

The Fonda family is known for its legacy of political and social activism. Even in 2020, Jane was arrested for her efforts in civil disobedience. She is probably as well known for her activism as she is for her Academy award-nominated work! She’s passionate and not afraid to show it.

Jane Fonda looks through the scope of an anti-aircraft gun during her tour of the North Vietnamese capital.

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She was known for a ton of her work with the Black Panther Party as well as with various Native American rights organizations. Back in 1970, she spent a night in jail after protesting the Vietnam War. She was dubbed “Hanoi Jane” after creating a campaign to counter Bob Hope’s USO tour.

Hanoi Jane’s Rap Sheet

When she spent that fateful night in a jail cell, she was technically arrested on “drug charges,” though it would later be revealed that President Richard Nixon was part of it all. He was not pleased with her anti-war efforts and really didn’t appreciate how outspoken she was.

President Richard Nixon appears on television.

President Richard Nixon. Photo by Ernst Haas/Ernst Haas/Getty Images

It may (or may not) shock you to learn that the FBI and the CIA had been keeping a close watch on Jane. The NSA was even tapping her phone calls, The Washington Post divulged. Fight the power, Jane!

Receiving Her New Nickname

Jane was not a huge fan of her nickname Hanoi Jane. On the USO tour, she spoke out against the U.S. military’s policy in Vietnam. She spent her time campaigning for pilots to stop bombing areas that were not military targets.

Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda speak during a news conference on the Vietnam negotiations.

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After sharing her thoughts on various radio shows, she was photographed sitting on an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi. Not quite sure what that was for, but it backfired and caused a major PR mess for the star when she got back home. Later, she found herself apologizing for it.

Was Jane Fonda Committing Treason?

Jane’s activism proved to be problematic for various politicians. Several American lawmakers had a bone to pick with this Fonda, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars viewed her actions as treason. Many of these lawmakers even sought out their own forms of retaliation against her.

Jane Fonda looks on during her time in Hanoi / A Vietnam War-era protest pin that reads 'Boycott Hanoi Jane.'

Photo by Anwar Hussein, Getty Images / Stuart Lutz, Gado, Getty Images

Though it was problematic to some, many Americans stood behind Jane in her journey toward living a more wholesome life. They appreciated her activism, especially for using her platform for good. Filmmaker Lynn Novick even stood up for her, stating that even some veterans “think she was courageous for going to Hanoi and taking a stand even though they didn’t agree with everything she had to say.”

The Mother-Daughter Dynamic

Not only was Jane Fonda’s first marriage come at a difficult time in her life, but it was also a time of great change. She and Roger Vadim had a daughter together, and she, unfortunately, struggled with postpartum depression after giving birth. The two weren’t very close until later in life, thanks to a shared passion.

Jane Fonda accommodates her baby in the stroller.

Photo by REPORTERS ASSOCIES/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Their relationship was not very warm, but they found common ground and bonded over their passion for environmental and climate issues. She appeared in an interview with actress Brie Larson, in which she opened up about her parenting regrets. “I regret that I wasn’t a better parent,” she stated.

She Didn’t Know How to Be a Good Parent

“I didn’t know how to do it,” she said. “But you can learn, so I studied how to be a parent. It’s never too late,” Jane shared in her interview with Larson. However, it’s better late than never, right? The two did have their time to shine while standing up for each other and their shared passion.

Vanessa sits on Jane Fonda's lap during a portrait session in their house.

Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

When Jane was arrested for protesting on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., during a weekly environmental strike in 2020, Jane’s daughter Vanessa came to meet her after her release. “When I came out of jail, I didn’t know she was going to be there, and we just looked at each other and burst into tears,” she shared.

Who is Vanessa Vadim?

Vanessa Vadim is Jane Fonda’s daughter with her late first husband. Vanessa could have any entry into Hollywood stardom that she wanted, having come from two highly esteemed figures in Hollywood. Vanessa was one of Jane’s three children, with Troy and Mary as siblings.

Jane Fonda poses with Vanessa Vadim as they attend an event.

Photo by Stefanie Keenan/WireImage/Getty Images

Vanessa was born in Paris, France, in September 1968, and did not become an actress – instead, she became a single mother of two with a passion for activism and standing up for what’s right. She’s even encouraged her own children to become activists themselves. It seems to run in the family!

Henry Fonda Had More Influence Than You’d Think

Or, maybe he had just the amount of influence you’d expect. Jane associated not only her acting career but much of her work as an activist to her father and his influence over her. She reflected on the characters he played and divulged even more of her emotions in an interview with The Guardian.

Jane Fonda speaks during an activist gathering.

Photo by PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images

“As I was growing up, he was making films like 12 Angry Men and The Grapes of Wrath, playing characters who spoke up for justice, who fought for the underdog. I knew he loved these characters, and I wanted him to love me,” Jane shared.

The Mask Her Father Wore

“He used acting as a mask behind which to hide his emotions; he abhorred anything that showed his vulnerability,” Jane shared in the same interview with The Guardian. She expressed that her father’s unwillingness to share his emotions with his children was somehow also a motivator for her.

Henry Fonda gives a serious look as he listens through the phone.

Photo by FilmPublicityArchive/United Archives/Getty Images

She knew that her work had the potential to break the barriers that her father would never breach himself. She saw her position as an actress as a position of power and hoped to never shield her emotions in the way that he did. She would not mask her emotions behind a role, and she made sure of that.

Peter Didn’t Want to Take His Father’s Roles

He was the closest thing to Henry Fonda that any casting director would ever get – he was his son, after all! Peter was constantly asked if he would renew his father’s roles, specifically for projects like a 12 Angry Men reboot. That wasn’t Peter’s path, though, so he declined.

Jane and Peter Fonda are standing talking on the balcony.

Photo by REPORTERS ASSOCIES/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images

Both Jane and Peter constantly struggled to shy away from their father’s image. “Dad always thought of himself as a character actor, not a leading man, being uncomfortable with the ‘handle’ of a leading man or romantic lead,” Peter stated.

Jane Experienced Sexism Frequently

Being a young, beautiful actress from a prominent family in entertainment came with its own struggles. Living as a woman in a society that did not appreciate women for all of their worth was just as bad. When Jane was on her way up in the industry, she’d experienced rampant sexism continuously.

Jane Fonda poses against a red background.

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

In an essay she published in 2016, Jane wrote that she was taught, “to be loved, a female has to be perfect: thin, pretty, having good hair, being nice rather than honest, ready to sacrifice, never smarter than a man, never angry. I assumed I was paid less than the men and that I didn’t deserve more.”

What’s Jane Fonda Doing Today?

Even well into her eighties, Jane Fonda still continues to act. She is currently one of the stars of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie, and she’s continuing her activism in any way possible. Whether she’s protesting against climate change on the Capitol steps or engaging in a sit-in on a Native American reservation, she’s staying true to herself.

Jane Fonda on stage at a Greenpeace USA gathering / Jane Fonda speaks onstage during the Academy Awards.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth, Getty Images / Kevin Winter, Getty Images

She has survived many health scares that her family members did not survive themselves and still manages to thrive today. She’s happy being single and couldn’t ask for more. “For me, the personal meant becoming a single woman, no longer silencing my voice, slowly becoming the subject of my own life,” she told Vanity Fair. Right on, Jane – keep making us proud!