Celebrating Gloria Steinem
We All Stand on Her Shoulders
Gloria Steinem, the best-known face of second wave feminism, will turn 85 in March. And while it’s a persistent temptation in our youth-obsessed America to pay more attention to the young than the old, Steinem has not been forgotten. In fact, a new play about Steinem, “Gloria: A Life,” opened in New York in November. And director Julie Taymor has recruited two major stars – Alicia Vikander and Julianne Moore – to portray Steinem in an upcoming biopic. Steinem is still in great demand as a speaker and commentator on women’s rights and social justice.
Thanks to the tireless work of Steinem and others who launched the second wave of feminism in the late 1960s, America is today a more inclusive society for women in both attitude and practice. It is a credit to this generation of feminists that Millennials and members of Generation Z now embrace the once-radical goals of second wave feminism. They support women’s reproductive freedom, equal pay for women, government-subsidized child care, paid family leave, and strong protections against sexual harassment and punishment for rape (as reflected in the burgeoning #MeToo movement). They believe that female and male couples should share housework and child care. They don’t think that gender should limit a person’s ability to enter professions once dominated by men, whether that be law or medicine, journalism or engineering. But I worry that too many of these same Millennials and Generations Zers don’t understand what it took to normalize such stances – and as a result take them for granted.
A national survey released in August found that less than half (46%) of women between 18 and 35 said they think of themselves as “feminists.” One can look at this finding and conclude that so many “feminist” ideas are now taken for granted that fewer women feel they need to embrace that label. But this reluctance to identify with feminism can also be a problem. Especially if today’s young women don’t appreciate – or even know about – the struggles that previous generations of women endured.
We all stand on the shoulders of earlier generations of reformers, radicals, and idealists who challenged the status quo of their day. Unless we know this history we will have little understanding of how far we have come, of how we got here, and of what still needs to change to make America more livable, humane, and democratic. Young people in particular need to understand that bringing about progressive change takes time – but that it is possible – so that they don’t get too impatient, and don’t give up hope.
A good example is women’s participation in high school and intercollegiate sports. In my own teaching, I find that my students are shocked to see charts showing that in 1971, the year before Congress passed Title IX, only 300,000 girls (less than four percent) participated in high school sports. Today, 3.4 million (about 40 percent) do.
Another example is the professional glass ceiling. Watching the documentary “RBG,” my students are stunned to learn that when Ruth Bader Ginsburg enrolled at Harvard Law School in 1956, she was one of only nine women in a class of 500. As recently as 1971 women constituted only three percent of American lawyers. In 2016, however, women for the first time outnumbered men in law school classrooms.
A third example is the role of women in politics. My students find it hard to believe that in 1969, only half of all Americans said they would vote for a woman for president. Now, according to a Gallup poll, 92 percent support the idea. At the start of the women’s liberation movement, the idea of woman president felt like a distant dream. Two years ago, we came close. It could happen in 2020.
Indeed, November’s blue wave election is a testament to Steinem’s long-term goal of expanding the number of women in public office. In 1971 Steinem joined a bipartisan group of women – including Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, former congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, and Dorothy Height (president of the National Council of Negro Women) – to launch the National Women’s Political Caucus. They believed that by increasing women’s participation in politics, it would be easier to pass legislation to eliminate sex discrimination and to bring about greater legal, economic, and social equality.
In 1969 there were only ten women in the U.S. House of Representatives and one in the U.S. Senate. After this year’s midterm elections, there will be at least 102 women in the House (including 43 women of color) and 25 in the Senate (including four women of color). Both are records.
Nor is this only a phenomenon at the federal level. As of January 2019, nine women will serve as state governors. And another 56 women won other statewide elected executive offices this year. At the start of the new year more than 2,000 women will be serving as state legislators, holding some 27% of the 7,383 seats in the 50 states.
To Steinem’s generation of feminists, these statistics are a sign of progress. On the other hand, and while this might be good news for Millennials and Generation Z, this generation is more likely to see in them a sign of how far we have to go before women achieve equity in political life.
And if there is still far to go, then surely Steinem’s life and legacy can provide valuable lessons about overcoming obstacles and challenging the status quo.
Gloria Steinem was born in 1934 and came of age in the 1950s when women were treated like second-class citizens in almost every aspect of society. She had to overcome many gender barriers to make her way in the world of journalism – a career which helped trigger her evolution as a feminist. Steinem’s work as a writer and activist catalyzed the second wave of the women’s rights movement that began in the late 1960s. She helped popularize feminist ideas. And her frequent articles, speeches, and appearances on TV made her feminism’s most prominent public figure.
Steinem’s father, Leo, was a Jewish itinerant antiques dealer. Her mother, Ruth, was a former journalist born to a Presbyterian family. Gloria was raised without much religious involvement and, ironically, it was her Christian mother who taught her to be proud of her Jewish heritage, educating her daughter about the horrors of the Holocaust and the evils of anti-Semitism. Steinem once said: “Never in my life have I identified myself as a Christian, but wherever there is antisemitism, I identify as a Jew.”
Steinem had a peripatetic childhood, and her family dealt with challenging financial circumstances. After her parents divorced when she was 11, she became caretaker, cook, and housekeeper for her mother, who suffered from depression. Part of what gave her the resilience to persevere was the example of her paternal grandmother, Pauline Steinem. Pauline was president of the Ohio Suffrage Association from 1908 to 1911, a leader of theNational Woman Suffrage Association, and the first woman to be elected to the Toledo Board of Education. In a testimonial to her grandmother, Steinem noted that in her campaign for the school board, “she was elected on a coalition ticket with the socialists and the anarchists.” In the 1930s, Pauline helped rescue many members of her family who lived in Germany from the Nazis. While Pauline died when Gloria was five, she left her what Gloria later called vivid “sense memories” of her strength, courage, and intelligence.
Steinem graduated from Smith College in 1956 and moved to New York City four years later to pursue a career as a journalist. There she worked for a new magazine of political satire, Help!, and contributed short articles to women’s magazines such as Glamour and Ladies’ Home Journal. After writing several pieces for Esquire without being credited, she finally published her first bylined article in the prestigious men’s magazine in 1962. The article, published a year before Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, was about the then-new contraceptive pill. In it she examined the fact that women often had to choose between a career and marriage. “The only trouble with sexually liberating women,” Steinem ended the article, “is that there aren’t enough sexually liberated men to go around.”
Steinem made a big splash in 1963 with “A Bunny’s Tale,” an article written for Show magazine about working at a Playboy Club. The article exposed the decidedly unglamorous working conditions (including the sexual harassment) faced by the club’s waitresses – called “bunnies” – who were required to wear a corset, rabbit ears, cotton tails, and high heels.
Steinem made a living as a freelance writer, profiling celebrities and writing about popular culture for major publications. But she could not persuade editors to assign her serious political subjects. Eventually she began writing a column for New York magazine, which she helped launch in 1968. There she covered a variety of topics: Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh’s years living in New York, wounded veterans returning from Vietnam, neighborhood battles over childcare centers, anti-war demonstrations, migrant workers, the New York City mayoral race, and the 1968 presidential campaign. But two articles established her as a feminist spokesperson.
The first was a 1969 article entitled “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” which profiled the burgeoning women’s movement. The second was a 1970 essay in Time called “What It Would Be Like if Women Win.” There Steinem predicted that feminism would liberate men as well as women. If women could have equal power, she argued, if homosexuals had the right to marry and women could refuse to have sex, then men would no longer be “the only ones to support the family, get drafted, bear the strain of power and responsibility.”
During her first several decades as a public figure, Steinem had to endure media stereotypes that called her the “pin-up girl of the intelligentsia” or a “willowy beauty, 34-24-34.” And she also had to deal with some feminist leaders who resented her visibility in the media. But more than any other figure she was the public face of modern feminism, a constant presence on college campuses and at union halls, in business meetings and at protests, on TV talk shows and in media profiles.
Steinem was an early advocate of what today’s activists call “intersectionality” – consistently injecting issues of race and class into the women’s movement. Steinem built bridges between feminism’s radical and liberal wings and the women’s and labor movements. She pushed middle-class white feminists to embrace the concerns of working-class women and women of color. Not only was she a cofounder of the Coalition of Labor Union Women, but is she still today co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. In addition, she has always viewed men as potential allies in the struggle for equality.
“This [feminism] is no simple reform,” Steinem said in her 1971 speech at the founding of the National Women’s Political Caucus. “It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
Steinem often used outrageous ideas to shake up her readers and audiences. In 1971 she stunned parents and alums at the Smith College graduation by quoting her friend Flo Kennedy’s observation that “there are only a few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina.” She once told an audience of CEOs that a fair society would eliminate all inheritance. She has compared marriage to prostitution and said that unpaid housework “is the definition of women’s work, which is shit work.” In speeches, she frequently drew on the theme of her 1978 essay “If Men Could Menstruate.”
Although Steinem has written hundreds of articles, five books, and given thousands of speeches, her most significant accomplishments involve the creation of two institutions that became major influences in American culture and politics: Ms. Magazine and the National Women’s Political Caucus.
Ms. was the first modern feminist periodical with a national readership. From its start in 1972, Ms. challenged conventional wisdom in articles like “How to Write Your Marriage Contract”, “Can Women Love Women?”, “The Black Family and Feminism”, “Welfare Is a Women’s Issue”, and “Down with Sexist Upbringing.” In its first year, Ms. made history when it published the names of women, including tennis star Billie Jean King, who acknowledged having had abortions when it was still illegal in most of the country, before the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision. And its 1976 cover story on battered women – which featured a photo of a woman with a bruised faced – was the first major exposé of the problem of domestic violence.
The magazine pioneered investigative stories about overseas sweatshops, sex trafficking, the wage gap, the glass ceiling, women’s health (and the medical establishment’s sexism), sexual harassment, and date rape. It explained and advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment, rated presidential candidates on women’s issues, reported on feminist protests against pornography, exposed the influence of sexist advertising on women’s self-images, and acknowledged race and class differences within the feminist movement. Even more, Ms. injected these issues into the political debate at a time when they were considered too radical for the mainstream media to cover — or at least to cover fairly.
In 1993 Steinem and the Ms. Foundation for Women started Take Our Daughters to Work Day to encourage parents to expose their kids, specifically their daughters, to the wide range of work experiences to which they might look forward. A wildly successful program, this past April close to 40 million parents and kids took part.
Nor is Steinem’s work limited to the United States. She has been an outspoken advocate for peace and human rights around the world. In 1984 she and two other activists were arrested at the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C. for protesting the country’s racist apartheid regime. In 2010, Steinem and Pramila Jayapal coauthored an article linking women’s and immigrant rights issues. In 2015 she joined a delegation of 30 female peace activists from 15 countries who made a rare crossing of the dangerous demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
In recognition for her many accomplishments, in 2013 President Obama awarded Gloria Steinem the Presidential Medal of Freedom. “She awakened a vast and often skeptical public [to] problems like domestic violence, the lack of affordable child care, and unfair hiring practices,” Obama said at the White House ceremony. “She also changed how women thought about themselves.”
Despite her many successes, Steinem has made some missteps. In 2016, for example, while campaigning for Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries, she made a rare political blunder. When asked why so many young women were supporting Bernie Sanders rather than Clinton, she said “When you’re young, you’re thinking, where are the boys?” The backlash to this quip was merciless and she quickly apologized.
But such occasional mistakes have not kept her from using her voice for the public good. At the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., for example, she rebuked President Donald Trump for his divisive rhetoric. “The Constitution doesn’t begin with, ‘I, the president’,” she said. “It begins with, ‘We, the people.’ So don’t try to divide us!” Later she blasted Trump’s proposal to force Muslims to register in a government database. “If you force Muslims to register, we will all register as Muslims,” Steinem declared. Just last year she both fundraised for Planned Parenthood and joined an effort to save the last abortion clinic in her hometown of Toledo, Ohio. And in a recent interview with The Grio, she praised the cofounders of Black Lives Matter, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, for creating “a more inclusive movement.”
Steinem’s 1970 prediction — “if Women’s Lib wins, perhaps we all do” — is not yet a reality. But many Americans, including a majority of those under forty, now embrace the once-radical tenets of modern feminism. And that, like Steinem’s life, is a victory worth celebrating.
Peter Dreier is professor of politics at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame.