Gloria Steinem ’56 has been the face of the feminist movement for more than four decades. A bestselling author and co-founder of both New York magazine and Ms. magazine, she also helped launch some of the most important women’s groups of the past century, including the Ms. Foundation for Women, Women’s Action Alliance, the National Women’s Political Caucus, Choice USA, the Women’s Media Center, and GreenStone Media. In 1993, Steinem was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York.
Her public persona—the stylish, confident firebrand whose face and name are known around the world—belies her chaotic childhood. Before she was an activist and thinker, she was a young girl from a troubled Toledo, Ohio, family. By the age of 12, she had never completed a full year of school, but she possessed a passion for literature that formed the basis of her education. She followed her older sister, Susanne Steinem Patch ’46, to Smith, where she majored in government, fell in love with the works of Plato and Dostoyevsky, served as historian for the class of 1956, and was briefly engaged to an Air Force pilot who once wrote “Gloria” in the sky over campus.
The aerial display was a fitting tribute to a woman whose name has loomed large for Smith women ever since. Today, at 75 years old, Steinem is still traveling, lecturing, and fighting for change, and she’s currently at work on Road to the Heart: America As if Everyone Mattered, a book about her experience as a feminist organizer. Over iced tea at her home on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, she paused to reflect on her past and talk about what comes next.
In your 2007 commencement address at Smith, you said, “Even now my generation, probably some of yours too, are living out the unlived lives of our own mothers.” How did this apply to your life?
My mother had been a newspaper reporter before I was born. She was a pioneer in her field and loved her work. Then she married my father, a very nice, kindhearted, fun-loving man. They never should have married. They really shared very few interests. And she had my sister, who is nine years older, so all the stresses and strains of that plus many, many other things all converged on her. She had what was then called a nervous breakdown, and she was in a sanatorium for quite a while. After that, in order to save herself, she left all of her friends and her work. I never knew that, until much later. I remember little things. I still know much of Edna St. Vincent Millay and other poets by heart because she taught them to me. She was an influence, but I never knew who she might have been until much later. So today, when I hear a young woman say to me, “I hope I can have as interesting a life as my mother,” it’s so moving, because they’re not saying the same life. It’s not imitative. It’s as interesting. That to me is a huge sign of progress.
How did your years at Smith influence the woman you’ve become?
I was looking to Smith to get me out of Toledo, so that I would not be working in the phone company, married to a man who worked in the factories, and I would not be bowling on Thursday nights and getting beaten up on Saturday nights. Because my living circumstances—taking care of my mother and so on—had not been good, to put it mildly, Smith was a place where I got three meals cooked for me each day and books to read. Smith was a lifeline. I thought it was heaven. I discovered I could understand things that were supposed to be for other people. I was taking a course in political philosophy; I could actually read and comprehend Plato. It was mind boggling to me. It opened doors, but it definitely did not open feminist doors at all, on the contrary. It was a very conventional time. And now I think how much more Sylvia Plath, say, must have suffered because of that. She was only two years ahead of me at Smith.
Do you remember when and why you decided to become a feminist?
I was 35. It was before Roe v. Wade. The New York state legislature held hearings on abortion and invited only fourteen men and one nun to testify. A group of early feminists organized an alternate hearing in a church basement and I went to cover it for New York magazine. I’m sure that what was calling me to cover it was also the fact that I had an abortion and told no one, absolutely no one. When I heard women standing up and telling the truth in public about an experience that was solely female, and either not taken seriously or taken very seriously, as a moral judgment, it was just a big “aha.” The stories were so moving and so true and authentic. That left me with this huge question: Why is it illegal? There are different statistics, but at least one out of four women, even then, have needed an abortion at some point in their lives. Why were we made to enter a criminal underground, and be sexually exploited, and have our lives endangered?
Do you think young women give enough credit to you and others who have opened so many doors?
Susan B. Anthony said, “Our job is not to make young women grateful, it’s to make them ungrateful.” I did not walk around saying, “Thank you so much for the vote.” I got mad because of what was happening to me. It is helpful to know your history, because otherwise you may believe, as I believed, for instance, that women were given the vote, which was ridiculous. I had no conception that we had fought for it, and brought the country to a halt for it, and gone on hunger strikes for it. It is important to know your history, but what activates us is what we experience. So I don’t mind at all. In lecture situations, sometimes people will say, “What’s your message to young women?” I always say, “Don’t listen to me. Listen to yourself. Listen to the wisdom that’s in there.”
You’ve written a lot about your love of literature. How have books shaped your life, and what are some of your favorites?
Books shaped my life big time—indiscriminately, but big time. I did not really go to school that much. Until I was about 12, I don’t think I went a full year. My father had a little summer resort in southern Michigan, and when it got cold he would put us in a house trailer and we would buy and sell antiques, and go to Florida. But I was reading all the time on my own. I just read everything I could lay my hands on. Books were doors into some other world. I would start a book, and I wouldn’t stop until I finished it. I’d stay up all night and the next day and the next, and I’d totally lose myself. At Smith, I fell in love with certain books. I remember sitting in the library and crying over Crime and Punishment.
What do you think about the notion that women can have it all?
Any phrase that is applied distinctly to one group and not to the other is a problem. They don’t talk about men having it all. So what they really mean is doing it all. Women cannot do it all. Superwoman was not a creation of the women’s movement; it was a creation of the adversaries. First society said, “No, you can’t be a lawyer, or a member of Congress,” or whatever it was, but we sort of did that anyway. So reluctance to change took the form of “OK, but only if you keep on cooking and raising children, and doing everything you did before.” The whole idea that only women have to combine career and family, the whole idea that we are all supposed to struggle inside a work pattern meant for the job-obsessed is not good for men either. They don’t get to spend time with their kids or have a full life. We have to get angry. We have to change the world to fit women, and stop trying to change women to fit the world.
Many women are contemplating what marriage means. They struggle with whether to change their names, or whether to marry at all, especially when their homosexual friends cannot do so legally. How do we reconcile the personal and political aspects of marriage?
The most important point is that marriage should be available to everyone. We have to fight for marriage equality; however, I don’t think we look at marriage very realistically. As Margaret Mead said, marriage worked somewhat better in the 19th century because people only lived to be 50. We’re still thinking of marriage as a lifetime event when, in fact, some people are marrying very young, having their children, raising them together, then going off and living separate lives. Some people are marrying several times. Some people are not marrying at all. The point is to pick what feels most authentic for each one of us. We’re made to think there is only one way and also that divorce is a failure. Who says divorce is a failure? It might even be the best thing that ever happened. I always thought we should have parties for divorce, treat it as a passage.
How have you thought about marriage throughout your own life?
The picture of marriage that was painted for me until I was well into my thirties was that it was something that you had to do. You had to get married, and you had to have children. And that was actually the last life-changing decision you could make. Because after that, your husband and your children pretty much dictated most of your other decisions. Therefore, marriage seemed to me like death. But once I discovered that not everyone had to have children and that I was quite happy without them, there was no reason to get married. I got married legally at 66 because the laws were equal; there was no reason not to. We loved each other, we wanted to be together, and he had visa problems. So I thought, Well, if we’ve worked for 30 years to make the laws equal, why not?
What do you see as the major issues facing feminists now?
Reproductive freedom in all of its parts really comes first because it affects the most women. We have to keep doing our best to make it possible for women to decide not to have children, or to have children, or not to be genitally mutilated in order to take away their sexual pleasure. After that, the problem that affects most women in this country and in the world is having two jobs—one outside the home and one in it. That’s going to continue until we count the work inside the home as work and it is shared equally by men. There are many steps we could take, for instance we could attribute an economic value to caregiving through the tax code. Then we would begin to understand that a third of the work in the country is caregiving, and that it’s in the national interest to encourage and reward caregiving that’s done at home because it’s usually higher quality and less expensive than caregiving done in an institution. The answer for the individual is that the most important issue facing women is the one you can change. We have the most responsibility where we have the most power.
J. Courtney Sullivan ’03 is the author of the New York Times bestsellers Commencement and The Engagements.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009–10 Smith Alumnae Quarterly.
- She co-founded Ms. magazine.
- She has a Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- She has dedicated her life to righting wrongs.
- She’s just plain cool.
- She’s fearless.
- She has the ear of world leaders.
- She’s a vegetarian.
- She isn’t afraid to get arrested while standing up for a cause she believes in.
- She’s been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
- She protested the war in Vietnam.
- She has a Smith sister, Susanne Steinem Patch ’46.
- She was once engaged to an Air Force pilot who wrote “Gloria” in the sky over the Smith campus.
- She was Smith’s Commencement speaker not once, not twice, but three times (in 1971, 1995 and 2007).
- She is the focus of a documentary, Gloria: In Her Own Words.
- She wrote the bestseller Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.
- She’s an advocate for animals.
- She’s greeted like a rock star every time she comes to Smith.
- She received the Women’s Sports Journalism Award.
- She went undercover as a Playboy bunny and then wrote an exposé about it.
- She was the founding president of the Ms. Foundation for Women.
- She was awarded the prestigious Ceres Medal from the United Nations.
- She promotes the power of positive thinking.
- She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Smith.
- She co-founded, with Jane Fonda, the Women’s Media Center.
- She excels in rhetoric and debate, with ready facts to back up her assertions.
- She once said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”
- She’s funny.
- She spent the late ’60s championing labor causes.
- She donated her papers to the Sophia Smith Collection. They occupy 106 feet of shelf space.
- She spent two years studying and writing in India following her graduation in 1956.
- She was a correspondent for the Today Show.
- She wrote the bestseller Revolution From Within in 1992.
- She elicits letters like this one from 1975: “Until August of 1970, I was a secretary, bored and feeling helpless. I was told college was only for boys. Well, the women’s movement changed that. As I heard you speak, I resolved to change the injustices of the past.”
- She says, “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”
- She co-produced the HBO documentary Multiple Personalities: The Search for Deadly Memories, which won an Emmy.
- She grounds her activism in the teachings of Gandhi.
- She wrote a book about the life of Marilyn Monroe, titled Marilyn: Norma Jean.
- She was on the front lines of the movement for marriage equality.
- She’s a favorite guest on Real Time with Bill Maher.
- She has been profiled on Showtime.
- She produced a film about the death penalty for the Lifetime network.
- She has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
- She was the first to be awarded the Doctorate for Human Justice from Simmons College.
- She has been published in The New York Times Magazine.
- She helped organize national Take Our Daughters to Work Day.
- She has dedicated her life to promoting girls’ self-esteem.
- She has been named to countless lists of the most influential women in the world.
- She was co-founder of Choice USA.
- She is an Aries, which makes her courageous and a natural leader.
- She was president and co-founder of Voters for Choice.
- She is the subject of the biography Education of a Woman by Carolyn G. Heilbrun.
- She said this during her Commencement address to the Smith class of 2007: “It’s true that I have every intention of living to be 100. But even I, hope-oholic that I am, know that when you return to celebrate your victories and inspire the class of 2057, I won’t be with you. But then again: I will.”
- She has released three of her books in digital formats: Moving Beyond Words, Revolution from Within, and Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions.
- She isn’t a fan of the Real Housewives franchise.
- She styled her hair in tribute to Holly Golightly, of Breakfast at Tiffany’s fame.
- She once said that she chose to wear her famous aviator glasses because “I felt I could hide behind them.”
- She recently said, “The idea of retiring is as foreign to me as the idea of hunting.”
- She was a featured protagonist in a Female Force comic book written by Melissa Seymour. Others include Hillary Clinton and Tina Fey.
- She once made this astute observation: “One day, an army of gray-haired women may quietly take over the Earth.”
- She played the accordion as a girl.
- She supports new authors, like J. Courtney Sullivan ’03, author of Commencement, which is set at Smith.
- She is an avid world traveler.
- She, Jane Fonda and Stephen Colbert discussed feminist radio while making an apple pie in a segment called “Cooking With Feminists” on the Colbert Report.
- She is a breast cancer survivor.
- She majored in government at Smith.
- She, Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan ’42 formed the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971.
- She married animal rights activist David Bale, father of actor Christian Bale, in 2000.
- She had humble beginnings. She was born in Toledo, Ohio. Her father was an antiques dealer; her mother was a teacher and journalist.
- She has more than 91,000 likes on Facebook.
- She agrees with Sheryl Sandberg that the most important business decision a woman can make is choosing the right life partner.
- She had a hard time finding work as a journalist after “A Bunny’s Tale” was published in 1963.
- She interviewed John Lennon in 1964 for Cosmopolitan magazine.
- She has social justice in her blood. Her grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem, was president of the Ohio Woman Suffrage Association.
- She began writing her column, “The City Politic,” in 1968 for the newly launched New York magazine.
- She named The Glee Project as one of her favorite TV shows in 2011.
- She recently returned to India, where she had honed her organizing skills in the 1950s.
- She co-edited The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History.
- She wrote what is still considered to be one of the best profiles of Jacqueline Kennedy, for Esquire magazine in 1964.
- She has said that women become more radical as they age.
- She’s 80!
When I think of Gloria Steinem approaching 80, I think about the women of my generation, growing up at the end of the Baby Boom. We internalized a lot of stereotypes of what it meant to be a woman in those days. Until Gloria changed the rules.
My earliest memories of gender inequity involve I Love Lucy. I was seven years old when I asked my mother, “Why does Ricky act like Lucy’s boss?” My mother laughed and said it was “just a joke.” I didn’t get it.
The unspoken rules were evident in grade school, when teachers signaled their high expectations for boys but not girls. And when I looked at the larger world, I found that men were the leaders of countries, companies, churches, schools — although the teachers were mostly women.
This story appeared on CNN.com on March 24, 2014. Read the full text.