Social activist, writer, editor and lecturer Gloria Steinem has been an outspoken champion of women’s rights since the 1960s.
Who Is Gloria Steinem?
Gloria Steinem became a freelance writer after college and grew more and more engaged in the women’s movement and feminism. She helped create both New York and Ms. magazines, helped form the National Women’s Political Caucus, and is the author of many books and essays.
Steinem was born on March 25, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio. Since the late 1960s, Steinem has been an outspoken champion of women’s rights. She had an unusual upbringing, spending part of the year in Michigan and the winters in Florida or California. With all this traveling, Steinem did not attend school on a regular basis until she was 11.
Around this time, Steinem’s parents divorced and she ended up caring for her mother, Ruth, who suffered from mental illness. Steinem spent six years living with her mother in a rundown home in Toledo before leaving to go to college. At Smith College, she studied government, an non-traditional choice for a woman at that time. It was clear early on that she did not want to follow the most common life path for women in those days—marriage and motherhood. “In the 1950s, once you married you became what your husband was, so it seemed like the last choice you’d ever have…I’d already been the very small parent of a very big child—my mother. I didn’t want to end up taking care of someone else,” she later told People magazine.
After finishing her degree in 1956, Steinem received a fellowship to study in India. She first worked for Independent Research Service and then established a career for herself as a freelance writer. One of her most famous articles from the time was a 1963 expose on New York City’s Playboy Club for Show magazine. Steinem went undercover for the piece, working as a waitress, or a scantily clad “bunny” as they called them, at the club. In the late 1960s, she helped create New York magazine, and wrote a column on politics for the publication. Steinem became more engaged in the women’s movement after reporting on an abortion hearing given by the radical feminist group known as the Redstockings. She expressed her feminist views in such essays as “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation.”
In 1971, Steinem joined other prominent feminists, such as Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan, in forming the National Women’s Political Caucus, which worked on behalf of women’s issues. She also took the lead in launching the pioneering, feminist Ms magazine. It began as an insert in New York magazine in December 1971; its first independent issue appeared in January 1972. Under her direction, the magazine tackled important topics, including domestic violence. Ms. became the first national publication to feature the subject on its cover in 1976.
As her public profile continued to rise, Steinem faced criticism from some feminists, including the Redstockings, for her association with the CIA-backed Independent Research Service. Others questioned her commitment to the feminist movement because of her glamorous image. Undeterred, Steinem continued on her own way, speaking out, lecturing widely, and organizing various women’s functions. She also wrote extensively on women’s issues.
Impact and Criticism
In 1986, Steinem faced a very personal challenge when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was able to beat the disease with treatment. That same year, Steinem explored one of America’s most iconic women in the book Marilyn: Norma Jean. She became a consulting editor at Ms magazine the following year after the publication was sold to an Australian company.
Steinem found herself the subject of media scrutiny with her 1992 book Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. To some feminists, the book’s focus on personal development seemed to be a retreat from social activism. Steinem was surprised by the backlash, believing that a strong self-image to be crucial to creating change. “We need to be long-distance runners to make a real social revolution. And you can’t be a long-distance runner unless you have some inner strength,” she explained to People magazine. She considers the work to be “most political thing I’ve written. I was saying that many institutions are designed to undermine our self-authority in order to get us to obey their authority,” she told Interview magazine.
Steinem had another collection of writings, Moving Beyond Words: Age, Rage, Sex, Power, Money, Muscles: Breaking Boundaries of Gender, published in 1994. In one of the essays, “Doing Sixty,” she reflected on reaching that chronological milestone. Steinem was also the subject of a biography written by another noted feminist Carolyn G. Heilbrun entitled Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem.
In 2000, Steinem did something that she had insisted for years that she would not do. Despite being known for saying that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, Steinem decided to get married. She wed David Bale, an environmental and animal rights activist and the father of actor Christian Bale. At the age of 66, Steinem proved that she was still unpredictable and committed to charting her own path in life. Her wedding raised eyebrows in certain circles. But the union did not last long. Bale died of brain cancer in 2003. “He had the greatest heart of anyone I’ve known,” Steinem told O magazine.
When Steinem turned 75 in 2009, the Ms. Foundation suggested ways for others to celebrate Steinem’s birthday. It called on women to engage in outrageous acts for simple justice. Around this time, Steinem discussed some of the pressing issues of the day. “We’ve demonstrated that women can do what men do, but not yet that men can do what women do. That’s why most women have two jobs—one inside the home and one outside it—which is impossible. The truth is that women can’t be equal outside the home until men are equal in it,” Steinem told the New York Daily News.
Steinem continues to work for social justice. As she recently said, “The idea of retiring is as foreign to me as the idea of hunting.”