“I’m an entrepreneur of social change,” Steinem says. “I talk. I write. I tell stories. I want to do justice to the women I meet.”Photograph by Inez and Vinoodh for The New Yorker
One day in the fall of 1997, Gloria Steinem was unpacking a carry-on bag that in the course of a few weeks had seen the inside of more airplane overhead bins than most travellers’ do in a year, and, as she tells the story, that was when she knew it was time to write a book about her life on the road, rallying women to the fight for equal rights. Steinem was sixty-three then. She had been travelling for more than thirty years, speaking, advising, fund-raising, organizing, testifying, demonstrating, educating, campaigning, and, in the process, introducing millions of girls and women to the feminist cause—and during that time she had also founded and presided over the magazine Ms., written books, published and edited collections, and, through the Ms. Foundation, which she and three friends of the magazine established, nurtured the talent of generations of younger feminists. But she had never stopped travelling, and she wasn’t about to now, with a road book planned. “I’ve spent more time on the road than not,” she told me this past summer. “It’s been the most important part of my life—and a big antidote to the idea that there is ‘one’ American people.”
Steinem finished the book in February this year, or, as she puts it, “seventeen deadlines late,” and in March she celebrated her eighty-first birthday, with a small dinner cooked by a group of friends. “A relief!” she told me. “My eightieth birthday had gone on for a year. People were starting to think that the movement began with me and, worse, was going to end with me.” It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Steinem’s decennials, marked by her enduringly beautiful face, have been a source of fascination (and huge spikes in feminist fund-raising) since she turned forty and a clueless reporter remarked, by way of a compliment, “Oh, you don’t look forty”—to which she replied, “This is what forty looks like. We’ve been lying for so long, who would know?” Every ten years since then, that face, with its iconic curtain of long, straight hair falling from a center part, begins to appear on magazine covers, television screens, dorm posters, and even T-shirts: this is what fifty looks like, what sixty looks like, this is seventy. Her eightieth-birthday marathon kicked off with a benefit in Philadelphia, and, while she spent her actual birthday on an elephant in Botswana, she spent the rest of the year “using myself” to promote the cause and the work of other feminists—and to finally finish her book. “I was out of excuses,” she told me. “Embarrassing!”
Toward the end of May, Steinem, her galleys corrected and delivered, boarded a plane to Beijing, where thirty-one peace activists—among them two Nobel laureates—from thirteen countries were gathering to fly to North Korea on a peace mission. Their intention, as Steinem explained it, was to cross the DMZ into South Korea, “standing in” for the Korean women on both sides of a longitudinal line they had been forbidden to cross since the war there ended, in 1953. “We were hoping to walk the entire DMZ, because we were all in white, wearing peace scarves,” she said. “But they put us on a bus instead. While we were still in Beijing, a friend called and asked what I was doing. I said, ‘I’m being a parody of myself.’ True. But I learned an enormous amount—most of all, that those years of isolation and hostility didn’t work. North Korea is the most controlling place I’ve ever been. The day we crossed the DMZ was the longest day of my life. In every way.”
Twelve days later, Steinem was in Vermont, giving the commencement address at Bennington College, and on her way home she e-mailed to say that she was ready for conversation. “I’ve got a slow few weeks—plenty of time to talk,” she said when I joined her that afternoon, in the garden of the Upper East Side brownstone where she has lived since the late sixties, when she was a rent-controlled tenant, and now owns the first two floors. “Well, slow for me,” she added, given that in a few days she would be flying to Alaska to speak to an audience of three thousand at the University of Alaska’s Fairbanks campus.
She had leaped at the invitation. Alaska was the one state she had never visited, and college campuses, she said, had always been “the single largest slice of my travelling pie”—laboratories of social activism and, in the end, social change. Typically, her schedule was packed. Among other things, she would be paying a visit to the city’s “victim-services shelter,” the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, where more than half the residents were Native Alaskan women from isolated settlements, many with their children. She would also be lunching with ten well-heeled white women, who had bid to join her for an “intimate” Fabulous Feminist Fundraiser. And she would be arguing the case for choice at a big Fairbanks co-operative that was under attack from a conservative borough assemblyman for condoning murder by stocking an issue of Ms. with an article about abortion.
“The best part was the shelter, listening to those amazing women,” Steinem told me when she got home. “For them—women in trouble, in need, terrified, beaten, suicidal women, women with kids at risk—the question is where do you go when you’ve got no way to go, no roads, no cars, no way out. The violence rate in Alaska is high, and at first the shelter was secret. Now there’s always a state trooper on guard.”
I asked Steinem what she thought she could do for those women, and she said, “I’m a media worker, in the parlance of the nineteen-thirties. It’s what I do. I’m an entrepreneur of social change. I raise money. I talk. I write. I tell stories. I want to do justice to the women I meet, to tell their stories. There was one young woman who asked me, ‘How do you stand up for yourself when you have no right to stand up for yourself?’ No one had ever told her that she had that right. The first time she tried, her husband had said no, she had no rights. I want to reach women like her.”
Steinem is not a theorist, or even much interested in theory. “Feminist theory came from feminist activism—it wasn’t the other way around,” she said. “I accept that important theorists like Judith Butler may arrive at enlightening conclusions, but theory can be exclusionary, and that’s not my path. My path is to open the door to this house, to get out of the world I know, and to experience new worlds, new voices. It’s making connections, and using myself to listen, because you can’t empower women without listening to their stories. It’s why I was going to call my book ‘America—As If Everyone Matters.’ I liked that title—the irony in it—but I changed my mind after three black women founded the group Black Lives Matter. I didn’t want to detract from that powerful name or to suggest in any way that my ‘irony’ was a comment on it. Somebody at the publisher’s suggested ‘Memoir.’ I thought, That’s such an élite word. Wrong! Finally, we settled on ‘My Life on the Road.’ ” (Steinem, who doesn’t drive, says, “Well, not quite ‘on,’ more like ‘above.’ ”) It comes out this month.
Video: Gloria Steinem on why she doesn’t drive.
Steinem has a mantra that she says she lives by. She calls it “Ask the Turtle,” because it involves a turtle she rescued—or thought she had—on a geology-class field trip to the Connecticut River Valley in the spring of her freshman year at Smith. “I found a mud turtle on the riverbank, up by the asphalt road,” she told me. “A big snapping turtle, more than a foot long, but I picked it up—carefully—and lugged it down to the river and slipped it in. The professor saw me just as the turtle disappeared in the water. He said that the turtle had been making its way to dry land for a reason—in order to lay its eggs—and that now it was going to take that turtle months more to lay them. It was a lesson I learned to apply to people a few years later, in India—though I didn’t realize it then—when I was going from village to village with Gandhian women organizers, listening to them ask, ‘Tell us your stories. You’ve lived them, you’re the experts.’ ”
Steinem comes from Toledo, Ohio, which, as she said one night, standing in her kitchen scrutinizing take-out menus, explains why she won’t eat sushi or rare meat, “like New Yorkers do.” She doesn’t blame Toledo, although her loyalty was seriously tested when the city presented her with a “Son of Ohio” plaque. But the road itself was something her father, Leo Steinem, taught her. Leo was the black-sheep son of a German-Jewish Toledo family—his father was a businessman and his mother a prominent local suffragist, the first woman to be elected to the Toledo Board of Education—which is to say that he was not enchanted by his parents’ comfortably progressive bourgeois Toledo life.
“He was the real gypsy, not me,” Steinem said. “He was kind, loving, funny, but never in one place for long, which meant that we weren’t, either.” The longest times were summers in southern Michigan, where he had bought farmland. He built a small resort on it, with a lakeside dance pavilion, and booked the bands that were playing the summer circuit. But as soon as the season ended he would pack his wife, Ruth, and their two girls (Steinem’s sister was nine years older) into a trailer. For the rest of the year, the family moved slowly south, with Leo stopping in every town they passed, buying and selling and trading antiques, a peripatetic dealer. Steinem’s first full year of school anywhere was “maybe the seventh grade,” but by then she was reading a book a day—“Librarians saved my life,” she says—and had witnessed her parents’ mournful separation.
It had been years in coming. When Steinem was born, her mother—the daughter of working-class Protestant parents and, when she met Leo, a successful young journalist—had already suffered one severe breakdown and spent nearly two years in a sanitarium. By the time they divorced, Ruth was addicted to sodium pentothal—“the same drug they fed to Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath,” Steinem says—and Leo was living out of a car in California, visiting once a year.
Steinem, who lived alone with her mother from the age of ten until she left for college, says that, as a girl, she used to think that her mother was crazy. “It was only much later, when I began to understand how unjust the position of women was in this country, that I knew my mother had never been ‘ill,’ as the doctors claimed. It was that her spirit had been broken. Until then, I had always worried that I might have inherited something—that I’d start disappearing into the street in my nightgown, the way she had.”
It isn’t surprising that Steinem had what she calls “a Hollywood vision of school.” She dreamed of becoming a dancer and maybe, eventually, a Rockette. “I imagined myself, with some impracticality, as dancing my way out of Toledo,” she told me. By the time she started high school, she had mastered tap dancing while twirling a baton, as well as dancing down a flight of stairs, like a Busby Berkeley showgirl, playing “Anchors Aweigh” on ankle bells. And though she balked at “sinking so low as to put taps on toe shoes”—in late-forties Toledo, the ultimate female talent test—dancing remains on her list of life’s fulfilling pleasures (along with organizing and great sex). She has been spotted dancing in elevators and office corridors, and even, for a few months in the nineteen-nineties, at the old Roseland Ballroom, taking tango lessons. “It’s a sick, authoritarian dance, but I loved it,” she says.
I once asked Steinem what the real-estate developer and publisher Mort Zuckerman—a man I had seen, years earlier, signalling her to light his cigar—was doing on her otherwise egalitarian list of former lovers, which includes, most enduringly, Franklin Thomas, who for seventeen years was the head of the Ford Foundation (“the longtime love of my life, and best friend”), along with the great alto saxophonist and composer of “Take Five,” Paul Desmond (“a close friend and a short romance”), the director Mike Nichols (“more like three or four years of a smart date”), the Ford Administration’s Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, Stan Pottinger (“We’d been together long enough, so we stopped the affair”), and the Olympic decathlete and actor Rafer Johnson, who helped tackle Sirhan Sirhan, moments after he shot Bobby Kennedy (“I have lasting respect for him”). She replied, “Well, Mort’s moved to the right now, but he was funny, and he loved to dance.”
“My father gave new meaning to the term ‘financially irresponsible,’ and after years of it my mom crashed,” Steinem told the actress and director Christine Lahti one night this summer. Lahti was debating putting together a theatre piece based on stories about the women in her own family, and the two friends went out to dinner and traded reminiscences about “the unlived lives of our moms.” Once, when Steinem was visiting, her mother told her, “Your sister just got a fur coat and didn’t have to pay for it”—meaning that her sister was married and Steinem, who was not, had to buy her own coats. “My mother wasn’t criticizing me—she was advising me,” Steinem told Lahti, laughing.
The women talked for a long time about the kind of liberation that comes from laughing—Steinem having watched six female comics perform at the Gotham Comedy Club the night before. The show was called Sisters of Comedy, and the impresario was the young feminist producer and writer Agunda Okeyo, who, at the time, was staying in Steinem’s guest room. “The power of laughter—that’s power!” she said. “It’s our only free emotion, the one that nobody can control.”
“One of the hard things for me, starting out as an actress, was to laugh,” Lahti said. “To find a visual memory or image that let me laugh.” Today, it might be the look on her father’s face—he was a surgeon, partial to the ubiquitous male adage of his generation “Why buy the whole cow if you can get the milk free?”—if, as a teen-age girl, she had come back with the feminist retort “Why buy the whole pig just to get one little sausage?”
Lahti married in her thirties and has three children. Steinem married for the first time in her mid-sixties, inherited three stepchildren (among them the actor Christian Bale), and was widowed three years later, when her husband, David Bale, died of brain cancer, at the age of sixty-two. Bale was a South African-born British businessman and environmentalist. They met when he walked up to her at a Los Angeles Voters for Choice benefit. It was a happy marriage, “a green-card marriage, because we would have been together anyway,” Steinem told me. She says that caring for him that last year, when he was ill and “needed someone to help him out of life, and I needed someone to force me to live in the present,” had actually helped her “expiate the pain of my old terrors”—the terrors of caring for her mother when she was too young to understand or cope.
Steinem has compared marriage to slavery law in this country. As a young woman, she fled one brief, ill-advised engagement. And, in her early forties, she amiably dissolved a second, to Robert Benton, who went on to write and direct “Kramer vs. Kramer.” “Neither of us was really sure we wanted to marry, so we took it in steps. The first was to do the blood tests and get the license. We did. The second was for him to buy the new suit. He did. The third was for me to buy the dress. I never got to the dress, I just couldn’t do it, and the marriage license expired.”
Four years after David Bale died, a reporter from Pakistan asked Steinem why she had changed her mind about marriage. “I didn’t change,” she told him. “Marriage changed. We spent thirty years in the United States changing the marriage laws. If I had married when I was supposed to get married, I would have lost my name, my legal residence, my credit rating, many of my civil rights. That’s not true anymore. It’s possible to make an equal marriage.”
Steinem’s archives are at Smith. She is devoted to the college, which was founded, in the eighteen-seventies, with an endowment from Sophia Smith, a Massachusetts woman with a family fortune at her disposal and a strong desire to provide young women with what she described in her will as the “means and facilities” for higher education equal to any available to young men. In Steinem’s senior year, Chester Bowles, who would shortly be named Ambassador to India, came to speak. He was so taken by the students’ response that he donated his lecture fee of two thousand dollars—serious money, in those days, when a year’s room, board, and tuition at Smith cost about half that—to help finance a year in India for two seniors after graduation. Steinem got one of the fellowships.
“The first organizing I did was in India, though I didn’t realize it then, only that I wanted to stay,” she told me. She stayed two years, having talked the press office at Pan Am into free tickets with the promise of “writing something that would make people want to fly to India. I had figured out how to do that. My writing was what I’d depended on to get through exams. I’d make up a great quote and attribute it to an important thinker. The professor would be impressed.”
Steinem’s oldest friend from India, the feminist organizer and economist Devaki Jain, flew to New York this summer to spend a couple of weeks in Steinem’s guest room, going over the manuscript of an autobiography that Steinem had been urging her to write. They had met in Delhi at the beginning of 1957, when Jain, just home on a break from Oxford, was doing research for a Gandhian co-operative union. “We became friends so fast, and with such ease, and we had a wonderful time,” Jain told me. “But Gloria was already inspired. Like Gandhi, she walked the road. She had the humility to do that. It was what she wanted.”
Jain, who was one of the first women in India to use the word “feminist,” lost touch with Steinem after she went home. In 1974, they reconnected in New York, and a few years later Jain arranged for Steinem to return to India. It was on that trip, Steinem told me—“and only after the great conflagration of feminist consciousness in America”—that she understood how much those first two years had shaped her.
For one thing, she had quickly learned to eschew the car-with-driver distance preserved by many Westerners in India then, and, instead, to embrace the “dormitory on wheels” of rickety buses and the third-class women-only carriages of local trains—“leaving behind all my possessions except a cup, a comb, and the sari I had on” and discovering groups of women of all ages, sharing food and stories with other women they had just met. She had trekked to villages cordoned off by the government because of caste riots, and watched, at night, as the villagers emerged from mud huts to sit in circles, lit by kerosene lamps, and tell their stories of burnings, murders, thefts, and rapes, “with fear and trauma that needed no translation” but with the relief that came from talking and being heard. In her road book, she calls it “the first time I witnessed the ancient and modern magic of talking circles, those groups in which anyone may speak in turn, everyone must listen, and consensus is more important than time.”
“Boy, when you need someone to say goodbye to his family forever so that you can fake your own death and assume his identity to escape from Chechen mobsters—that’s when you find out who your real friends are!”
When Steinem returned from India, she started making the rounds of magazines and newspapers in New York, looking for a reporting job. It was not an experience that she would recommend. In those days, the news side of the business was a men’s club, and its prerogatives were rarely challenged. “We need a reporter, not a pretty girl” is how she remembers being shown the door by an editor at Life. She made her way freelancing. Her work from those days was direct, accessible, and often very funny, and in 1963 an editor at the magazine Show turned her loose on the Playboy Club. She went undercover as “Marie Catherine Ochs”—her grandmother’s name—applied to become a Playboy Bunny, got the job, and began her investigation into a world of puerile male fantasy, keeping a journal in which she recorded in deadpan detail her eleven days of Bunny life, from the physical exam and the pushup, waist-crunching costume to the sleazy, oblivious men who would tweak her cottontail whenever she passed their table with a tray of drinks. The piece she produced made her famous.
“The rest of the Playboy story has two parts,” she told me. “First came the ‘looks’ attacks. I was accused of being noticed because of my ‘beauty.’ Well, let me tell you something from the bottom of my soul. When I was young, in high school, in college, I was considered a pretty girl. But beautiful? I wasn’t considered beautiful until the women’s movement.” She laughed and said, “The threshold was lower then!” The second part was that most of the attacks came from men—furious that an undercover Bunny had invaded a male playground, and that people were reading what she wrote and, worse, laughing at them. (“Men fear ridicule the way women fear violence,” she says.) If those men thought of feminism at all, it was as a historic blip that began and ended with the “suffragettes”—who in fact campaigned and crusaded for eighty-some years before American women won voting rights, in 1920.
The struggle for women’s suffrage is known today in the movement as “first wave” feminism, though it’s unlikely that the kind of man who, nearly fifty years ago, paid for the privilege of tweaking cottontails at a Playboy Club had ever heard the term, let alone knew that a second wave was on the way. Not even Steinem knew that at the time. What she knew was that there was something wrong in those waning days of America’s postwar suburban idyll, in which happily entitled men rushed home from work on their commuter trains to wives who greeted them at the door, holding out a perfectly calibrated Martini. In those days, feminism was best known as the refuge and revenge of ugly women—women who couldn’t find a man to marry them.
I asked Steinem how she had dealt with the attacks, and she allowed that, at first, it wasn’t easy. “Other women in the movement helped me enormously, but there was one old woman in particular. I was giving a talk and the ‘looks’ thing came up. Before I could answer, she stood up and said, ‘It’s important for someone who could play the game, and win, to say, The game isn’t worth shit!’ I was so grateful to her for understanding that I could use who I was to say who we were and what we represent.”
By then, of course, the feminist movement was undeniably resurgent. The National Organization for Women dates from 1966. La Raza Unida, one of the first political parties with a feminist agenda, was founded by Mexican-Americans in 1970. Black women’s groups had long been active, particularly in the South, fighting the double discrimination of race and gender; women artists’ and women writers’ collectives were springing up in California, demanding a place in museums and on publishers’ lists; and, in the big cities of the East, students and young working women were meeting in dorms and walkups for consciousness-raising sessions, talking about their lives and trying to figure out how to change them. Steinem was savvy enough to understand that the thorny gift of brains and beauty had made her attractive to the mass media and an unexpectedly useful servant of the cause.
In England, en route to India at the beginning of 1957, Steinem discovered that she was pregnant by her erstwhile fiancé. She ended the pregnancy when a doctor, at considerable risk to himself, referred her for an abortion, in a country where, as in the United States, abortions were still illegal when the life of the mother was not at stake. The doctor, knowing only that she “had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate,” exacted two promises from Steinem: “First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.” For nearly ten years, nobody, not even her closest friends, knew that she had had an abortion.
In 1968, Clay Felker, the former features editor of Esquire, founded New York and invited Steinem to join his editorial board. “There was Clay, Pete Hamill, Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, a few other guys, and me,” she said. Four years earlier, she had covered one of her first political campaigns, when Bobby Kennedy was running for senator in New York (an experience she still sums up as sharing a taxi with Gay Talese and Saul Bellow, to whom Talese said, “You know how every year there’s a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer. Well, Gloria is this year’s pretty girl”).
“I was doing politics, but even at the magazine I was still the girl writer,” she said, “and the guys there, whom I loved, their advice about feminism was, ‘Don’t get involved with those crazy women.’ I thought, These guys are my friends, and they don’t know who I am, because I haven’t said. So I covered an abortion-rights speak-out at Judson Memorial Church, in Greenwich Village. Courtesy of that meeting, I learned that one in three American women had needed an abortion at some point in her life. The question was: Why is this illegal? I could see from my response to the meeting, and the response of the others, that we as women needed to talk about ourselves.” The article that Steinem wrote that week counts among the first mainstream reporting on the women’s movement.
There are certain “mothers” of second-wave feminism, and who they are depends largely on whom you ask. If you ask an academic, she might say Simone de Beauvoir, whose book “The Second Sex” was published in French in 1949 (and in English four years later). If you ask a middle-class suburban housewife of the postwar generation, she is likely to credit Betty Friedan, whose “The Feminine Mystique” appeared in 1963. But if you ask American feminists who came of age in the seventies they will as often as not tell you that the movement came to political life when Gloria Steinem first said, “If it’s not good for all women, it’s not good for any living thing.”
Beauvoir brought a philosophical and biological history of “female” to the table, lived and travelled with the philandering Jean-Paul Sartre, and was not much given to the cause or company of other women. Friedan brought the career ambitions of white, well-to-do women like her, craved the spotlight, and eventually was written off by much of the movement as a “glass-ceiling feminist.” But what Steinem brought, as a writer, an organizer, and an activist, was the then radical conviction that gender, race, class, age, and ethnicity were all targets of inequality, and belonged together in any over-arching struggle for human and civil rights.
In December, 1971, a forty-page preview issue of what would become Ms. appeared as a supplement in the year-end issue of New York. (“Ms.” was a status-free form of address dating from the seventeenth century. In 1971, the New York Democratic congresswoman and take-no-prisoners feminist firebrand Bella Abzug introduced the bill that made it legal.) In return for those forty pages, Felker paid for the printing and publishing of the first issue, which went on the stands, at a hundred and forty pages, in January. “Clay had the sense to know that he couldn’t start a women’s magazine,” Steinem said. “He said—I mean this! He said, ‘If more women were imported from the islands, you wouldn’t need a feminist movement, since it’s really all about child care.’ ”
The cover of the Ms. preview issue was a housewife “goddess,” painted bright blue (the color of Krishna). She had a baby glowing in her belly and eight arms, each one holding up a tool of her unpaid trade: an iron, a steering wheel, a mirror, a ringing phone, a clock, a duster, a frying pan, and a typewriter. The features included Jane O’Reilly’s instant classic “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth”; Steinem’s essay “On Sisterhood”; a feminist evaluation of the Presidential candidates that year; and a declaration, “We Have Had Abortions,” that was signed by Steinem and fifty-two other well-known women, among them Nora Ephron, Lee Grant, Lillian Hellman, Billie Jean King, and Anaïs Nin. The issue sold out in eight days. Within a few years, there were half a million subscribers.
Once a month, Steinem spends an evening with a few old friends from the magazine. She calls those evenings “our group-therapy sessions,” and by the time I joined them one night, she was sharing desserts with Joanne Edgar and Suzanne Braun Levine.
Levine was the editor of Ms. for its first seventeen years. She arrived there a magazine veteran. “I was lucky,” she told me. “I was the right age and had the right amount of experience, and I came with a whole color-coded production chart. I arrived at the office for my interview, and right away Gloria brought me coffee. I never looked back.” Edgar, a founding editor, had met Steinem in the summer of ’71, shortly before the long-anticipated Equal Rights Amendment passed the House of Representatives. (It passed the Senate in the spring, only to be defeated, a few years later, when a state-by-state referendum fell three states short of the number required to become law.) Bella Abzug, rallying America’s feminists to fight with their votes, had helped put together the National Women’s Political Caucus that summer. Steinem, a founding member, travelled the country, organizing and speaking, and Edgar, a Southerner, was dispatched to Mississippi and Missouri to work on political campaigns. Back in New York, after the elections, she joined the ranks of feminists with mattress privileges in the loft that Steinem had built above her dining table and went to work at Ms.
In the early nineties, Steinem decided that something important was missing in the peripatetic life that she describes as “the mixture of freedom and insecurity I needed.” By then, she owned two floors of the brownstone, but the only part that felt like home to her, and not a way station and movement hostel, was her desk and the garden off her study—and that was thanks to a green-thumbed reporter named Irene Kubota Neves, who had interviewed her, years earlier, for People, and, lacking a garden of her own to love, adopted Steinem’s.
The result was that Steinem went shopping. She started collecting furniture and fabrics. She bought frames for the photographs, pictures, poems, and letters that document the stages of her life on the road, including an almost comically deranged Christmas letter sent in 1971 to friends and family by a right-wing second cousin whom she had met four times, when she was in her teens. After wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, the cousin digressed, accusing Steinem, who at the time was raising money for the Angela Davis defense fund, of letting herself be “brainwashed” into endorsing such an “un-American” cause as the Black Panthers. “Gloria is the first of our name to depart from the American principles as to help our sworn enemies, so we must repudiate her pronouncements and disclaim the cousinship. Love and kisses.” Steinem told me, “I was thrilled to get it. Suppose he had liked me?”
The walls of her living room are painted a warm, deep Indian yellow. There are pillows everywhere, kilims on the floor, and an old wooden fireplace, with a couple of painted wooden figures, carved like mermaids—“I think from an Indian carrousel,” Steinem told me—lying on the mantelpiece, and, hanging between them, a long, thick, heavily decorated black tunic from Afghanistan, or maybe Kashmir. The room is cozy and crowded. When it gets too crowded, Steinem gives something away. “It’s how I redecorate,” she says.
Posters cover the walls of the front hall—a time line of the movement as it has changed during the course of her life. For years, Steinem made it a rule never to lecture or organize unless a woman of color was invited with her—a woman who could reach women whose problems of discrimination were far greater than her own—and also for courage, because she is prone to stagefright. (“Ironic,” she told me. “A media worker who loses her saliva before a talk and has to carry a mouth spray in her bag.”) There are posters of Steinem on the road with Dorothy Pitman-Hughes, the African-American activist who had opened a multiracial feminist day-care center in New York, and, later in the seventies, with the great black activist Flo Kennedy (who brought down the house one night when a redneck in the audience demanded to know if she and Steinem were lesbians, and she replied, “Are you my alternative?”). And there are posters from fund-raising galas of the past few decades, when feminism became a fashionable liberal cause, and women with money began sitting on movement boards.
Steinem welcomed them all—the rich, the celebrities, the climbers for the cause. She was a radical but, consciously, never an outsider. She enjoyed the world where she plied her trade as an entrepreneur of social change, and, with her mouth spray at hand, she had long since mastered the subterfuges of talking truth to power. You could call it consciousness-raising—on a wider canvas. When she went to Los Angeles to speak at a big Equality Now benefit last fall, she told me how much she was looking forward to a meeting with the honchos at Creative Artists Agency the next day. They were going to discuss the status of women in the film industry—their comparatively low numbers, their discrepant salaries—and it didn’t matter if those women were movie stars or grips, or if her meeting required a large application of charm, dazzle, and good humor. She was ready for that.
For Steinem, the “conflagration of consciousness” that transformed second-wave feminism into a national movement occurred on November 18, 1977, when Bella Abzug—having persuaded Congress to authorize, and fund, a National Women’s Conference, in Houston—took the stage. It was an occasion that Steinem describes in her new book, beginning with the sentence “This conference may take the prize as the most important event nobody knows about.” Steinem had already spent nearly a year organizing with Abzug, her congressional colleagues Patsy Mink and Shirley Chisholm, and a commission, appointed by President Carter, asking other American women what they, as women, wanted. She had travelled, state by state, to insure a more or less consistent process for the election of Houston delegates, and discovered, to her shock, the extent to which grass-roots groups of ultra-conservative women were prepared to co-opt that process—or, as she puts it, “Success can be as disastrous as failure—and it almost was.”
Two thousand official delegates came to the conference to discuss and vote on twenty-six different planks, from child care and lesbian rights, to foreign policy, and they were joined by eighteen thousand observers, making it, Steinem says, “probably the most geographically, racially, and economically representative body this nation has ever seen.”
Steinem describes her “surprise duty” at the conference as that of a scribe, since she had been asked by the various caucuses of women of color to collect and coördinate both their particular and their shared concerns and put them together in a plank that would replace the “so-called Minority Women’s Plank” submitted by various state conferences. What Steinem doesn’t describe is the extent of the women’s trust in her to do that. She had fought in solidarity with these women for years. “There is no competition of tears in feminism,” she once told me. “If you’ve suffered discrimination, you’re sensitive to it on every level. I learned feminism largely from black women. Women of color basically invented feminism.”
The women of color who came as delegates to Houston were scattered across the country. They had never met as a group before. “It was the first time I realized that being a writer was also being an activist,” Steinem told me. The African-American women raised “the umbrella issues of racism and poverty.” The Asian-Americans added language barriers, sweatshops, and isolation. The Chicana women added the ever-present fear of deportation—and of having to leave their children behind to be brought up by strangers. But Steinem says that nothing prepared her for the Native American women, who wanted to protect their languages and their culture, and to reclaim something of the tribal sovereignty guaranteed by the treaties that, as often as not, had betrayed them. They had one of the toughest jobs in Houston: to educate the only country we have, as one of the delegates put it, to the fact that we are also here.
The conference was a green light for millions of American women, including liberal Republican women—an endangered species now. (Betty Ford, who had campaigned for the E.R.A. and been a strong supporter of abortion rights, spoke there, along with Lady Bird Johnson and Rosalynn Carter.) The N.W.C. delivered a political program that included equal employment, equal pay, and, crucially, full reproductive rights.
In the decades since then, feminists here and abroad have travelled, connected, and discovered that, in a new “world economy” of labor migration, immigration, and capital exploitation, women everywhere are at risk. The Global Fund for Women was founded by three Palo Alto feminists in 1987 and Equality Now in 1992, by Jessica Neuwirth, an American lawyer who had worked for Amnesty International; Navi Pillay, a South African lawyer; and Feryal Gharahi, an Iranian women’s-rights lawyer. A year later, the Iraqi-American activist Zainab Salbi put together Women for Women International. The issues for those groups now involve the kinds of violence against women that cross borders and increase as wars proliferate and the gaps in wealth widen.
In America, sex trafficking is said to be as high today as in any other country. Honor killings and forced marriages have been reported. Female genital mutilation, which affects ninety per cent of girls and women in countries like Somalia and Egypt, is now practiced within the diaspora here, despite a ban dating from the Clinton Presidency. According to Yasmeen Hassan, the global executive director of Equality Now, and the author of the first book on domestic violence to appear in Pakistan, more than five hundred thousand girls and women in the United States either are at risk of having F.G.M. or have already had it.
Steinem’s friends say that she can spot a strong feminist like Hassan from a helicopter, the way Sarah Palin claims she can spot a moose. It’s part of Steinem’s organizational agenda, and it can happen anywhere—on the street, or in a restaurant, or in line at a movie, when a stranger comes up to her and they begin to talk. It can even happen on the telephone. Pamela Shifman was a young white American working in South Africa, four years after apartheid ended, as a legal adviser to the parliamentary women’s caucus of the African National Congress, when someone in her office said, “This woman from your country, someone named Gloria Steinem, keeps calling. She wants to be helpful, so here’s her phone number.” Shifman called. “We’d never met, but Gloria was coming to South Africa for a conference, and she said, ‘I can stay on. Just tell me for how long, and let me do whatever you need me for,’ ” Shifman said. “She stayed a week. She worked with me on organizing strategies, and went to meetings with me, from morning to night. The only thing she asked of me was to take her to see the Rain Queen of the Balobedu”—whose job was to make rain, and to carry and pass on the oral history of her people. “Gloria had a ring, from her friend Wilma Mankiller, the Chief of the Cherokee Nation, to give to the queen, and she did.”
Steinem was determined that I speak with other women who, like Shifman, came of age during the eighties and nineties and are known in the movement as “third wave” feminists. Amy Richards was the first. “The smartest person I know,” Steinem said. Richards went to work for Steinem as a Barnard intern and now works alongside her on nearly every project, while at the same time, with a partner, writing books, running a young-feminist speakers bureau called Soapbox, and shepherding groups of college students through an intensive week of consultations and tough encounters at a Feminist Boot Camp.
One night, Steinem crossed Central Park to visit Jessica Neuwirth, the later second-wave feminist who co-founded Equality Now but who, in the spirit of the third wave, had launched an online feminist nonprofit called Donor Direct Action, designed to connect donors with the grass-roots groups they support abroad. Neuwirth was grappling with a crisis involving one of her most at-risk recipient groups—a highly visible women’s-rights organization in Libya, whose director, Salwa Bugaighis, a fearless lawyer, had just been murdered by five assassins in her home, in Benghazi; Bugaighis’s husband had been abducted and her sister threatened that she was “next.”
Neuwirth had also invited Navi Pillay over and she wanted Steinem and Pillay—until last year, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights—to help talk her through her choices and advise her on what to do to avoid exposing any successors to Bugaighis to the same risks. Steinem pointed out that every feminist active in Libya knew them, and, by being active, had chosen to take them on. Pillay listened, reserving judgment. Ten days later, Neuwirth introduced her donors to the Salwa Fund, using a video made by Bugaighis before her death. The video was now called “Rest in Peace, Salwa.” And the crisis remains unresolved.
Ai-jen Poo, the advocate for domestic workers and caregivers who won a MacArthur “genius award” last year, was another woman on Steinem’s list. Poo had started organizing as a student, and at twenty-two, with a grant from the Ms. Foundation, she began to organize domestic workers nationally—ninety per cent of them minority women—into associations. Today, at forty-one, she is the director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, with forty-seven affiliates across the country, representing fifteen thousand members. Poo once described Steinem to me as the feminist “who broke down all the silos of separation”—a second-wave feminist with a third-wave commitment to collective leadership and voice. “A lot of people talk about ‘network theory’ now,” she said. “It’s become an all-feminist strategy. But Gloria was always dedicated to lifting other women up, to sharing leadership with them. It was never about herself. And, because of that, for young feminists, it’s the new norm.”
This was evident when three of those younger feminists arrived at Steinem’s house one night for a few hours of vegetarian take-out, catching up, and sharing stories. Salamishah Tillet, a professor of English and African Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, came with her sister Scheherazade, an artist-in-residence at the Art Institute of Chicago. Scheherazade is the director of A Long Walk Home, the nonprofit they founded together, “to educate, inspire, and mobilize young people to end violence against girls and women.” Salamishah, six months pregnant with her second child (her husband was at home with the first), reluctantly took the roomiest armchair, at Steinem’s urging. Scheherazade tucked herself into the corner of a couch. Pamela Shifman, who is now the executive director of NoVo Foundation, one of America’s largest nonprofits for girls and women (it was founded by Warren Buffett’s son Peter and Peter’s wife, Jennifer), opted for the floor, having made the shortest commute, from Brooklyn. And the playwright and performer Sarah Jones, best known for her Tony Award-winning multi-character piece “Bridge & Tunnel,” joined us, by way of a Skype video stream, from the West Village, where she was in jet-lag meltdown after three weeks in Europe, interviewing prostitutes for a new show she was developing called “Sell/Buy/Date.”
Jones had spent some of her trip sitting in a red-lit storefront window in Amsterdam, soliciting. “I wanted to have this experience,” she told her friends at Steinem’s. But it was the prostitutes themselves—“the politics” of their indoctrination—who unsettled her. “It was very fraught for me to hear them rage against the anti-trafficking movement in America,” Jones said. “They talked about ‘sex workers’ rights’ in Western Europe. They said, ‘We are voluntary migrant labor here. We have health care, education, a safety net. We like our jobs.’ I asked those women, ‘If you had a daughter, would you want this for her?’ ”
The women responded to Jones with some preoccupations of their own. Salamishah, who had been raped herself, talked about rape victims, who become “super invisible,” even and especially to themselves, and asked the group, “How do you intervene without using the language of pathology?” Scheherazade asked, “How do we create” a new language? Steinem quoted the runaway slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman—who, on forays into the South, freed hundreds of other slaves—saying, “I could have saved thousands if only they knew they were slaves.” And Shifman talked about the women who used to be housed at the Bayview Correctional Facility, in Manhattan, across from Chelsea Piers. Bayview, a notoriously cruel women’s prison, was closed three years ago, and its prisoners were transferred. Shifman said that at one point the prison—its women scarred from puberty by the inextricable triad of poverty, prostitution, and drugs—had the highest percentage of staff sexual misconduct of any prison in the United States.
The conversation was wide-ranging, but by the end of the evening no one, including Jones, knew what, exactly, to make of that week in Amsterdam.
It’s safe to say that for feminists in their twenties—think “fourth wave” feminists—social media has put an expiration date on many of the old certainties. The Internet effect has arguably been paradoxical, something that is at once concentrating and diluting the political energy and solidarity of the women’s movement, leaving young women free to confront new issues in necessarily new ways.
Those issues—sex-work issues, race issues, sexual-assault issues, police-brutality issues, even transgender issues and language-identity issues—have in fact always been movement issues and, in particular, Steinem’s issues. She worked hard to get lesbian rights included in the platform of the N.W.C. in 1977. (Even Friedan, who called lesbians “the lavender menace,” voted for it.) And her record on racism and police brutality has been unimpeachable. (“Violence in any patriarchy begins at home, in the family,” she told me.)
She likes to point out that today’s generational byword, “intersectionality,” was in fact coined in the late eighties, by the African-American law professor and race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, who used it to describe interconnected forms of discrimination, whose consequences each woman has to balance and negotiate, and feminists have to acknowledge and understand.
Steinem readily acknowledges that the Internet has been revolutionary in giving feminists—particularly black and gay feminists, who in the past were largely unheard by the mainstream media—a voice, and that some important young feminists are now emerging through platforms like Twitter. But she is wary about calling the Internet effect unequivocally “democratizing,” as many of those feminists claim.
“It’s great that we can now sidestep the editorial judgments of the mainstream media,” she told me. “But it’s important to remember that conflict makes news, conflict gets attention, and the Internet thrives on conflict. You have to ask where a lot of these posts about our so-called divisions on issues like race and gender come from. What’s the context? Who’s arguing? And, remember, you have to be able to afford an iPhone or a computer; you have to be literate, which a lot of women in the world are not; and you still have to make change happen in real life, because empathy—the ability not just to know but to feel—only happens when we are together with all five senses. This is part of the reason people can be so hostile to each other on the Web, and women, especially, are subject to so much Web harassment.”
Two debates that have played out online particularly trouble Steinem. One involves the idea of prostitution as sex work—a legitimate trade that women can decide to practice, and which should be protected through legal regulation, as advocates argue, rather than one that women are forced into, as Steinem is inclined to believe. “The word ‘work’ can be double-edged,” she told me. “The problem of legitimizing the sex trade as work, the way it’s done in Germany, for example, is that ‘work’ has consequences, one being that you are required to do just that—work—and if you refuse to accept a client, or to do something a client wants, you can be fired, or worse.” Then, there’s the matter of choice. Steinem finds it unlikely that anyone actually chooses to be a sex worker, certainly not when she’s twelve years old—roughly the average age of entry into prostitution—or when the rate of trauma and injury among prostitutes is comparable to that of soldiers in wartime, or when what qualifies as consent, in legal terms, may not be consensual at all but enforced. There are exceptions, she says: “Women who make their own arrangements, privately and directly, with a client, and whose only worry is likely to be a big bill from the I.R.S.”
Late last month, Sarah Jones introduced her working version of “Sell /Buy / Date” at a packed preview, playing fourteen characters, women and men, each with a different story, and view, of his or her experience in the sex trade. After the preview, Steinem joined her onstage for a conversation. She said that the only system that, for now, seems to work for women in the trade and not against them is one called the Nordic Model, which originated in Sweden and has been adopted by several other northern European countries. Sex traffickers, sex-tour managers, brothel owners, and pimps—the people selling the bodies of men, women, and children for their own profit—are arrested. Their clients are fined. The sex workers themselves are free to continue working, and are offered alternative work and training, which they can choose whether or not to take.
The other battle that troubles Steinem began in 2008, when Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were competing for the Democratic Presidential nomination. Steinem does not officially join political campaigns, on principle, “because if you work on a campaign anything you say reflects on your candidate, and I want—no, I need—to be free to disagree.” But over the years she has stumped independently for countless candidates, as she did for Clinton in the run-up to the Democratic Convention that year (and hopes to do again in the run-up to 2016). Early in the campaign, she had written an Op-Ed in the Times, which the editors entitled, to her surprise and distress, “Women Are Never Front-Runners.”
In it, she presented a hypothetical female Obama, with all of Obama’s characteristics and credentials but the Y chromosome—her point being that, at that moment in the country’s history, the combination of “black” and “woman” still amounted to a kind of double negative and would be deadly at the polls. In her view, gender was the greater hindrance. “Actually, I didn’t think either of them had a chance, but if one did it would be Obama,” she told me. “In fact, I said that what we needed was eight years of a President Clinton and eight more years of a President Obama. (When Obama won the nomination, she stumped enthusiastically for him, and, four years later, did it again.) In her Op-Ed, she said that she was backing Clinton, because of her greater experience. “What worries me,” she wrote, “is that he is seen as unifying by his race while she is seen as divisive by her sex. . . . It’s time to take equal pride in breaking all the barriers. We have to be able to say: ‘I’m supporting her because she’ll be a great president and because she’s a woman.’ ”
Mainstream media paid modest attention to Steinem’s piece. Online, however, it fed a divisive debate that, according to Rebecca Traister, the author of a book about the 2008 campaign, “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” was simmering beneath the surface. Steinem was attacked for being a privileged white woman out of touch with the times.
In August this year, Daunasia Yancey and Julius Jones, two young activists from Black Lives Matter, had a backstage confrontation with Hillary Clinton that was taped, and the video made its way online. The subject was “three strikes and you’re out,” a habitual-offenders law introduced by Bill Clinton in 1994 and adopted over the years, in various forms, by twenty-four states. Yancey and Jones accused Hillary Clinton of complicity in that law, which, although it was drafted to discourage serious offenders and keep them off the streets, had in fact contributed to mass incarceration of black men, often for minor offenses, swelling a prison population that was already about fifty per cent black. At the end of a demonstrably tense exchange, Clinton said, “Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change the allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”
I asked Alicia Garza, the thirty-four-year-old co-founder of B.L.M.—who also works as the special-projects director of Ai-jen Poo’s National Domestic Workers Alliance—about that exchange. “We have twenty-six chapters nationally, and no one leader speaks for black people,” she said. “But what you saw on that video was the dialectic between policy change and culture change. I was disappointed in Hillary—to be honest, I was sad to see her admonishing two young people. She advocated new laws, when what she should have said is ‘The movement has made this issue front and center and changed my heart.’ Hillary should take notes from Gloria, who has always pushed boundaries around,” Garza, who works closely with Steinem, told me. “Gloria spoke to the fact—it was in her bones—that race was and has to be a feminist issue.”
A few days later, Steinem was in New Jersey, giving a talk that ended—as all her talks have since she marched in a Black Lives Matter demonstration—with B.L.M.’s three principles: “Lead with love. Low ego, high impact. Move at the speed of trust.” She also wrote a post on Facebook that read “Trump’s greatest damage to women was to raise sympathy for Carly Fiorina by attacking her appearance. . . . If you thought Republicans could find no woman more damaging to the diversity and needs of the female half of this country than Sarah Palin, take a good look at Carly Fiorina and what she stands for.” Steinem told me that, given platforms like Fiorina’s and those of virtually all the other Republican Presidential candidates—defunding Planned Parenthood, rescinding reproductive rights, abolishing Obamacare, criminalizing immigration, and, with a big nod to industry, denying or ignoring climate change—the left will have to pull together and win.
Five years ago, Steinem’s friend Wilma Mankiller died, at the age of sixty-five, with Steinem among the friends and family at her bedside. Mankiller had been the first elected chief of the Cherokee Nation, and she and Steinem had been close ever since she joined the board of the Ms. Foundation. Over the years, Mankiller had become, for Steinem, a kind of spiritual guide—the way Abzug had been her guide through the corridors of Washington power. It was Mankiller, she says, who continued her education in the “deep history” of matrilineality, and the communal talking circles that expressed it. “We have always started our ‘history’ with when hierarchy, patriarchy, and nationalism started,” Steinem told me. “But democracy did not come from Greece. It is much, much older, and it came from women and men together.” She added, “The Iroquois Confederacy had circles of consensus—it was matrilineal.”
A few years before Mankiller died, she and Steinem finished an outline and a preface for a book that they were planning to write together. “It was going to be a brief, practical book, citing moments and practices from the past that could be useful to women now,” Steinem said. She intends to finish the book now. “I want to contribute our idea that most of human history was very different from what we have today, with our monotheistic patriarchies and their ‘pyramid’ structures of authority from the top,” she said. “Many peoples were—and some still are—not gender-based in their languages. And there was rarely a single chief. There was always a chief for peace, and a different one for war. Their societies were not polarized, and not violence-based.” The jury is out on that. Many archeologists and anthropologists would disagree. But, as an organizing principle for Steinem, and for the feminists she has brought together, the evocation of an ancient tradition of talking circles for sharing stories, bridging differences, and coming to acceptable common solutions has been a remarkably effective tool.
One night, I asked Steinem about the future. “I learn, I give,” she told me. “I have the greatest luxury of thinking I might make a difference. I say to myself, ask myself: Can anyone else do what I do? If not, I should keep doing what I can uniquely do. For me, it’s a combination of responsibility and pleasure.
“People are always asking me, ‘Who will you pass the torch to?’ The question makes me angry. There is no one torch—there are many torches—and I’m using my torch to light other torches. There shouldn’t have been a ‘first’ Gloria Steinem, and there won’t be a last one.” Steinem has placed her house in trust as a place where feminists can meet, work, write, and, if they need to, stay. “I don’t plan to die,” she said, laughing. “I’ll be at home, with those women. I’ll live with them here.” Steinem says, sometimes, that her funeral will be a benefit.
At the beginning of “My Life on the Road,” there is a dedication to John Sharpe, the doctor who helped Steinem in London, fifty-eight years ago. “Dear Dr. Sharpe,” it says. “I believe you, who knew the law was unjust, would not mind if I say this so long after your death: I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.” ♦