THE EDUCATION OF A WOMAN
The Life of Gloria Steinem
Dial; 451 pages; $24.95
If you think it’s a bit early for a biography of Gloria Steinem, that’s OK with former
professor and feminist scholar (“Writing a Woman’s Life”) Carolyn Heilbrun.
As Heilbrun acknowledges at the start of this intriguing approach to history and biography, Steinem at 61 has already written eloquently about herself (“Revolution From Within,”http://www.sfgate.com/”Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions”) and knows better than anyone that the women’s movement she helped launch is still in the throes of growth and change.
But never mind that for now, says Heilbrun. Let’s look first at the “walking contradiction” that is Gloria Steinem — the feminist in a miniskirt, the women’s rights crusader who looks a little anorexic (not Heilbrun’s word), the loner who’s always in the spotlight, the compassionate listener who seems “accessible to no one,” the natural speaker who’s still paralyzed by audiences, and the leader who harbors an “innate reluctance to offend anyone” but has, at some time in her life, offended everyone.
Thus Heilbrun challenges us to understand the complex puzzle that is Steinem, to reconcile the vulnerable side of this woman who so hates confrontation with the tough-as-nails side that has so consistently named both the “small humiliations” and larger crimes against women perpetrated by what she sees as a patriarchal society. We watch, for example, how she stuns parents and alumnae at a 1971 Smith College graduation by quoting Flo Kennedy‘s remark that “there are only a few jobs that actually require a penis or vagina” and saying that unpaid housework “is the definition of women’s work, which is shit work”; how she appalls a convention of company presidents, many of them independently wealthy, by suggesting the “elimination of inheritance”; how she shocks the comparatively staid League of Women Voters with her comparison of “traditional marriage to prostitution”; how she outrages CBS radio affiliates with her comic “If Men Could Menstruate” monologue; and how she nearly gets a priest defrocked when she tells his congregation not that God should be a woman but that God, when depicted as a man, “usually a white man,” reflects institutions that have kept women oppressed for centuries.
With such a volatile subject on her hands, Heilbrun is constantly and wonderfully aware of Steinem the private person and Steinem the public personality. She observes that Steinem’s drive to change the world began with a childhood in Toledo that never existed, when her mother became so emotionally disturbed that Steinem at age 11 took over the running of the household for the next seven years. Although Steinem has soft-pedaled questions about her mother’s illness for decades, Heilbrun rightly steps in as biographer to make it clear that “her mother was, to put it bluntly, crazy.”
Paying the bills, cooking dinners, watching out for rats in their rundown home and never allowing herself to be sick (her mother was always sicker), Steinem became a keen and critical observer of life in and out of East Toledo — “a whole society built on brutality,” she once told Kate Millett. “You bowled on Tuesday, played pinochle on Wednesday. And beat up your wife or the nearest available black on Saturday. The ordinary way of expressing your masculinity. The Chicago police (of 1968 Democratic convention fame) were really the boys I went to high school with.”
Heilbrun has amassed a wealth of trenchant observations about Steinem from friends and family, but what makes this book so heady is the author’s gift for examining history itself from a feminist perspective. “Why did Steinem’s parents, two individuals markedly different and basically incompatible, marry?” she asks. “Theirs was a marriage perhaps no stranger than most. He was persuasive, boisterous and, as a young man, attractive; she was female, and therefore caught, then as ever, in the youthful split between her desire to work and have adventures, and her internalized command to marry. For not to marry was to risk far more than to marry the wrong person. This was a persistent condition of young womanhood.”
This refreshing attention to the gripping proscriptions of women’s lives extends as well to a questioning of accepted wisdom. Certainly Steinem’s family was “dysfunctional” by today’s standards, but “what, in fact, is a ‘functional’ family?” Heilbrun asks. Hard as it was for Steinem, her family did “produce a passionately engaged and loving human being,” and, “in a culture in which mothers are designated to take all the blame, Steinem never blamed Ruth.” Perhaps “something in that arrangement (made) for a more successful personality than the highly touted nuclear suburban family.”
And look, Heilbrun notes, how history has neglected a treasure trove of information simply by turning its attention away from women: “It is possible that a study of only daughters raised as members of the adult world, or of oldest daughters in large families where the mother was overworked — famous examples might be Margaret Sanger, Agnes Smedley, Susan B. Anthony — would reveal a life not dissimilar to the one Steinem eventually led. That is not to say that there was no price to pay for such a childhood; there is always a price.”
Indeed, the price of taking a leadership role in the fledgling women’s movement, muses Heilbrun, was to repeat, however unwillingly or unconsciously, the exhausting and self-sacrificing caretaker role as a child, and Steinem did fight against it. Planning to spend only two years in the launching of Ms. magazine (perhaps the most successful startup periodical ever, drawing a whopping 20,000 letters), Steinem ended up devoting 20 years to reconciling its massive debts, tyrannically sexist advertisers and internal controversies. She also found herself on an airplane nearly every week for 25 years to give fund-raising speeches for feminist causes and developed unique ways to help women even when broke (using her stock in New York magazine as collateral, for example, to help finance abortions for women in prison).
The details are fascinating enough, but even better is the way Heilbrun cuts into the narrative from time to time to ponder the larger picture: why Steinem, so often characterized as “anti- male,” entered into a number of happy “little marriages” with gentle, loving men — jazz musician Paul Desmond, TV satirist Herb Sargent, book publisher Tom Guinzberg, athlete Rafer Johnson and director Mike Nichols. Indeed, some of the most revealing quotes here are from men who are still flabbergasted at the unnecessarily cruel treatment Steinem received from other men — “You get the cross and I’ll get the hood,” one man whispered to Stan Pottinger, who he didn’t realize was Steinem’s lover, during one of her lectures.
Perhaps her most ardent lover, Pottinger, a former assistant attorney general, talks of being “appalled” when Steinem, speaking at a press conference on sex discrimination, “was regaled with such questions as ‘We know you came in with a man; will you tell me who he is?”http://www.sfgate.com/” Even anti- feminist real estate magnate Mortimer Zuckerman, perhaps Steinem’s only serious romantic mistake, cannot believe the “tap- dancing” she had to go through to keep male advertisers at Ms.
Heilbrun also has much to say about the inability of American media to accurately cover something as new and complex as feminism. It seems almost laughable now to see references to Steinem as the “pin-up girl of the intelligentsia” or a “willowy beauty, 34- 24-34”; or to note how often the media sought out signs of a “catfight” between Steinem and other women leaders such as the relentlessly bitter Betty Friedan. Not so amusing is Heilbrun’s blistering indictment of a press that consistently misrepresented women’s events — making the historic 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston, for example, appear to be dominated by white women from upper-middle-class backgrounds when fully one-third of the delegates were minority women.
“The Education of a Woman” is an authorized biography, for which Steinem gave Heilbrun the use of private papers and access to friends and private thoughts about such matters as her bout with breast cancer in 1986. But the author doesn’t hold back on her own critical appraisal, remarking for example that “there is something grating . . . about Steinem’s brilliant use of the benefits of a privileged life and her apparent scorn of it.”A simultaneous generosity of spirit is at work, too, as when Heilbrun, commenting that “in a certain, carefully defined sense, Steinem remained an adolescent for over five decades,” is right there to explain what that “sense” means.
Why a biography now of a woman alternately called a “man- izer,”http://www.sfgate.com/”baby killer,”http://www.sfgate.com/”whore”, “over-sexed, frustrated spinster” and the “Ivan Boesky of Nookie?” Because Steinem’s life reflects the education that is possible for all women, right up to the way such legacies are passed down. “That kind of civility,” Alice Walker’s daughter, Rebecca, observes of Steinem’s calm demeanor, “created a lot more room for humanity” in the discussion about equal rights that will perhaps never end, “so I started to take that into my own life.”