American women had been allowed to vote for only 14 years when Gloria Steinem, the woman who would come to stand for feminism in the 20th century, was born in 1934. By contrast, American black men had had voting rights for 64 years, ever since the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified in 1870. As Steinem herself would later say during the 2008 presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it is gender—not race—that is “probably the most restricting force in American life, whether the question is who must be in the kitchen or who could be in the White House.”
Everything about Gloria Steinem’s life as a feminist, journalist, and political activist has been about changing that concept of gender. Quietly and not so quietly, Steinem, along with Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, and others, made headlines throughout the 1970s as a leader of what was called the Second Wave of Feminism (the first had been that of the suffragettes of the 19th century). She was the founder, in 1972, of Ms, the magazine that crystallized and set forth the ideas of the women’s movement, and even before Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book in 1963, The Feminine Mystique, Steinem was speaking out to women about their homebound lives. Without any of the stridency and shrillness often associated with voices of the movement, she became the spokesperson for women’s liberation and the standard-bearer of feminism for her generation and those that followed.
She took her first public position on feminist issues inadvertently in 1962 when Clay Felker, editor of Esquire, hired her as a freelance writer to do an article about contraception. Steinem, who was trying to launch a career in journalism, regarded this as her first serious assignment. She wound up writing about how women are forced to choose between having a career and getting married. Steinem herself did not marry until she was 66 years old, perhaps subscribing to the feminist saying, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” But she explained that she did not want to end up taking care of someone else after spending her childhood years as “the very small parent of a very big child—my mother,” whom she had nursed through years of illness. In the 1950s, she told People magazine, “Once you married you became what your husband was, so it seemed like the last choice you’d ever have.”
Indeed, women’s social and economic status in the 1950s and 1960s was defined by marriage. One of the first things Steinem set out to change was the standard form of address for women, Miss or Mrs., that was based on revealing marital status. She proposed that women be addressed instead as “Ms” rather than Miss or Mrs., a change much resisted at first. Though women made up half of the human race, they seemed invisible at the time, their talents and achievements pretty much missing from national affairs and history books. After World War II when the GIs returned home, women dropped out from the wartime workforce and became the real housewives of American suburbia, producing the 76 million babies from 1946 to 1964 who became known as the baby-boom generation, members of which are just starting to retire in the 21st century.
The job of raising this generation was, naturally, women’s. Cultural norms said that being a good mother was the criterion of a woman’s status and success. “No wife of mine is going to work,” husbands said, as if having a working wife reflected on their own ability as successful providers. So there they were, the women of suburbia in their ranch houses with the labor-saving washing machines and fancy refrigerators, watching the kids all day and waiting for Daddy to come home from work at night and bring news of the wider world.
An educated housewife named Betty Friedan sensed the deep malaise behind this façade and in 1963 wrote a book, The Feminine Mystique, about “the problem that has no name.” In the preface to the book, Friedan said she, “as the mother of three small children,” had come to realize that “something is very wrong with the way American women are trying to live their lives today.” She sensed a big split between the reality of women’s lives and the cultural images they were trying to conform to. Her book became a best seller within weeks of publication. As more women earned college degrees, once married they struggled to find meaning in their stay-at-home lives now spent doing what was essentially housework and child care. They responded with relief to Friedan’s recognition of their situation. During the 1970s, the divorce rate started to climb, women started going out to work and back to school, and men started learning how to take care of the kids too. Friedan had, hopefully, dedicated her book not only to “the new women,” but to “the new men” who stood to benefit from women’s new sense of themselves. But men did not like it, all this change and losing their household help this way. They called women’s liberation “women’s lip.” Some wore ties proudly proclaiming themselves “male chauvinist pigs.”
Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were both graduates of Smith College, though they did not meet there, Friedan having graduated in 1942 and Steinem in 1956. Friedan had founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966 and was writing as a leading feminist in the early 1970s when Steinem and she joined forces to start the National Women’s Political Caucus. Despite their common cause, there was always an undercurrent of rivalry in the relationship between Friedan and Steinem, even as they participated together in numerous protest marches, advocating women’s liberation.
After the publication of her Esquire article, Gloria Steinem was also being recognized as a feminist, and she was intent on making clear other troubling aspects of women’s situation. In 1963, she was given an assignment by Huntington Hartford’s Show magazine to write an expose of the Playboy Club. Using a fake name, that of her own grandmother Marie Ochs, Steinem applied for a job as a Playboy bunny at Hugh Hefner’s clubhouse in New York, and tall and attractive, she passed inspection and was hired. Wearing the skimpy bunny costume with ears and fluffy tail, Steinem served drinks, checked coats, and fended off unwanted groping from club members. She said she began to realize that “all women are Bunnies,” at the beck and call of men even in their own homes. When her article, “I Was a Playboy Bunny,” was published—it later became the basis for a 1985 television movie, A Bunny’s Tale— Steinem said that she was besieged with harassing phone calls from someone at the Playboy Club, then hit with a libel suit. Because she had been a bunny, she found that no publication would offer her any new writing assignments.
Finally in 1968, Clay Felker, who as editor of Esquire had once hired her as a freelance writer, offered her a full-time job as a contributing editor and columnist for New York magazine, which he had founded. That year, covering a speak-out on abortion sponsored by the feminist group Redstockings, Steinem said that a “great blinding light bulb” went off as she heard women tell their stories. She said she became a feminist on the spot. A year later, one of Steinem’s articles for New York, “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” brought her national attention and launched her into a new political activism. The last words of the article sounded a hopeful note: “[T]he idea is, in the long run, that women’s liberation will be men’s liberation, too.” With backing from Felker, Steinem founded her own magazine, Ms, in 1972. The first issue sold out in days.
Another Steinem article, for Time magazine in 1970, “What It Would Be Like If Women Win,” focused on the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution, which she was working hard to get enacted, testifying in the Senate for its passage. The amendment, which had been written originally in 1923 by Alice Paul, a women’s suffrage advocate, essentially said that “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” There were detailed additions to the proposed amendment, which had to be ratified by 38 states but which faced increasing opposition even from women themselves, who believed rumors circulated by opponents that they would lose in the long run, might be subject to the draft, and would have to use unisex bathrooms.
Only 35 states had ratified the amendment by the deadline in 1979, which was then extended for three more years. But no additional states ratified the amendment. In fact, 5 of the original 35 states turned around and rescinded their approval. Though presidents from Eisenhower through Nixon offered support for the amendment and though it has been introduced in Congress every year since 1982, the amendment has yet to be put to a vote for passage.
Meanwhile, Gloria Steinem was getting more and more involved in politics, covering the campaign for presidential candidate George McGovern in 1971 and forming the National Women’s Political Caucus with Friedan and others to recruit and train women to run for office. She led the Women’s Strike for Equality march in New York City and, with her support of abortion, Steinem was fast becoming the icon of the feminist movement, in demand for television talk shows and traveling and giving lectures around the country. She was writing articles about “Why We Need a Woman President,” “Women and Power,” “Sexual Politics,” and “What Playboy Doesn’t Know about Women,” and publishing them not only in New York magazine where she wrote a “City Politics” column for eight years, but in other magazines and in the New York Times. It is important to note that though Steinem and others were prominent spokeswomen, the feminist movement was not a formally organized campaign run by any particular set of leaders or group. Instead, the ideas of feminism and women’s liberation took hold within the culture as if their time had come. Certainly the female half of the population was ready.
Still earning her living as an editor and writer, Steinem was also working at the grass roots for changes in women’s status, founding the Women’s Action Alliance to help women at the local level with problems like discrimination. She helped to start child care and women’s health care centers, women’s discussion groups, and shelters for victims of domestic abuse. She defended gays and supported the idea of same-sex marriage. She worked in several presidential campaigns including that of John F. Kennedy and Hillary Rodham Clinton, and protested the Vietnam War. Meanwhile Betty Friedan’s organization, NOW, had gained substantial membership and prominence by the mid-1970s as the feminist movement took hold. The Supreme Court made women’s right to choose an abortion legal in 1973 with the Roe v. Wade ruling. Even the English language was being challenged for its inherent bias in words like “chairman” and “mailman.”
Steinem’s efforts to help women and promote women’s liberation faced much opposition, some of it within the ranks of feminists themselves who thought that having such an attractive spokeswoman for the movement like Gloria Steinem was a contradiction when they were trying to combat the idea that women were defined by their looks. Betty Friedan objected to what she called Steinem’s radical viewpoints that might be alienating the public. The press kept predicting that the women’s movement was over and seemed to relish any signs of discord within the ranks. To detractors who claimed that activists for women’s liberation were undermining society, Steinem, in her 1970 Time magazine article, replied:
Women’s Lib is not trying to destroy the American family. A look at the statistics on divorce—plus the way in which old people are farmed out with strangers and young people flee the home—shows the destruction that has already been done. Liberated women are just trying to point out the disaster, and build compassionate and practical alternatives from the ruins.
This second wave of feminism accomplished a great deal, succeeding if nothing else to awaken American men and women to issues of inequality that were holding them back. As Steinem had written in New York magazine at the end of the 1960s,
[T]here is bound to be a time of, as social anthropologist Lionel Tiger puts it, “increased personal acrimony,” even if the revolution fails and women go right back to darning socks. (Masculinity doesn’t depend on the subservience of others, but it will take us a while to find that out.) It might be helpful to men—and good for women’s liberation—if they just keep repeating key phrases like, “No more guilt, No more alimony, Fewer boring women, Fewer bitchy women, No more tyrants with all human ambition confined to the home, No more ‘Jewish mothers’ transferring ambition to children, No more women trying to be masculine because it’s a Man’s World...” (and maybe one more round of “No more alimony”) until the acrimony has stopped.
In the more than 40 years since she wrote this, attitudes about women and circumstances for women have changed enormously and changed society. More than half of American women, age 16 and above, are now in the workforce, and more than half of American women with children under a year old are in the workforce. Women make up the majority of undergraduates at the nation’s colleges and universities. Now one of the biggest problems women face is juggling the demands of work and family. Younger generations of women take for granted their freedom to have a college education and a career as well as marriage and children, not particularly aware of the intense struggles earlier feminists went through to turn things around and gain that freedom. In fact, the word “feminist” is anathema to young women, giving off a negative image of bra burning, man-hating, unattractive women they do not want to be associated with (but, as Steinem herself said, “Women may be the one group that grows more radical with age).
Gloria Marie Steinem was born on March 25, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio. Her father, Leo Steinem, the son of prominent German Jewish immigrants, was a traveling antiques dealer who took his wife and two daughters on long trips in a trailer around the country to buy and sell antiques. He eventually abandoned the family. Steinem’s mother, Ruth Nuneviller, had been raised a Presbyterian in a family of Scotch and German descent and studied to become a teacher at Oberlin College and Toledo State University. In her early married years, Ruth Steinem taught college calculus and pursued a career in journalism, becoming Sunday editor of a major Toledo daily.
But when her daughters were little (Gloria’s older sister, Susanne, had been born in 1925), Ruth had a nervous breakdown and became mentally unstable and virtually an invalid. With her father gone and older sister away at college, Gloria herself, at the age of 10, became her mother’s caretaker. They lived a hand-to-mouth existence in Toledo with Gloria attending school only sporadically. Finally, when her father took over the care of her mother, Gloria went to live with her sister in Washington, D.C., and graduated from high school there. With the sale of some family property, she was able to go to Smith College, where she majored in government, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and graduated magna cum laude.
With a postgraduate fellowship to study in India, Steinem spent two years exploring and writing about the country. On her return to the United States, she got a job with the Independent Research Service in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a foundation with connections to the National Student Association (later, because of this job, she faced accusations from the radical left of having been an undercover agent for the Central Intelligence Agency, a charge she strongly denied).
In 1959, Steinem moved to New York City where her career in journalism and her feminist writing would eventually make her a media star. She dated attractive, famous men but refused their offers of marriage, saying she was not ready yet. In fact, Gloria Steinem was not ready to get married until she was 66 years old, surprising her feminist friends and the world by marrying David Bale, father of the actor Christian Bale, on September 3, 2000. Three years later, her husband died of a brain lymphoma.
Steinem, now in her seventies (as she would famously say at each birthday milestone, “This is what 70 looks like”), continues to live in New York City where she writes about and supports feminist causes. She has published several books, including Revolution from Within in 1992 and collections of writings like Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983) and Moving beyond Words (1994).
Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1963.
Heilbrun, Caroline G. The Education of a Woman. New York: Dial Press, 1995.
Steinem, Gloria. “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation.” New York magazine, April 4, 1969. http://nymag.com/news/politics/46802/ .
Steinem, Gloria. Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983.
Steinem, Gloria. Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1992.
Steinem, Gloria. “What It Would Be Like If Women Won.” Time magazine, August 31, 1970. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,876786–1,00.html.