07/06/2016 07:05 PM

Within Reach

Gloria Steinem's Life-Long Fight for Women's Rights


In the 1960s, Gloria Steinem became the icon of the women's movement and she hasn't slowed down since. Now, the US may elect a female president for the first time in its history. Has feminism finally reached its goal?

On the day that Martin Luther King, Jr. held his most famous speech, Gloria Steinem became acquainted with feminism -- in the form of an old, stout African-American woman in a straw hat. It was August 28, 1963, a hot summer day in Washington D.C., and Steinem, a 29-year-old freelance journalist, was one of the 250,000 people making their way toward the Lincoln Memorial. She wanted to hear the eloquent leader of the civil rights movement firsthand.

The old woman in the straw hat was next to her in the crowd and she and Steinem struck up a conversation. Mrs. Greene had joined the march to protest against racial segregation -- as an office worker in the capital, she had for years been forced to sit behind a screen separating her from her white coworkers. Now, though, she had found a new source of annoyance. She gestured at the stage: So many speakers, she said, and not a single woman. Who is going to tell the story of black women, of all the oppression and violence, Mrs. Greene asked?

Steinem was dumbfounded. She had never before thought about the connection between racism and sexism and she hadn't ever noticed that only men held speeches. It was the way things had always been. Mrs. Greene gave her a once-over with a look of mild derision. "You white women," she said. "If you don't stand up for yourselves, how can you fight for others?"

Martin Luther King, Jr. held his speech, one that continues to resonate today. "I have a dream," King called out, "that one day… the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood."

The women listened. But something was missing.

Fifty years later, in November 2013, Steinem was received in the White House by the first African-American head of state in US history. Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the two highest civilian awards in the US. Ever since that day in late-August, 1963, Steinem had made it her mission to fight for equality between men and women. She traveled throughout the world, wrote books, delivered speeches, led protests, founded a feminist magazine and later, established a foundation. Because of her, Obama said, "more women are afforded the respect and opportunities that they deserve."

A Portentous Moment

But progress rarely follows a straight line. It has plenty of opponents who want to stop it and turn it back. Gloria Steinem has chosen a portentous moment -- right in the middle of a contentious presidential campaign in which America is wrestling over its very identity -- to publish her memoirs, which are now also appearing in German. It took Steinem almost 20 years to complete the book, there was always something more important to do. But now the book is appearing at a time when the focus of her life's work appears to be within reach.

She raises an eyebrow and smirks when asked if the US is ready to be led by a woman. It is a question people around the world are currently asking her, Steinem says, as though she were the oracle of New York's Upper East Side. She is sitting on a pillow-covered, green-velvet sofa in her living room and petting Efendim, her three-legged cat from the streets of Cairo -- an animal with the amazing good luck of ending up with Gloria Steinem in New York, in a two-floor apartment with a garden on the corner of Park Avenue and 73rd Street.

"Eight years ago, I didn't think that we were ready," Steinem said. "I'm not sure the time is ripe for a female president even now. It's just that it has to be. We don't have a choice."

This November, Hillary Clinton could become the first woman ever to be elected to America's highest office -- the former first lady, senator and secretary of state who seems always to have been in the limelight, and always to have been controversial. As a politician, Clinton stands for pragmatism first and foremost, but her victory -- just as Obama's was almost eight years ago -- would be a triumph for diversity. Because otherwise, Donald Trump would win, a man whose misogyny and xenophobia is exceeded only by his ignorance. Trump stokes hatred of immigrants and Muslims, judges women on whether he finds them sexually attractive, brags about his penis and promises to "make America great again" -- great for angry white men who would like to put everyone else back in their rightful place beneath them.

The choice should be an easy one, but it's not. A lot is at stake, including Gloria Steinem's life's work.

Steinem is the youngest 82 that you can imagine. Wearing black trousers, a black top and platform sandals, her hair is loosely pulled up and her eyes are discreetly lined with brown make-up. A thin snake of gold winds around her little finger. Steinem exudes calm and friendliness. We are here to talk about her, but she prefers asking questions: What is Angela Merkel like? How is her leadership? How does parental leave work in Germany?

A 'Life-Sized, Counterculture Barbie Doll'

Generations of critics have struggled with the fact that Steinem does not conform to the feminist stereotype -- that of a churlish man-hater -- but is actually quite charming. A talk show host once said: "What Gloria needs is a man: You feel like either kissing her or hitting her, I can't decide which."

The magazine McCall's described her as a "life-sized, counterculture Barbie Doll," and a Florida newspaper ran a headline reading: "Gloria's Beauty Belies Her Purpose." Now, Steinem has reached an age when women are often no longer seen as women -- and she is still beautiful.

In the America of today, women -- particularly younger women -- take it for granted that feminism isn't just necessary, but can also be glamorous. When actresses like Emma Watson or Lena Dunham apply the term to themselves; when Beyoncé strikes a heroic pose on stage with the word "Feminist" in giant letters behind her; when feminism is no longer counterculture but mainstream: All of that is largely thanks to Steinem.

Yet she didn't set out to be the leader of a movement and she was initially frightened by the prospect of appearing in public. When she had to speak to an audience, her mouth felt as though she had swallowed dust. "I felt I could be an observer, but not a participant," she says. Had she been able to publish the texts that she wanted to write, that's likely as far as her activism would have gone.

But that was back in the 1960s. Steinem recalls being a young journalist riding in a taxi with the famous scribes Gay Talese and Saul Bellow. All three were covering Bobby Kennedy's Senate campaign and they were coming from an appearance by the candidate. Steinem sat squished between the two and she was just saying something about Kennedy when Talese suddenly bent over her toward Bellow and 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."

Then the men began complaining about the traffic. Humiliated, Steinem fell silent. When she got out of the cab, she was furious -- at herself because she hadn't objected or at least slammed the door shut.

"That was the state of the world," Steinem says. She also remembers calling on a magazine editor about an assignment. The man briefly looked up at her and said: "We don't want a pretty girl. We want a writer. Go home." Another told her that he couldn't publish an article of hers in which she argued that women were equal -- because then he would have to commission a piece to print next to it arguing that they weren't.

'After Black Power, Women's Liberation'

Because Steinem was seen as little more than a pretty face, she was able to take advantage of her appearance for her reporting. She applied for a position as a "Bunny" in a Playboy club and served the male clientele while wearing a costume with a cotton tail and rabbit ears. Then, in a feature for the magazine Show, she disclosed how Playboy girls are often taken advantage of, both financially and sexually. The story was a sensation, but the image of Gloria Steinem as a bunny is what stuck. After that, she had to fight even harder for commissions to write political articles.

It was six years after Martin Luther King's historic speech, in the spring of 1969, that New York magazine published a column of hers that read like a call to arms: "After Black Power, Women's Liberation." Finally, Steinem had been able to publish the article she had long wanted to get into print and she used it to explain to men why they shouldn't fear the women's movement. "No more guilt, no more alimony, fewer boring women, fewer bitchy women, no more tyrants with all human ambition confined to the home," she wrote.

Years earlier, Betty Friedan had described the pallid existence of suburban housewives in her bestseller "The Feminine Mystique." Steinem, for her part, kept postponing marriage and starting a family. "If you really believed the message of the woman's traditional role, which we did in the 1950s and '60s, the only way you could change your life was by deciding who you married…. It was the last decision you could make in your life," she says. "It sounded a lot like death!"

Steinem's parents did not have a happy marriage. Her mother Ruth had also tried to establish herself as a journalist and dreamed of a career in New York. After the birth of her first daughter -- Gloria's sister, who is nine years older -- Ruth Steinem wrote for a newspaper in Toledo, Ohio for a few more years and used her earnings to pay off the debts of her husband, a man who had lots of ideas but no stable income.

When Gloria was 10 years old, her parents separated. Gloria stayed with her mother, who sank into depression. For the next seven years, it was as though Gloria and her mother had swapped roles. Later, Steinem often found herself wondering if her mother would have become so ill if she had tried to realize her dreams -- and whether the trauma of those years was to blame for her own lack of desire to have children.

Revolution in the Air

She only abandoned her resistance to marriage when she was 66, marrying a British environmentalist and entrepreneur named David Bale, who was seven years her junior. Three years later, Bale died of a brain tumor, with Steinem taking care of him during the last year of his life.

In her living room are framed photos along with several small keepsakes, including wooden figurines, semi-precious stones and candles. The walls are painted a warm yellow and the ceiling and chimney are covered in stucco. The apartment used to be Steinem's office and she would sleep here when she wasn't traveling. But at some point in the 1990s, Steinem says, she realized that she was yearning for a home. So she established one here. Today, she lives by herself, though the guest room is often in use. She plans to bequeath the apartment to a foundation so that other feminists can continue meeting, working and writing here after her death. But she's not planning on dying soon. "I hope to live at least to 100," she says.

Steinem's greatest struggle began at a time when revolution was in the air in the West. In the 1960s, women took part in the civil rights movement, fighting against racial segregation and the Vietnam War -- and they didn't see why, even among the revolutionaries, they themselves should just listen quietly and make coffee. How did that fit together with the shared dream of a better, more equitable world?

Following her fiery column, Steinem was showered with requests to speak about this new phenomenon, the women's movement. Mostly, she panicked and declined -- until she found an antidote for her stage fright. She began appearing with a friend of hers, an unflinching African American named Dorothy Pitman Hughes.

As a pair, the two of them generated even more interest and they filled gymnasiums, theaters, community centers and even sports stadiums. Steinem discovered that a free, unattached life was possible. She was unable to make much of the feminist theories coming out of universities at the time. She was more interested in the stories of the women she met on her travels and in the dynamics of groups fighting for a common goal: political change.

Her argument was a radical one at the time: Women's rights cannot be separated from civil and human rights. Inequality is inequality, no matter if one is being discriminated against because of skin color, religion, gender or sexual orientation. In contrast to Betty Friedan, who spoke on behalf of women in the white middle-class, Steinem fought for a larger movement that included all women. She was gratified when, 25 years later, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton said at a United Nations conference in Beijing that "women's rights are human rights."

Challenging the Patriarchy

But the patriarchy does not relent without a fight. There are less advanced countries and more modern countries, and the differences can be pronounced. But it is also true that there is no real gender equality anywhere. Men dominate the political and business worlds, most unpaid work is performed by women, they earn less and are more often stuck in poverty. Violence is most often perpetrated by men, and women are most often the victims of gender-specific violence, such as rape, domestic violence, honor killings, forced marriage and forced prostitution. There are almost 60 million more men in the world than women at this point, largely because girls aren't wanted in the rising countries of India and China and are often killed.

Steinem says that all you really need to know about a society is how it treats its women. It is no accident, she says, that many modern-day terrorists grow up in an environment where men have control over women. "The most reliable indicator of whether or not there is violence inside a country, or whether it will use military violence against another country, is not poverty or access to natural resources or religion or even degree of democracy," Steinem writes. "It's violence against females. It normalizes all other violence."

She argues that what differentiates democracies from authoritarian systems is the right of women to control their own bodies. That also means the freedom to end an unwanted pregnancy, an issue that continues to deeply divide the US in this election year of 2016. Just in March, Donald Trump said that abortions should be illegal and that women who have abortions should be punished.

In the first issue of the magazine Ms., which she founded in 1971, Steinem demanded that abortions be legalized. She printed the names of 52 women who admitted to having had the procedure in secret, often under life-threatening conditions. And she added her name to the list as well. Back when she was 22, she had gotten engaged. He was a good man, she says, but she didn't want to get married, preferring instead to go to India on a study fellowship. On the way there, she realized that she was pregnant. In London, she found a doctor who agreed to help her under two conditions: that she never reveal his name and that she promise to make the best out of her life. She dedicated her recently published memoirs to the doctor.

She could, of course, leave it at that. She has been fighting for so long that it would hardly be surprising if she had finally had enough. And she admits that she gets tired. "Before I leave (on a trip), I always think maybe I'll break a leg and then I don't have to go. What a good idea."

These days, though, she is making even more appearances than usual: at readings and podium discussions, on television and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Recently, Steinem got her own television show for the first time. Called "Woman," it is broadcast on the cable channel Viceland. Each episode is filmed at a different location and it takes on such issues as the use of rape as a weapon of war in Congo, guerilleras in Colombia or the daily lives of mothers in American prisons. For one episode, Steinem interviewed US Vice President Joe Biden -- striding through the halls of the White House and talking about violence against women. Afterwards, Steinem stood in front of the White House corridor and said it was like a gift to be there, so soon before the end of Obama's second term. "It's the first time in my life that I feel that the White House belongs to everybody and represents everybody, including me."

A Good Beginning

Quitting is not an option, certainly not now when the choice is one of all or nothing: Clinton or Trump. It sounds like the script of a terrible TV series -- that the first woman who has a chance to govern the most powerful nation on earth must first defeat someone like Trump.

Steinem says that she's not in favor of a female president merely on principle. She wouldn't, for example, support Tea Party icon Sarah Palin, she says. And in 2008, she found it difficult to decide between supporting Clinton or Obama, with both standing for similar policies and a more modern America. Steinem hesitated and wrote a list of pros and cons before ultimately deciding in favor of Clinton for two reasons: because she had more experience and because it was more difficult for her to stand her ground.

In attempting to explain, Steinem says that we're simply not used to seeing women in positions of power. "For men especially, and some women too, when they see a powerful woman in the public world, it just doesn't feel right. They feel regressed to childhood because that was the last time you saw a powerful woman." That, she says, is the only way she can explain the "entirely irrational, crazy responses" to women in power. It is a reflex that can hardly be prevented so long as children are primarily raised by their mothers and by female childcare workers and teachers.

Were he elected, Donald Trump would be the 45th male president of the US. If Hillary Clinton became the first woman in the Oval Office, it would help women. It might even become a tiny bit easier for them to strike the right balance: not too quiet, but definitely not shrill. And the right body language: not manly and back-slapping but definitely not too ladylike. And, of course, the correct persona: approachable, warm and laid back, but also tough.

Steinem plans to spend the coming months doing what she always does prior to presidential elections: traveling to battleground states with activist friends of hers to campaign for the candidate she supports. She isn't one for showing much emotion, but when she thinks about it, a grin slowly spreads from one ear to the other. Madam President. There is still so much to do, she says, catching herself. Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office wouldn't be the end of the story, but it would be a good beginning.


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