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?

Gloria Steinem
Roderick Aichinger/ DER SPIEGEL

Gloria Steinem

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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.

Gloria Steinem receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President Barack Obama in 2013.
AP

Gloria Steinem receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from US President Barack Obama in 2013.

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.

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rajpe 07/06/2016
1. Feminism
Too bad Ms. Steinem and other "feminists" fear giving women actual, physical power. She refuses it. But then, if women had actual physical power, they would have the responsibility of using it appropriately. Women could not continue to excuse their inaction by claiming that they are poor, weak women. Is carrying a firearm too much responsibility for a woman to exercise? Ms. Steinem says "Yes."
bicester55 07/07/2016
2. Don't mention Clinton
After her comments on women voters and Bernie Sanders wouldn't it have been better to avoid the 2016 presidential campaign? It does seem at most only peripheral to what she had done in her life. I would have liked to know more about her life-long fight for Women's rights especially what you reckon she has considered important. Wikipedia hints tantalisingly at this but I have much to learn on this.
jaleintz 07/07/2016
3. Warmonger
Gloria, so much hate in just one person. Check her out on Youtube to get a good sense for how hateful she is. Here's the good news, the left ultimately looses its battle for evermore because they are proponents of the unnatural. Unnatural economic systems to support their unnatural lifestyles is what feeds their addiction. Gloria and her kinds are dyeing out since they do not have children. Nature is doing what nature does.
cliberg 07/07/2016
4. Could Steinem have dementia?
When I think back to her comment about Bernie Sanders -- his camp is "where all the boys are" -- it makes me think she has forgotten who she is or what she stands for. What an incredible insult to young women!
robertbudtxu 07/07/2016
5. Bizarre Gloria Steinem MLK Story
Ms. Steinem's story about women's feminist movement having its roots from a Martin Luther King rally is bizarre. In America these days everything goes viral back to magical racial segregation and black disadvantage. It breaks my heart but the media feeds on this... It is horrible the things we done.../ if you believe the media you would think black slaves hung the moon and invented dirt. It's getting to the point of ridiculous
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