Gloria Steinem turned 80 today, which means it’s a good time to look back on the woman who started out as a magazine journalist and ended up being the face of modern feminism.
The first issue of Ms. Magazine, founded in 1971, captured the cultural zeitgeist of women on the cusp of a social revolution. The cover featured a woman with several arms, like the goddess Lakshmi, juggling more tasks than she could possibly handle. And the table of contents included articles like The Housewife’s Moment of Truth, Welfare is a Woman’s Issue and most famously, a statement signed by 50 prominent women including Steinem, and tennis star Billie Jean King titled, We Have Had Abortions, at a time when the practice was still against the law.
Four decades later, the debate over the role of women inside and outside of the house, the social safety net, abortion and contraception rages on.
She the People contributor Annie Groer caught up with Steinem in January and found her very much still the center of attention:
At this gathering of mega-talent from India, South Asia and around the world — winners of Nobels and Pulitzers, National Book Awards and MacArthurs as well as countless other commendations for literary, political, cultural and scientific brilliance and innovation — Steinem moved elegantly and unhurriedly, stopping to listen to scores of devoted readers.
One reason may be that, at age 79, she remains instantly recognizable, which is to say she still looks fabulous: tall, thin and wearing those signature glasses, New York black trousers and a sweater topped by a scarlet wool shawl. And oh, her hands! Weathered, to be sure, but mesmerizing as they moved constantly, balletically, around her face.
And yes, even today there is much focus on her face and just how good she still looks, and what her appearance then and now meant for the movement.
This from Gail Collins in The New York Times:
There are two reasons that Steinem turned out to be the image of the women’s liberation movement. One did indeed have to do with her spectacular physical appearance. For young women who were hoping to stand up for their rights without being called man-haters, she was evidence that it was possible to be true to your sisters while also being really, really attractive to the opposite sex. (An older generation tended to be less enthusiastic. The Washington Post columnist Maxine Cheshire once called her “the miniskirted pinup girl of the intelligentsia.”)
“I think for her as an individual, in one sense aging has been a relief,” says her friend Robin Morgan. “Because she was so glamorized by the male world and treated for her exterior more than her interior.”
But the interior always mattered. The other thing that made Steinem unique was her gift for empathy. Women who read about her or saw her on TV felt that if they ran into her on the street, they would really get along with her. And women who actually did run into her on the street felt the same way. More than a half-century into her life as an international celebrity, she remains stupendously approachable, patient with questions, interested in revelations. When she goes to events, young women flock around her. All celebrities draw crowds, of course. The difference is that when Steinem is at the center, she’s almost always listening.
She The People caught up with Steinem in November 2013 and indeed, she talked about needing to listen to critiques of feminism that cast it as white women’s movement, rather than an inclusive one.
“I don’t have to say anything; I have to listen. But what worries me about saying that the women’s movement doesn’t or hasn’t always included women of color is that it renders invisible all the women of color who were there,” she said. “Because women of color were more likely to be in the paid labor force, they were more likely to recognize discrimination so they were always leading the women’s movement.”
Steinem traces her own awakening to hearing women talk about their health horrors related to getting an abortion, a debate that still informs and inflames politics on the left and right.
Happy birthday, Gloria.