Steinem made it clear she wasn’t interested in marriage and children. Many young women who looked up to her thought they weren’t true feminists if they wanted or needed a husband and a family. A female colleague in her late 30s approached me during those early days. She was close to tears. After begging me not to tell anyone, she confessed she was pregnant. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I didn’t want to let the side down.”
Some women gave up chances to marry and have children; others, already married, had their marriages torn apart. Women became divided between those who wanted to work but didn’t want to relinquish their roles as wives and mothers, and others who devalued the domestic part of the equation.
In 1977, an International Women’s Year conference in Houston exposed all the conflict engulfing the women’s movement. I covered it for The Washington Post. Here’s how I described it: “Ambivalence, uncertainty, conflicting emotions. Everyone who was in Houston . . . felt them. Joy. Exhilaration. Disgust. Embarrassment. Sentimentality. Confusion. Shame. Anger. Affection. Uneasiness. Amusement. Frustration. Pride. At once one was proud to be a woman. And ashamed. One wanted to be there and didn’t. At every turn there was something that inspired pride and something that embarrassed.”
Friedan and Steinem had a clash over strategy that upset a lot of people. Steinem spent her time trying to create compromise so it wouldn’t look like a catfight. But the fact was that the two were on a collision course.
I wrote about the convention in as objective a way as I could, concluding that not much had been accomplished. Steinem was not happy with my piece. “You have to decide whether you’re a feminist first or a journalist first,” she said.
Years passed, and women settled into a more comfortable place, making their own choices both at work and at home. As they aged, many of the diehard feminist were proving to be more traditional than they had presented themselves before, and I wrote a piece about this. I suggested that some of these women had encouraged others to give up marriage, relationships and children while seeking those very things themselves.
I quoted Steinem, who had written a book in which she admitted falling in love with someone who treated her badly. I wrote: “She had seduced him, she says, by playing down the person she was and playing up the person he wanted her to be. When he did fall in love with her, ‘I had to keep on not being myself.’ ”