Feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Lucas Jackson / Reuters

It’s not that I know Gloria Steinem. But we do have history – personal and political – that not so neatly mirrors the way African Americans and women struggled with society and each other in fights for equal justice.

It started in college when she visited my Catholic campus and drew a crowd, some adoring, some hostile (mostly a few guys) but most curious about the feminist icon and her message. Were my female classmates in need of liberation? We thought not. But I do remember a question I asked Steinem, about the possibility that for black women the feminist cause siphoned energy away from and split loyalties with civil rights for African Americans. I didn’t believe anything of the sort, even then, but it was a question in the air at the time.

Steinem was prepared. Her fellow speaker, Jane Galvin-Lewis, of the National Black Feminist Organization, provided an answer and cover.

At times through the years dialogue between the groups hasn’t been all that peaceful. Though on that day at university, Steinem paid tribute to the pioneering civil rights movement as a model, the public face of feminism held an echo of Sojourner Truth’s “ain’t I a woman” 1850’s lament, when the former slave expressed her frustration at the double dose of discrimination blocking her way, without even the “ladies first” courtesy extended to white women to ease her burden.

The modern women’s movement often seemed stuck in the upper regions of choice, as reflected in today’s parade of articles about high-heeled women with high-powered jobs and regrets. Blue-collar women who had always worked at less glamorous chores weren’t featured on the front lines, with media more interested in leaders such as the camera-ready Steinem. An emphasis on abortion rights put off women like myself who sincerely believe life begins at conception and pushed back the family and child-care issues of interest to women less concerned with having it all than having enough to get by.

It was more a class than racial divide, though in America one is often not far from the other. I didn’t pose a hierarchy of grievance, though being a black woman presented barriers my white female friends did not always comprehend or notice, as when some women walked through affirmative action doors opened by minorities without a nod of acknowledgment.

Steinem herself supported Rep. Shirley Chisholm’s (D-N.Y.) presidential run when others didn’t take the run of the first African American woman elected to Congress seriously, and with her and other feminist leaders founded the National Women’s Political Caucus.  

As intertwined as the struggle could be – with African American attorney Eleanor Holmes Norton leading the legal fight for women reporters at Newsweek and Judge Constance Baker Motley, a colleague of Thurgood Marshall, handing down the ruling allowing a female reporter into a Major League Baseball locker room — it didn’t take much to strain the bond.

In 2008, that something was an African American man and a white woman competing for the Democratic presidential nomination. Though core policies of the two candidates barely differed, the Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton contest made both sides give and take a few punches in an effort to make history.

In reports on polls and supporters, it was often oddly sorted into a blacks vs. women divide that made me want to call on Sojourner Truth to ask, what about me. Politicians did what they always do, and the sniping between the two Democratic front-runners turned bitter.

Oprah Winfrey experienced backlash from her audience when she appeared with candidate Obama; derisive comments that she was only supporting the black guy because she is black sounded much like John Sununu’s dismissals last month of Republican Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama.

Steinem, a Clinton supporter, weighed in with a New York Times op-ed that stated her belief that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.”

After the nominee was set, I jumped in with a Washington Post column that wondered why more white feminists weren’t defending a then-besieged Michelle Obama against angry attacks similar to those Clinton has faced. My niece finally advised me to stop reading the e-mails and comments that followed, dripping with everything except sisterly understanding.

Steinem campaigned for candidate Obama, and in 2012 supports his reelection, and she spoke of his accomplishments at a meeting of the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) in New Mexico recently. I listened as she talked to the group about domestic violence at the root of any country’s aggression. “This is the first form of violence, domination, power we see as children. It normalizes every other form,” she said. In the current presidential campaign, she asked why women’s issues have been put to the side, labeled “a social issue, not an economic issue, and every other kind of issue.” Equal pay for women, she said, would constitute “the greatest economic stimulus.”

Steinem referenced Winfrey and the 2008 scuffle when she called for “a society in which we are linked, not ranked.” She said she had talked with Winfrey about it, in the way larger-than-life icons do, I imagine. 

As a JAWS board member, I sat next to Steinem at dinner and we chatted about our 2008 columns. Awkward. But after a while and some wine, the conversation eased. Steinem at 78 is comfortable with her image. “This is my life,” she said. And she hasn’t survived this long by looking back.


Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3