My Letter to Gloria Steinem

In 1970, having decided to become a feminist, I did the only thing I could think of to join the “movement”: I wrote a letter to Gloria Steinem.

She was on staff at New York Magazine then, and because my aunt and uncle had a subscription I often read her articles when I was at their house. Her writing fully engaged me, especially as she was naming that inchoate desire women were feeling for more in their lives. I didn’t need men to open doors. I wanted to play on school sports teams. I wanted to wear pants instead of dresses, flat shoes instead of uncomfortable heels. I didn’t want to believe there was anything I couldn’t do just because I was a woman. And I thought Gloria Steinem might give me some advice on how to put my newfound feminism into action.

I had seen some camouflage-dressed, combat-booted “women’s libbers” on TV. They looked angry, and I’m ashamed to admit that they sort of scared me. And then came Gloria. In the new documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words, which debuts on HBO August 15 at 9pm, Steinem mentions several times how her perceived attractiveness–think Diana Rigg on The Avengers–was something between a blessing and a curse. It drew people to her, and thus attention to the women’s movement, but also led some to be dismissive of her success even after decades of accomplishment. “The painful part,” she tells the camera during the in-depth interview with her that is interspersed throughout the hour-long film, “is [that] I work really hard, and the result is attributed to looks.”

I have to admit, though, that I first became a feminist because Gloria Steinem made feminism look appealing. She busted the false stereotype of “libbers” as shrill, unhappy harridans: We were long-haired college students (like me), suburban moms, professional women, even enlightened men! And some were glamorous journalists. I got it: Each and every woman could be a feminist as long as she believed in equity and justice and no limits to women’s aspirations. 

The HBO documentary brings back those early days of The Movement in nostalgic archival clips of protests, marches and conventions. Moreover, it shows how a smart young woman from Toledo, born to a charming-but-irresponsible dad and a pioneering journalist mom (whose career was short-circuited by mental illness), managed to escape Ohio for New York City. She originally thought that tap dancing would be her ticket out of Toledo, but it turned out to be writing that gave her entree into a cool Manhattan life.

“I’m not sure what feminism was,” she says of those early days on magazine staffs, but she gradually found out. The low point of her life, she says, was writing about textured stockings. Sexual harassment was ever-present, but there was no word for it–”It was just called ‘life.’” Steinem identified with Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, streaking her hair like Audrey Hepburn and taking to heart Hepburn’s/Golightly’s line, “I’ll never let anybody put me in a cage!”

Steinem’s most famous early assignment was going undercover as a Bunny at a Playboy Club, in a costume “so tight it would give a man a cleavage.” She ended up exposing not a glamorous world, but a tacky one that exploited and demeaned young women. Her final “click moment,” though, was when she covered hearings about legalizing abortions. She had had one herself in her early 20′s and never told anyone. But why–if one in three women had chosen to have abortions–was it such a secret?

Steinem says she became a public speaker because she couldn’t get the articles she wanted to write about feminism published. In 1971, she found a surefire way to get those articles in print: Start a feminist magazine.

The rest is the history of Ms., which will celebrate its remarkable 40 years of existence in 2012.

The film just touches on the early years of the magazine, with editors working shoulder-to-shoulder in tiny offices as they began to define feminism. It would have been nice to have seen more of the magazine’s development over time, but the documentary focuses more on Steinem’s personal changes in subsequent years. She faced nasty attacks from the media, exhausted herself traveling, had to sort out “this self-esteem stuff” (which led to her book Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem), and then, in a surprise to many, got married at age 66. Her husband David Bale took sick and died of brain lymphoma just a couple of years after they wed, but in the film she says she found a certain resolution even in that tragedy: She was able to care for David in a way she couldn’t do, as a girl and young woman, for her ill mother.

Steinem has always seemed to be a particularly caring person. And she taught me a lesson early on, long before I had the chance to become personally acquainted with her through my work as a freelancer and then an editor for Ms: She answered my letter. I had asked how I could get involved in the women’s liberation movement, and she directed me to a women’s history archives in Berkeley run by Laura X. That’s how relatively small the movement was in 1970–the only place in California she knew to recommend to me was nearly 400 miles from where I lived in Los Angeles. Still, she had typed up a letter herself, on New York Magazine note paper, and sent it to a fawning 20-year-old fan.

Every time I answer a young person who writes to Ms., I think about Gloria.

By the end of the film, everyone watching a screener in our Ms. offices was misty eyed. Especially when Steinem says at the conclusion, “I’ve so loved being here. And I do hope to live to 100. I love it so much, I don’t want it to end.”

Neither do we.

Photo of Gloria Steinem in 1972, from Wikimedia Commons.

Comments

  1. Amy Borsuk says:

    Wish I could’ve been there to watch the screener with you all! The documentary sounds awesome!

  2. Tom O'Leary says:

    Wow. What a beautiful article. I’ve always found Gloria Steinem to be one of the heroes (heroines?) of our time. Her writing, her speeches, her persona & her life are an inspiration to us all. Thank you, Michele, for such a heartfelt and moving piece.

  3. So beautifully written, Michele — what a gift to read. The short time I spent with her two years ago proved to me that as a woman and journalist, she truly engages with and cares about the person with whom she is speaking. I will always cherish covering topics with her that included music, singing, lyrics & feminism.

  4. Great Post, Michele. Thanks for giving us a heads-up about the documentary. I hope Gloria Steinem lives to be a hundred too. I was just reading about how she suggested that one day Anita Hill would sit on the Supreme Court — I wonder if such a thing is possible in today’s world. Do you think?

    Zoe

  5. As a fitting tribute to Gloria Steinem and Bella, Betty Freidan and Ford we all should write, email or call Congresspeople and Senators to immediately add their names as cosponsors of the reintroduced ERA that is in the Senate as S.J. Res 21 and the House as S.J. Res 69. The Senate ERA bill amazingly has only has 10 cosponsors; missing are many of the women in the Senate and the liberal men Leahy, Schumer, Durbin and Franken – what is their problem – the ERA is a no brainer. When Congress comes back in September 2011 they should immediately call for a full vote in each house on the ERA. Let those who oppose equal Constitutional rights for women be recognized and voted out in Nov 2012. This is not the time for games with the human rights of American women. It is nuts that the majority of Americans do not have equal Constitutional rights. The time has come for the men in Congress to release the ERA from the stranglehold of their Committees and allow a vote on the human rights of women in America.

  6. Donna Decker says:

    Every word you wrote here, Michele, is exactly my response to the documentary. Thank you for writing this. Gloria Steinem is an icon. I loved her when I discovered her in the 70s; I love her still. I am proud to be part of a revolution (not a reform)that can claim a leader like Steinem.

  7. I love Gloria Steinem! I wish I had HBO, but alas. I’ll have to wait until it comes out on DVD to see it. I posted a link to an article about the documentary on my facebook page, with the following comment:

    “How far have we come, really, when NBC is launching a new show called The Playboy Club, decades after Gloria Steinem wrote her groundbreaking article on that “boys’ club”?”

    I am dismayed that not a single person responded. This new show isn’t designed to be a feminist friendly piece, it’s a sort of “Boy, wasn’t it great back in the good old days when women did this kind of thing because they knew their place?” show.

  8. Hi Michele,

    Thank you for writing this delightful article.

    Gloria Steinman will forever be one of my role models. Six months ago, I sent an email requesting permission to use quotes from her book Marilyn for my soon to be published memoir. Approval and well wishes were instantly granted. Like one woman helping another.

    Coincidently, I am currently writing a blog series about femininity. My hope is to engage in a conversation about femininity including ones preference regarding makeup versus au natural. Not that there is anything new about this topic. That it continues in pervasively destructive conversations begs renewed attention. Here is an excerpt from one of my future posts entitled, “The Faceless Collage”.

    “I wonder why it is that women seem to be so divided over this issue. For example, women that do ‘beautify’ themselves in whatever ways they deem appropriate often defend themselves from comments referring to their vanity and lack of self-acceptance.

    On the other hand, women who choose a more au natural look are accused of lacking in self-esteem. Otherwise, charge their critics, they would take the time to “fix-themselves up a bit.”

    Thank you for the opportunity to comment.

    Dawn Novotny

  9. Stephanie Davis says:

    When Gloria eulogized Bella and said I don’t want to live in a world without Bella, I thought to myself, and I don’t want to live in a world without Gloria. May she live on for a long, long time and continue raising hell. I will always dance at her revolution.

  10. Wow. Michele, I LOVE this “Love Letter” to Gloria Steinem. You’re such a beautiful person and writer. The movement is blessed to have YOU in it too.

  11. Lia Craven says:

    I agree with all of the responses and the more I learn about Gloria Steinem, the more I love what she has done for women. I too look forward to when this documentary comes out on dvd and I can recommend it to friends and family. There is still a long way we have to come as people to truly be proud of ourselves as who we are, not always be thinking of how we appear. It is a habit that I have to practice everyday, fighting the ads that tell me that I’m not skinny enough or made up enough to be good enough. The more media analysis we practice,the better we can truly be ourselves and not just a reaction to media. I try to remind everyone that I know of this insidious effect of the media and that it has to start with individuals, not necessarily a movement. The more I practice disenganging from the media’s idea of who I should be, the better I feel about myself and that is hopeful. I am so glad that there are magazines like Ms. who cast a critical eye on media and culture…keep up the great work!

  12. Kayla Pate says:

    “Each and every woman could be a feminist as long as she believed in equity and justice and no limits to women’s aspirations.”

    ^ My favorite part. I love it. Simple and sweet and yet so Earth-shatteringly true. I wish everyone could see and say this as plainly, but still as eloquently as you have.

  13. As a black woman I wish that black women could have had a similar feminist figure as Steinem. While she may have made waves for women in general, I don’t think that she and other white female feminist organizations have done much to address the very specific issues that women of color experience.

  14. I too became a feminist in 1967 or 68 because of a sign that said men can’t be free until women are free at college. Later in the early 70′s I actually went on strike from being a mother because my teenagers weren’t doing anything for me at home. I told them I’d so an hour a day after work and wanted to set a schedule for them. After about 6 weeks of me saying when asked why there was no dinner, I’d say I chose to clean the living room for my hour today, you’ll have to get you own dinner. After about 6 weeks, they came around and we set a schedule, and my life was a lot easier. Thanks to feminism. I ran a non profit for mentally retarded, and I asked the local catholic church for a great, and they wouldn’t give me one because I was a feminist and might tell someone about amniocentesis. I hadn’t even thought about it, but I might do it, so they were right. A great time, and I think we have to keep fighting because the congress is trying to take away from us all that we had achieved. I read recently that every time in history when women have gained a little stature, the men did everything they could to take it away, and I see that in this congress recently elected.

    As to the black lady, black women did have people that stood up for them. I’ve read about them, but don’t remember their names. Except for the lady on the bus, remember it was a women that started the civil rights movement.

  15. This is a lovely tribute to Gloria Steinem. Her life’s work is beyond inspirational. Younger feminists appreciate the support of seasoned feminists in the pursuit of equality, both in the 1970s and today.

    I am thankful for all the women and men who are keeping the feminist revolution strong!

  16. I just watched a screening of this film and met Gloria Steinem at the Athena Film Festival in Manhattan this past weekend. She spoke in a discussion after the film and generously stayed afterwards to meet with people in the audience. This film re-inspired me. It reignited in me the desire to be part of the women’s movement again. I love Ms. Steinem’s fiery intelligence and passion for justice. And when she points to the need to get angry about injustices that still exist, you know she is right. I felt honored to meet her and and thank her personally for the difference she’s made in the lives of so many. And while she will not be around to see it, her influence will be felt for generations to come. It will never end.

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