Gloria Steinem Receives Top National Honor

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Presidential Medal of Freedom Ceremony at the White House

“I would be crazy,” said Ms. magazine cofounder Gloria Steinem at a National Press Club luncheon Monday in Washington, D.C., “if I didn’t understand that this was a medal for the entire women’s movement.”

The medal in question is the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which was bestowed by President Barack Obama on Steinem and 15 others today. Steinem was being honored for her leadership “in the women’s liberation movement,” the White House said, as well as for cofounding Ms. in 1972. The author of a number of books, including Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, she’s also an inspirational, widely traveled speaker and a founder of the Women’s Media Center.

Other recipients of today’s honors included the late astronaut Sally Ride (whose life partner Tam O’Shaughnessy accepted on her behalf), media mogul Oprah Winfrey, country singer Loretta Lynn and former president Bill Clinton. Here’s what Obama said before placing the medal around Steinem’s neck:

A trailblazing writer and feminist organizer, Gloria Steinem has been at the forefront of the fight for equality and social justice for more than four decades. Instrumental to a broad range of initiatives and issues, from establishing Ms. magazine and Take Our Daughters to Work Day, to pushing for women’s self-empowerment and an end to sex trafficking. She has promoted lasting political and social change in America and abroad.  Through her reporting and speaking, she has shaped debates on the intersection of sex and race, brought critical problems to national attention, and forged new opportunities for women in media. Gloria Steinem continues to move us all to take up the cause of reaching for a more just tomorrow.

None of the medal winners spoke at the awards ceremony. But speaking at the Press Club Monday was a homecoming of sorts for Steinem: She was the first woman to speak at a luncheon there, in 1971, after the club finally accepted its first women members. As a thank-you yesterday, she was given a mug, but as a thank-you gift more than 40 years ago she received a men’s tie. Steinem told yesterday’s crowd that she was dry-mouthed with nervous anticipation before that speech, but once she received the tie she “felt completely free to say outrageous things.”

Says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) and publisher of Ms. for the past 12 years,

Gloria has been instrumental in shaping the direction of the feminist movement for more than 40 years. I value my long and productive friendship with Gloria and look forward to many more. She is a beacon of feminist wisdom and strength.

Adds Ms. executive editor Katherine Spillar—who was with Steinem, Smeal and other honored guests on the Press Club dais—”We are thrilled to celebrate Gloria’s contributions to the advancement of women and girls. And we’re proud that Ms.—a vital forum for promoting feminist ideas and shining a bright spotlight on the injustices of sex discrimination in the U.S. and around the globe—remains a powerful force.”

After Steinem’s Press Club speech, she answered questions from the audience, one being what message she would like to impart to young women?” Here’s how she answered:

Don’t listen to me. Listen to yourself … People often ask me at this age [she turns 80 in March], ‘Who am I passing the torch to?’ First of all, I’m not giving up my torch, thank you! I’m using my torch to light other people’s torches. … If we each have a torch, there’s a lot more light.

For video of events surrounding the medal ceremonies, see here

Photo of Gloria Steinem about to receive medal from President Obama by Jenny Warburg.

 

About

Michele Kort is senior editor of Ms. She is the author of Soul Picnic: The Music and Passion of Laura Nyro and coeditor (with Audrey Bilger) of Here Come the Brides: Reflections on Lesbian Love and Marriage.