What Gloria Steinem Means to Me

6809844973_ff266631d6_zGloria Steinem, co-founding editor of Ms., turns 80 today. In honor of her birthday, we asked friends and colleagues of hers to answer this question: “What does Gloria mean to you?” Below, read touching stories of Gloria’s life and legacy from those who have loved, admired and learned from her over the last eight decades. Happy Birthday, Gloria!

In Jan. 1972, I resigned as editor of McCall’s and Gloria and I, as partners, began our search for financial backing for Ms. magazine. Even though the preview issue was selling out on newsstands, the usual investors in publications really did not want to talk to us—some thought that ‘everything had been said in that one issue,’ others thought it simply couldn’t find a ‘national  audience.’

Finally, we had an appointment to meet with the CEO of a major media company. He offered to invest $1.5 million and wanted to control more than a third of the company. He gave Gloria and me (and the friend/advisor we had invited) some privacy to think about his offer but wanted an answer right away.  We knew that the credibility of Ms. would depend on its being owned and controlled by women and that his offer was not going to guarantee that if we needed a second round of funding.

When the CEO came back to the table, Gloria and I thanked him and explained why we had to refuse  his offer that could have made the launch of Ms. a reality.  And although he seemed stunned, he walked us to the elevator. On the sidewalk, Gloria and I had to borrow cab fare from our friend.

That moment together in the crucible confirmed everything I had discerned about Gloria: she is absolutely  principled, unselfish, trustworthy  and a major risk-taker in the cause of advancing equality.

More than four decades later, I treasure our relationship and salute her on her 80th Birthday.

Pat Carbine, co-founder of Ms.

Sometimes in a college lecture hall there would be thousands and thousands of people … and sometimes in smaller groups there would be a woman with a crying baby in the back of the room. Gloria would say, ‘Would the woman with the crying baby please stay.’ And everybody applauded, and everybody got teary-eyed. It was an era when women were always told, ‘You can’t have your child misbehave’ and she would have left the room. [Gloria’s remark] exemplified the inclusive[ness], generosity and genuineness of Gloria that she always exhibited.”

Karin LippertMs. promotion director, 1972-1981

What does Gloria mean to me? Oh my. So many wonderful things. She is, I am either happy or sad to say, not all that many years ahead of me in birthdays. And we seem to have arrived at the moment of liberation (or, wishful-thinking liberation) at around the same time and in the same place: 1969-70, New York City, coordinates of truth that changed all our lives.

I was at The Associated Press, a young, energetic reporter; she, of course was the woman to be reported on. The woman who embodied and helped lead the path to our new world. Early on, I was assigned to write a profile of Gloria—which led … to an evening in Washington, D.C., when the party lasted so long we wound up sharing a friend’s kid’s bedroom. Gloria slept in the bottom of stacked bunk beds, I on the top. No kidding.

Fast forward to 1983, when Sally Ride flew into the sky to change forever the image of woman in space. Sally’s mom, Joyce Ride, asked to comment on the change of history that had sent her daughter to the heavens, said it for all of us:  ‘God Bless Gloria Steinem!’

Yup.

Lynn Sherr, ABC News reporter (Her forthcoming book, Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space, will be published in June by Simon & Schuster).

Gloria taught me, through kind words and powerful (though often unheralded) actions, what it means to be an effective feminist organizer. She taught me that any organizing effort must be informed and led by the people most impacted, with allies asking what they can do to help and doing it without seeking the spotlight. She’s instilled in me the truth that we are linked not ranked; all oppressions must be attacked at the same time and with the same intensity in a true revolution. I’ve watched her lead countless brainstorm sessions over the years, edit books and documents, help people fundraise and make connections, sometimes lending her name to the work if it helps and handing it over without any qualms if it does not. She’s shown me that the end goal of feminist organizing is action and the most important thing we can do is help others do the work however we can.

Shelby Knox, feminist organizer, Change.org

I’ve known Gloria since 1952 when we lived together in Laura Scales House at Smith. Later, I worked for her at Ms. for 8 years.  There have been many memorable moments during those years but the one I remember most strongly happened when we were seniors at Smith.  I was having trouble sleeping during my final exams and one night I went to Gloria’s room when I couldn’t fall asleep.  She gave me a wonderful back rub and when I fell asleep in her bed, she went to my room and slept there for the night.

Phyllis Rosser, Ms. contributing editor, 1973-1988

[While talking with Gloria after a speech she gave in India] I told her something that I was struggling with. It was a question about what to do when racism from whites enters the homes of families of color. I asked her this question because I knew that as a white woman she fought against racism in the U.S. and I wondered what she would say about the toxicity of racism when it permeated our homes not just institutions.

She looked me in the eye and said, ‘Bring a friend to witness it. Then write about it. I would read it if you did.’

She went on to share some anecdotes about her own family. We kept nodding our heads at each other in empathy. … I kept thinking about the possibility of her reading something I would write about racism, feminism, and families.

My conversation with Gloria Steinem was what I had always dreamed it would be. I realized that what I had wanted all along was a big sister moment. … Perhaps this is what all young feminists want from their older sisters.

Ileana Jimenez, N.Y. high school teacher who works with young feminists

It was, of course, Gloria who explained why I should care about the women’s movement. She sent me in her place to make speeches she was too busy to make and I learned how to do that. I wish I could say I took advantage of all the opportunities she offered, but I am so grateful for the ones I did follow. She has never, ever failed to be there for me if I needed her, but for the last three decades or so, after I moved to Vermont, I was not as much in touch because, after all, the world’s women needed her more and she was very famous and busy and I was just gardening and wondering  how to cure writer’s block. I regret that distance. I have seen more of her lately, and she isn’t Famous Person. She is just Gloria, smarter than most, kinder than most, a survivor of life’s blows perhaps more than most, true to her calling. I, too, hope she lives to be 100. And takes me along with her, as she has so often.

My permanent picture of Gloria Steinem is this: She is standing at some kind or party or reception, listening very intently to one person, and she reaches into her purse to pull out a notebook and a pen and she writes down an email address and the category of connection the person might need, and I know that person has just had her life changed for the better.

Jane O’ReillyMs. writer (famously the author of “The Housewife’s Moment of Truth” in the magazine’s first issue)

In the early days of Ms., some of us editors travelled with Gloria for a day or two when she went out to speak. What a great idea that was. Experiencing the reaction of the women who heard Gloria was eye-opening and powerful. They were visibly touched and inspired. Her words and presence seemed literally transformative for them. And so it was for me. It was one thing to work on the magazine and contemplate feminism in terms of trying to assign interesting articles and quite another to experience the power of her message on rooms full of women. There were the people I was working for.

—Mary Peacock, co-founder of Ms.

In the summer between my freshman and junior years of high school, Ms. magazine published its first issue … It was the same year I had an unfortunate hair-bleaching accident trying to streak my hair to look like Gloria’s. (A large blotch near the part gave mine a less-than-cool look.)

Eleven years later, I got a job at Ms. as an editorial assistant–an unbelievable stroke of luck. I mean, who gets to work with their heroes? … Late one day at Ms., she asked me if I would like to accompany her to a speaking engagement at Rutgers University. It meant sitting in the backseat of a hired car with my idol for an hour, each way. Gloria made a point of doing this with junior staff, and it was my turn.

I remember how funny her speech was, though not exactly what she said. I remember her surrounded by young women after delivering her remarks, watching her listen as each one stated a concern, pitched an idea, or bubbled over with testimony of her love for Gloria, who stayed until each one said her piece, and she herself had responded.

Thirty years later, at the National Press Club, I saw her do it again, at a speech she delivered on the day before President Obama bestowed the Presidential Medal of Freedom upon her. There she addressed the notion of ‘passing the torch’ by saying she wasn’t about to give up her torch.

‘I’m using my torch to light other people’s torches,’ she said. ‘Because the idea that there’s one torch-passer is part of the bonkers hierarchical idea—and if we each have a torch, there’s a lot more light.’

She certainly lit mine. Happy birthday, Gloria!

—Adele M. Stan, former editor at and contributor to Ms. (1983-1996); current senior Washington correspondent for RH Reality Check

In the 43 years since I first met her, people have been asking me ‘What is Gloria Steinem REALLY like?’  They can’t believe she is as warm and caring as she appears. The truth is, beyond her stature as a public intellectual and iconic feminist leader, with Gloria, what you see is what you get. Whip-smart, an original thinker, an indefatigable activist, gifted writer, quick wit, snazzy dancer, and a great beauty, she somehow remains genuinely self-effacing and devoid of the corrosive ego that often accompanies great fame.  It means a lot to me that Gloria is the real thing, through and through, in or out of the spotlight.

Above all, she’s a world-class friend. One recent example:  When my latest book, How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick, was published last year, I was scheduled to give a talk in San Francisco and. Afraid that my subject would not pull a crowd without some star power, I asked Gloria if she would be my interviewer.  She said yes (of course, since she is the most giving human being on the planet). But it turns out that this ‘yes’ required friendship beyond the call of duty.  Only when we met up in San Francisco an hour before the event did I learn of the grueling trip she’d undertaken in order to come and make me look good. She had just flown in from London where she had spoken the night before at a major international festival; and right after my event, she was taking the red-eye to New York in time to be the keynoter at a huge fundraiser the next night.

Thousands of women have similar stories of being on the receiving end of Gloria Steinem’s unstinting support and unselfish love.  Because that’s who she is.  REALLY.

For all that wonderfulness, I’m not saying she’s perfect.  She does have one flaw: she never learned to drive.

—Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-founder of Ms.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Marnie Joyce licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

About

Stephanie hails from Toronto, Canada. She is a Ms. writer, a Master of Journalism candidate and a hip hop dancer/instructor/choreographer. She got her start in feminist journalism at the age of 16 when she was a member of the first editorial collective at Shameless magazine—and she has never looked back.