Gloria Steinem was born in 1934, the daughter of a traveling salesman and the granddaughter of activist Pauline Steinem. Pauline was chairwoman to the educational committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association, a delegate to the 1908 International Council of Women, and the first woman to be elected to the Toledo Board of Education. She was also known to have rescued several German family members from the Holocaust. Now herself recognized as a prominent American feminist, activist, and journalist, Gloria was inspired by stories of her grandmother, but also by the experiences of her mother, who was mentally ill, and who suffered from a “nervous breakdown.” As an adult, Gloria described caring for her mother and experiences with dismissive doctors as having been key to her understanding of injustice toward women.
Because of her father’s itinerant vocation, she traveled often and did not attend school regularly until she was eleven years old. Steinem eventually attended Smith College and, afterward, received a fellowship to study in India, where she was influenced by Gandhi’s approach to activism. Upon returning to the United States, Gloria worked as a freelance writer for publications like Esquire, Cosmopolitan, and The New York Times magazine. For one of her most famous early articles, Steinem went undercover as a scantily clad waitress (or a “bunny”, as they were called) at New York City’s Playboy Club. Published in Show magazine, the piece exposed the sexism rampant in Playboy and male-dominated social circles. In 1968, she helped create New York magazine and wrote a recurring political column for the publication. Her articles, including those on abortion, a radical feminist group called the Redstockings, and essays like “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” reflected her growing feminist views. She campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. In 1971, she joined 300 other women, including prominent female leaders like Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisholm, Betty Friedan, and Myrlie Evers-Williams to form the still-active National Women’s Political Caucus, which works to advance pro-equality candidates in elected and appointed offices at the state and national level.
In 1972, Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine, where she worked as an editor for fifteen years. The magazine began as an insert in New York magazine and it shortly grew into its own publication. She pushed for the magazine to join and be published by the Feminist Majority Foundation and still serves as a consulting editor. There were times when Steinem’s position in the feminist movement was challenged because she portrayed a glamorous image, though she was undeterred by the criticisms. In 1972, Gloria also became the first woman to speak at the National Press Club.
In 1986 and at 50 years old, she publicly battled breast cancer but saw it as a sign that she should focus her activism where it was sincerely needed—in order to prevent burnout. You would hardly know, as that same year she published a book about Marilyn Monroe called Marilyn: Norma Jean. This is one of many books that Steinem has written, with others including My Life on the Road, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, and Moving Beyond Words: Age, Rage, Sex, Power, Money, Muscles: Breaking the Boundaries of Gender. Her writing also appears in anthologies and textbooks, and she was an editor of Houghton Mifflin’s The Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History.
Steinem worked with Robin Morgan and Jane Fonda to found the Women’s Media Center in 2004, which works “to make women visible and powerful in the media.” She also co-founded Voters for Choice, a pro-choice political action committee, and serves on the board of URGE, a national organization that fosters young pro-choice leadership and promotes responsible sex education in schools. Steinem also began the Ms. Foundation for Women, which works on grassroots programs that empower women and girls and she founded “Take Our Daughters to Work Day”, a tradition that has spread across the world.
Throughout her often controversial career, Gloria has remained steadfast in the idea of equal rights for women. As she told the New York Daily News, “We’ve demonstrated that women can do what men do, but not yet that men can do what women do. That’s why most women have two jobs—one inside the home and one outside it—which is impossible. The truth is that women can’t be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.”
Gloria Steinem has been the subject of both books and documentaries, including HBO’s “Gloria: In Her Own Words”, the PBS documentary series, “MAKERS”, and the biography, The Education of a Woman. In the book, Particular Passions: Talks With Women Who Have Shaped Our Times, she said, ”I think the fact that I’ve become a symbol for the women’s movement is somewhat accidental. A woman member of Congress, for example, might be identified as a member of Congress; it doesn’t mean she’s any less of a feminist but she’s identified by her nearest male analog. Well, I don’t have a male analog so the press has to identify me with the movement. I suppose I could be referred to as a journalist, but because Ms. is part of a movement and not just a typical magazine, I’m more likely to be identified with the movement. There’s no other slot to put me in.”
Throughout the years, Steinem has been the recipient of an impressive number of awards, including the Clarion Award, Equality Now’s International Human Rights Award, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Liberty Award, the National Gay Rights Advocate Award, the Penney-Missouri Journalism Award, the United Nations’ Ceres Medal and Society of Writers Award. In 2013, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2014, Rutgers University created the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair, which funds teaching and research for an individual –man or woman—who exemplifies Steinem’s values of equal representation in media.
Gloria was an honorary co-chair and speaker for the Women’s March on Washington in 2017 and is a current advisor to TIME’S UP, a movement against sexual harassment. For all of these reasons, we consider Gloria Steinem one of our #womenwhoinspire.
Lead image credit: Encylopedia Britannica