Gloria Steinem turns 81 today and much has changed since her early days in the movement. As she points out, before the the second wave, people assumed differences between men and women were innate and unchangeable and, therefore, that gender roles were biological as opposed to learned. We now know that inequality isn’t “natural,” which is “a huge change,” she says. There is more: reproductive rights (still under attack in many places), laws against sexual harassment, equal pay legislation (which clearly has still not fully resolved income inequality), the Civil Rights Act in the U.S., marital rape laws, and the idea that the personal is political. The roots of our ongoing fight against the sex industry lie with the second wave. We are indebted to our sisters, Gloria included, and there is so much I have learned and continue to learn from all of them.
I don’t think we have — or even need — “leaders” in the way we used to, in the feminist movement. We have women who speak for the movement and represent us in the pubic realm, still (which is important and will always be the case), but there is no “face of feminism,” nor do I think there should be. Despite Gloria’s “Famous Person” rep, told over and over again that she defines The Movement (which, undoubtedly, the media appreciated, as she was what they call “photogenic”), I do think there is something to be said for the way in which she, by all accounts, she was extremely generous and humble, mentoring numerous women and “sharing the torch” (rather than passing it) with as many as she could. She is, truly, about the sisterhood, crediting black women as the creators of the feminist movement, supporting and politicizing women at every chance she has. “Feminism has never been about getting a job for one woman,” she wrote in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, “It’s about making life more fair for women everywhere.” Gloria knows white middle class women did not invent feminism and are not the only ones in this struggle — not nearly — regardless of how the media chooses to represent our roots and our fight.
She says in an interview with Stacey Tisdale at Black Enterprise:
I realize that things being what they are, probably the white middle-class part of the movement got reported more. But if you look at the numbers and the very first poll of women thinking about responding on women’s issues, African-American women were twice as likely to support feminism and feminist issues as White women.
Gloria continues to be brave and bold in her support of women, allying with friend and Indian activist Ruchira Gupta, founder and president of the organization Apne Aap Women Worldwide, to advocate for the Nordic model despite the fact that most young, American, liberal feminists (who likely look up to her a great deal) cannot bring themselves to speak out against the sex industry, for fear of ostracization and being blackballed.
Despite the fact that I often feel depressed at the state of the movement, Steinem obviously has more to look back on and more direct experience than I. She’s said she’s “encouraged” at the direction the movement has taken today.
I see humor and hopefulness. This generation just has better s— detectors than we did. Women get more activist as they get older, unlike men. It’s probably that women have to experience bias before they get totally activated.
But one of my favorite things about Gloria is that she seems human… I realize that sounds an odd thing to say — isn’t the whole point of feminism that women are human? What I mean is that we expect a lot from our leaders… We look for flaws, we seem to want them to fuck up, to do something Not Feminist so that we can write them off or take them down a notch. I think it makes us — as feminists — afraid to be human, to be ourselves, to be “regular women,” living in and impacted by this culture just like everyone else. But Gloria insists on being human, admitting that, of course, she (like many women) had “enjoy[ed] the male gaze” and even once had minor cosmetic surgery, telling TIME magazine:
When I was hosting the Today show, I had a little fat removed from above my eyes so I didn’t look like Mao Zedong and I could wear my contacts. It looked worse afterward. It was a good warning not to do anything else.
Ms. magazine published a tribute to her today, online, asking friends and colleagues to say what Gloria means and has meant to them. Among the many inspiring stories about strength and activism and movement-building, there is a whole lot of humanity.
“She is just Gloria, smarter than most, kinder than most, a survivor of life’s blows perhaps more than most, true to her calling,” said Jane O’Reilly, who contributed an essay to the very first issue of Ms. Magazine, back in 1971.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, co-founder of Ms., said:
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.
It makes sense, then, that Gloria famously said, “Empathy is the most radical of human emotions.”
And how could any of us be a part of this movement without deep empathy for one another — for women, as a whole? We forget, from time to time, to remember one another’s humanity, attacking and tearing down sisters for their missteps. Sometimes when we disagree, we write one another off. But I think Gloria is a powerful reminder we are all human and that what we can expect (and should accept) from one another is just that: humanity, empathy, consideration, and yes, even kindness. I’ll do my best.
Happy birthday, sister!