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Gloria Steinem

Date of birth : 1934-03-25
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Toledo, Ohio, USA
Nationality : American
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-07-14

Gloria Marie Steinem (born March 25, 1934 in Toledo, Ohio, USA) is an American feminist, journalist, and social and political activist who became nationally recognized as a leader of, and media spokeswoman for, the Women's Liberation Movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. A prominent writer and political figure, Steinem has founded many organizations and projects and has been the recipient of many awards and honors. She helped found the New York magazine in the 1960s and also worked there as a columnist. In 1969, she published an article, "After Black Power, Women's Liberation" which, along with her early support of abortion rights, catapulted her to national fame as a feminist leader. She continues to involve herself in politics and media affairs as a commentator, writer, lecturer, and organizer, campaigning for candidates and reforms and publishing books and articles.

"Sidelights"

Gloria Steinem is recognized as one of the foremost organizers of the modern women's movement. Her major contribution, according to Maureen Corrigan in the New York Times Book Review, is "her ability to popularize feminist issues to a wide and often wary audience." Her grandmother, Pauline Steinem, was the president of a turn-of-the-century women's suffrage group and was a representative to the 1908 International Council of Women, but Gloria was not substantially influenced by her while growing up in Toledo, Ohio. Her mother and father divorced when she was young, and at the age of ten Gloria was left alone to care for both herself and her mentally ill mother.

Steinem left home when she was seventeen to attend Smith College on a scholarship. Like many women of the era, she was engaged by her senior year but broke her engagement to continue her political science studies in India, where she had adjusted quickly, adopting native dress and ways. Because English served as the common language, she was "able to really talk, and tell jokes, and understand political arguments," she told Miriam Berkley in an interview for Publishers Weekly. Steinem was also able to freelance for Indian newspapers. She supplemented her university studies by seeking out the company of the activists who were then working for an independent India. As a member of a group called the Radical Humanists, she traveled to southern India at the time of the terrible caste riots there, working as a member of a peacemaking team. Steinem's experiences gave her a deep sympathy for the underclasses as well as an enduring love of India.

When the time came for her to return to the United States, Steinem did so filled with an "enormous sense of urgency about the contrast between wealth and poverty," she told Berkley. Because she "rarely met people who had shared this experience," Steinem related, it became "like a dream. It had no relation to my real, everyday life.... I couldn't write about it." Instead, Steinem established a successful freelance career, writing articles about celebrities, fashions, and tropical vacations, while devoting her spare time to work for the civil rights movement. Berkley described Steinem's life in the early 1960s as "schizophrenically split between career and conscience." "I was... divided up into pieces as a person," the author told Elisabeth Bumiller in the Washington Post. "I was working on one thing, and caring about another, which I think is the way a lot of us have to live our lives. I'm lucky it came together."

Steinem's best-known article from her early career is "I Was a Playboy Bunny." Assigned to cover the 1963 opening of the New York City Playboy Club for Show magazine, she went undercover to work as a "Bunny," or waitress, for two weeks. The resulting article is an "excellent, ironic, illuminating bit of reporting," claimed Angela Carter in the Washington Post Book Review. Steinem was instructed by the "Bunny Mother" in techniques for stuffing her bodice and bending over to serve drinks, cautioned against sneezing, which would split the seams of her Bunny costume, presented with a copy of the "Bunny Bible," the lengthy code of conduct for Playboy waitresses, and informed that all new Bunnies were required to have a pelvic examination performed by the club's specially appointed doctor. "I Was a Playboy Bunny" is "hysterically funny," according to Ann Marie Lapinski in the Chicago Tribune. It is also as "full of feminist consciousness as some of [Steinem's] later reportage," argued Carter, who commented: "If it is implicit rather than explicit, it is no less powerful for that." Of her experiences in the club, Steinem remarked to Los Angeles Times interviewer Elenita Ravicz, "Being a Bunny was more humiliating than I thought it would be. True, it was never the kind of job I would have considered under ordinary circumstances, but I expected it to be more glamorous and better paid than it was.... Customers there seemed to be there because they could be treated as superiors.... There is a real power difference when one group is semi-nude and the other is fully-clothed."

By the mid-sixties Steinem was getting more substantial writing assignments and earning respect for her pieces on political figures. In 1968 she and Clay Felker founded New York magazine, to which Steinem supplied the monthly column "The City Politic" and articles such as "Ho Chi Minh in New York." She was still seen as something of a trendy celebrity by many in the male-dominated world of journalism, however. Bumiller quoted a 1969 Time article describing Steinem as "one of the best dates to take to a New York party these days.... Writers, politicians, editors, publishers and tuned-in businessmen are all intensely curious about her. Gloria is not only a successful freelance writer and contributing editor of New York magazine; she is also a trim, undeniably female, blonde-streaked brunette.... She does something for her soft suits and clinging dresses, has legs worthy of her miniskirts, and a brain that keeps conversation lively without getting tricky." Steinem's popularity in such social circles soon waned, however, because of her growing interest in controversial women's issues.

Colleague reaction to a 1969 article she wrote about a New York abortion hearing shocked Steinem. At the hearing Steinem heard testimony from women who had endured illegal abortions, risking injury, possibly ending in sterilization, and sometimes being forced to have sex with the abortionist. She told Ravicz, "I wrote an article about the hearing and my male colleagues, really nice men I got along well with, took me aside one by one and said, 'don't get involved with these crazy women. You've taken so much trouble to establish your reputation as a serious journalist, don't throw it all away.' That was when I realized men valued me only to the extent I imitated them." Instead of abandoning the "crazy women" of the abortion hearing, Steinem followed up her coverage with an extensively researched article on reproductivity and other feminist issues. Her article "After Black Power, Women's Liberation" won her the Penney-Missouri journalism award, but also "unleashed a storm of negative reactions... from male colleagues. The response from the publishing establishment, and its reluctance to publish other work on the subject, opened her eyes. She began to pursue not only writing but also speaking engagements and became an active part of the women's movement she had once only observed," related Berkley.

Steinem came to believe that a magazine controlled by women was necessary if a truly open forum on women's issues was to exist. Accordingly, she and others began working toward that goal. Felker offered to subsidize a sample issue and to include a thirty-page excerpt of the new publication in New York magazine. Steinem and the rest of the staff worked without pay and produced the first issue of Ms. in January, 1972. "We called it the spring issue," Steinem recalled to Berkley. "We were really afraid that if it didn't sell it would embarrass the women's movement. So we called it Spring so that it could lie there on the newsstands for a long time." Such worries were unfounded--the entire 300,000-copy run of Ms. sold out in eight days.

Steinem was suddenly the editor of a very successful monthly magazine, but was somewhat ambivalent about the position: "I backed into [starting Ms.]," she admitted to Beth Austin in an interview for the Chicago Tribune. "I felt very strongly there should be a feminist magazine. But I didn't want to start it myself. I wanted to be a freelance writer. I'd never had a job, never worked in an office, never worked with a group before. It just happened." Steinem believed that she would turn the editorship of Ms. over to someone else as soon as the magazine was squarely on its feet. "I said, 'I'm going to do this two years, that's it.' I kept on saying that until... I'd already been doing it for almost seven years. Then I took a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Center, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington [D.C.]. So I was away from the office for the first time for substantial periods of time.... I just missed it terribly. And I suddenly realized that, where I thought I'd been delaying life, there was life."

As a spokesperson for the women's movement, Steinem has been criticized as subversive and strident by some and as overly tolerant and conservative by others. An overview of the opinions that made her a figurehead of the Woman's Movement during the 1980s is published as Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, a collection representing twenty years of Steinem's writing on a variety of subjects, including politics, pornography, her mother, and Marilyn Monroe. Carter criticized the book, complaining that Steinem presents only "the acceptable face of feminism" and that she is "straightjacketed by her own ideology." Diane Johnson offered a more favorable appraisal in the New York Times Book Review: "Reading Miss Steinem's essays... one is struck by their intelligence, restraint and common sense, as well as by the energetic and involved life they reflect.... This is a consciousness-raising book.... Her views, like her writing itself, are characterized by engaging qualities of unpretentious clarity and forceful expression." Douglas Hill wrote in the Toronto Globe & Mail: "Honesty, fairness and consistency gleam in these pages. And Steinem writes superbly.... It's her special strength to write as cleanly and affectingly about her mother's mental illness as about the practice of genital mutilation endured by 75 million women worldwide or the inadequacies of William Styron's fiction."

Steinem's next book grew from an essay in Outrageous Acts concerning Marilyn Monroe, the actress who became internationally famous as a "sex goddess" in the 1950s and apparently committed suicide in 1962. When photojournalist George Barris decided to publish a series of photographs taken of Monroe shortly before her death, Steinem was asked to contribute the text. While researching Marilyn: Norma Jeane, she became aware that although over forty books had already been published about the late film star, only a few were written by women. Most of the biographies focused on the scandalous aspects of Monroe's death and personal relationships, or reinforced her image as the ultimate pin-up. Steinem explained to Washington Post interviewer Chip Brown: "I tried to take away the fantasy of Marilyn and replace it with reality.... The book doesn't have a thesis so much as an emphasis--an emphasis on Norma Jeane, on the private, real, internal person. I hadn't read a book about Marilyn that made me feel I knew her. My purpose was to try to get to know or to portray the real person inside the public image." Commenting on the ironic fact that Monroe derived little pleasure from her physical relationships, Steinem suggested to Brown that "it's hard for men to admit that a sex goddess didn't enjoy sex.... It's part of the desire to believe she was murdered--the same cultural impulse that says if she's a sex goddess she had to have enjoyed sex doesn't want to believe she killed herself, doesn't want to accept her unhappiness."

Brown saw Steinem's Marilyn as a feminist rebuttal to Norman Mailer's biography of Monroe: "His book is an extravagant concerto for the 'Stradivarius of sex.' Monroe is the supreme object.... [Steinem] stresses the limited choices women had then--and underscores Monroe's struggle for independence, her desire to be taken seriously." London Times reviewer Fiona MacCarthy found fault with Steinem's "passionate involvement with the helpless child in Marilyn," believing that it is an example of "the new phenomenon of women letting women off too lightly.... Her sentimental vision of the real Marilyn entrapped in the sex-goddess body sometimes makes one wonder where is now the Gloria Steinem who worked on the campaign trail in the 1960s both as a reporter and an aide to George McGovern. Has she lost all astuteness?" But Diana Trilling argued that Marilyn: Norma Jeane is "thoughtful and absorbing." Her New York Times Book Review evaluation called the biography "a quiet book; it has none of the sensationalism that has colored other purportedly serious books about the film star, Norman Mailer's in particular.... In writing about Marilyn Monroe, Gloria Steinem for the most part admirably avoids the ideological excess that we have come to associate with the women's movement--Monroe emerges from her book a far more dimensional figure than she would have been if she had been presented as simply the victim of a male-dominated society."

Bumiller summarized Steinem's view of the woman's movement in an interview in the Washington Post: "it's not dead or even sick, but has instead spread out from the middle class to be integrated into issues like unemployment and the gender gap. [Steinem] sees four enormous goals ahead: 'reproductive freedom, democratic families, a depoliticized culture and work redefined.... We are talking about overthrowing, or humanizing--pick your verb, depending on how patient you feel--the sex and race caste systems.'" As the task of meeting these goals was engaged by a new generation of feminists, Steinem turned her energies, and her focus, inward. "I've lived my first 50 years externally, reacting more than acting," she told Molly O'Neill in an interview for the New York Times in the year she turned sixty. "I've been much too nice." Steinem's study of her own life became the subject of 1992's Revolution from Within, an introspective, circular exploration of the ways in which self-esteem affects everything: handwriting, body language, family relationships, the American system of public education, and world economic policies. Basing her comments on insights drawn from her personal self-exploration as well as her own belief in learning from nature, Steinem provides readers with a "Meditation Guide," suggests means for them to discover and understand their own "inner child," and includes an appendix of self-help books under the heading "Bibliotherapy."

Revolution from Within received a reaction from feminist circles. "How can it be," questioned Carol Sternhell in Women's Review of Books, "after so many years of trying to change the world, that one of our best-known feminists is suddenly advising women to change ourselves instead?" Steinem's focus on self-esteem appeared to many mainstream reviewers to be an attempt to jump aboard the pop-psychology bandwagon, and Revolution from Within's rapid climb to the top of the best-seller lists seemed to bear them out. Feminist critics, however, feared that the book was much more: a sign that this figurehead of the woman's movement had "sold out." Critic Joseph Adelson assured readers that Steinem's "old externalizing mentality is still there, powerful as ever," in his review of Revolution from Within for Commentary. But, he later noted, "anyone expecting coherent discourse may find much of this book unreadable. It rambles from topic to topic, a mishmash of pseudo-profundities, dubious information, and half-baked opinions." Mary Beard was similarly critical of the work in the Times Literary Supplement: "Following in all the worst traditions of popular psychology and self-help manuals, [Steinem] identifies the malaise at the heart of the modern human condition as childhood injury... a claim that is so obviously true that it hardly requires the three-hundred page demonstration that she gives it."

Critics viewed Steinem's next book, Moving beyond Words, in a more positive light. Published in 1993, Moving beyond Words is a collection of essays--three previously published and three new--that, as Maureen Corrigan contended in the New York Times Book Review, demonstrate "that what appears to be 'natural' is, in fact, socially constructed." In one of the book's examples, "What If Freud Were Phyllis?," Steinem performs a fictional sex-change operation on the noted psychotherapist that results in theories of "womb envy" and the like, dramatizing her contention that the basis of many of the late doctor's assumptions lies couched in male superiority. "More than any other brief text I have read, this essay simply revokes, cancels and terminates the reader's ability to take gender inequity for granted," concluded Patricia Limerick in her review for the Washington Post. The essay "Sex, Lies and Advertising" takes to task the manipulative practices of magazine advertising, a concern of Steinem's that resulted in Ms. magazine's decision to eliminate advertising from its pages in 1990. "Doing Sixty" draws its insights from Steinem's personal exploration of self--similarly recounted in Revolution from Within--in its celebration of age as a time to give oneself permission to take risks with fewer worries about social repercussions. In "The Masculinization of Wealth," Steinem contends that wealthy women--who are resented by society and abused by members of their own families to such a point that, even with great financial resources, they are powerless in society--are as much victims of patriarchy as their poorer female counterparts. While also praising the work as a whole, Limerick found that Steinem fails to adequately address the inequities involved when racial discrimination is coupled with gender discrimination. Limerick declared: "I wanted a chapter on feminism, race and poverty that equalled in power and persuasion the essay on feminism and wealth." Limerick ultimately concluded: "The pleasures and satisfactions of 'being who we really are' prove to be as unequally distributed as income and opportunity.... I cannot read [these closing remarks] without thinking that this book, at its end, takes an unexpected turn back to a protected world of white, middle-class privilege and choice." Moving beyond Words, found Susan Cheever in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "is a book that spells out, over and over, the many different direct and subtle ways in which women are reduced to powerlessness in our world."

As the women's movement moves into what many call its second wave, marked by dissent among its ranks and what fellow feminist and author Susan Faludi has termed a social "backlash" in her 1991 book of the same name, Steinem remains positive about the future of feminism. "The first wave was about women gaining a legal identity," she told O'Neill, "and it took 150 years. The second wave of feminism is about social equality. We've come a long way, but it's only been 25 years.... Women used to say, 'I am not a feminist, but....' Now they say, 'I am a feminist, but....'"

PERSONAL INFORMATION

Born March 25, 1934, in Toledo, OH; daughter of Leo and Ruth (Nuneviller) Steinem. Education: Smith College, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1956; University of Delhi and University of Calcutta (India), graduate study, 1957- 58. Memberships: PEN, National Press Club, Society of Magazine Writers, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, National Organization for Women, Women's Action Alliance (cofounder; chairperson, 1970--), National Women's Political Caucus (founding member; member of national advisory committee, 1971--), Ms. Foundation for Women (cofounder; member of board, 1972--), Coalition of Labor Union Women (founding member, 1974), Phi Beta Kappa.

AWARDS

Chester Bowles Asian fellow in India, 1957-58; Penney-Missouri journalism award, 1970, for New York article "After Black Power, Women's Liberation"; Ohio Governor's journalism award, 1972; named Woman of the Year, McCall's magazine, 1972; Doctorate of Human Justice from Simmons College, 1973; Bill of Rights award, American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, 1975; Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars fellow, 1977; Ceres Medal from United Nations; Front Page Award; Clarion Award; nine citations from World Almanac as one of the twenty-five most influential women in America; PEN Center West Literary Award of Honor, 2002.

CAREER

Editor, writer, lecturer. Independent Research Service, Cambridge, MA, and New York, NY, director, 1959-60; Glamour magazine, New York, NY, contributing editor, 1962-69; New York magazine, New York, NY, cofounder and contributing editor, 1968-72; Ms. magazine, New York, NY, cofounder and editor, 1972-87, columnist, 1980-87, consulting editor, 1988--. Contributing correspondent to Today show, National Broadcasting Company, Inc. (NBC). Active in civil rights and peace campaigns, including those of United Farm Workers, Vietnam War, Tax Protest, and Committee for the Legal Defense of Angela Davis. Editorial consultant to Conde Nast Publications, 1962-69, Curtis Publishing, 1964-65, Random House Publishing, 1988--, and McCall Publishing.

WRITINGS:

* The Thousand Indias, Government of India, 1957.
* The Beach Book, Viking (New York, NY), 1963.
* (With G. Chester) Wonder Woman, Holt (New York, NY), 1972.
* Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Holt (New York, NY), 1983.
* Marilyn: Norma Jeane, Holt (New York, NY), 1986.
* Bedside Book of Self-Esteem, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1989.
* Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1992.
* Moving beyond Words, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.
* (Editor, with others) The Reader's Companion to U.S. Women's History, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1998.

AUTHOR OF INTRODUCTION OR FOREWORD

* Marlo Thomas and others, Free to Be... You and Me, McGraw (New York, NY), 1974.
* Lois Beachy Underhill, The Woman Who Ran for President: The Many Lives of Victoria Woodhull, Bridge Works Publishing Company (Bridgehampton, NY), 1995.
* Bonnie Watkins, editor, In the Company of Women: Voices from the Women's Movement, Minnesota Historical Society Press (Saint Paul, MN), 1996.
* Gail Hanlon, editor, Voicing Power: Conversations with Visionary Women, Westview Press (Boulder, CO), 1997.
* Marilyn Waring, Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women Are Worth, University of Toronto Press (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.
* Eve Ensler, The Vagina Monologues, Dramatists Play Service (New York, NY), 2000.
* Angela Bonavoglia, editor, Choices We Made: Twenty-five Women and Men Speak Out about Abortion, Avalon Publishing Group (New York, NY), 2001.
* Steve Neal, editor, Eleanor and Harry: The Correspondence of Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 2003.
* Helen Hunt, Faith and Feminism: A Holy Alliance, Atria Books (New York, NY), 2004.

OTHER

* Contributor to Runn ing against the Machine, edited by Peter Manso, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1969. Writer for television, including series "That Was the Week that Was," NBC, 1964-65. Author of films and political campaign material. Former author of column, "The City Politic," in New York. Contributor to periodicals, including Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Family Circle, Life, Show, and Vogue. Editorial consultant, Seventeen, 1969-70, and Show.

MEDIA ADAPTATIONS

"I Was a Playboy Bunny" was produced as an American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (ABC) television movie, A Bunny's Tale, 1985.


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