Polls shows interpretations of what being a feminist means vary across age groups today, but the fact that the conversation continues likely pleases the person who did much to raise the nation’s consciousness about the issue.
Contributor Lee Cullum reflects on Gloria Steinem.
When the story is told of American women in the 20th century, three names will stand out: Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger and Gloria Steinem, who’s still in action, with a new memoir and lengthy articles on her in the New Yorker and the New York Times.
What becomes clear in this reading about the most dazzling of all suffragettes, suffused with style, charm and merciless wit, is how unglamorous much of her work has been, how arduous the effort, for almost 50 years in the trenches of social revolution.
It was a profound and profoundly subtle movement she led. Anthony fought for the right of women to vote and Sanger for their right to contraception which she was known to conflate with regrettable ethnic slurs. But it was Steinem who established their right to work, earn, advance and pursue lives theretofore available only to men. Where her predecessors had been highly specific in their demands, Steinem was sweeping in hers. What she sought was a change in human relations. “And when human relations change,” wrote Virginia Woolf, “there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature.”
I have introduced Gloria Steinem a couple of times when she has appeared in Dallas, but I first met her at the very beginning of her fantastic flight to the center of national consciousness, raised forever whether ready or not. While reporting for Newsroom, a program on KERA, I found out that Steinem was coming to speak at TCU. What’s more, she would be arriving on the same plane from New York that I was taking. So a film crew from Channel 13 was stationed that day at the gate, waiting, on the hope I could spot Gloria Steinem and ask her to do an interview.
It turned out to be far simpler than expected. I was in an aisle seat and, shortly before takeoff, who should ease over me to the spot by the window than Steinem herself who settled in quickly and fell asleep. Thinking she should be left alone, I said nothing to her across the empty space between us until we were about to land. Then I explained my plan to her and she readily agreed, adding that she suspected I was a journalist because of the newspapers I underlined and clipped for the whole of the flight.
This was a woman who noticed everything and missed nothing, who was always sharing her insights, always recruiting. When the flight attendant started her farewell routine, Steinem pointed out the sexism implicit in every word. She went on to note that equal pay for equal work “was a sweetly reasonable demand,” but the economy could not afford it. Something would have to give.
KERA later worked out a deal to do a series for PBS with Ms. magazine, founded by Steinem, who would host the show. That’s when I understood what it took to keep her gig going, the enormous toll on her to write her role in history. Steinem would fly in at midnight, or later, to shoot her lines to camera at 2:00 a.m. only to leave again at dawn. There were depositions to do in a lawsuit that dogged the magazine, political causes to push, allies to seek, compatriots to encourage, speeches to give, stories to report, with sleep seemingly possible only up in the air.
The series with Ms. magazine foundered, but Gloria Steinem soared and never stopped. Now the battle in America is far from over. Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn in 1916, but now, 100 years later, contraception again is controversial. Women won the right to vote in 1920, but that right for some men as well as women is under attack in several states, including Texas. There will always be a need for another Gloria Steinem. But finding another leader with her inspired, consistent persistence will take some doing.
Lee Cullum is a veteran journalist from Dallas.