Highlights of a Life
“You can see the absence of women in governing bodies, from Congress to state legislators, on corporate boards, in academia, and as forepeople in factories.” —Gloria Steinem, Time, April 5, 2004
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem emerged from a troubled childhood to become one of the most influential women in America. She spent her earliest years traveling about the country in a house trailer, while her father collected antiques to sell. Because her family was never in one place long enough to enroll in school, Steinem was tutored by her parents. They divorced when she was 10, and Steinem lived in poverty with her mother in East Toledo. Throughout the forties, Steinem’s home was a rat-infested farmhouse, where she shamefully hid away from her friends to care for her mentally-ill mother.
Steinem managed to finish high school and was awarded a scholarship to Smith College, a prestigious all-women’s school in Northampton, Massachusetts. She graduated magna cum laude in 1956 and, having been awarded a Chester Bowles Asian fellowship, left to study in India for two years. The experience raised her awareness of human suffering and injustice; the promising young journalist moved to New York determined to cover hard politics and social issues. But her ambitions were about 20 years premature. As a female reporter in the early sixties, the best she could hope for was the chance to write about fashion and celebrities. Her famous undercover Playboy Bunny expose in 1963 – in which she exposed the club’s degrading treatment of its waitresses – was the assignment that came closest to her real interests.
In 1968, Steinem – together with journalist Clay Felker – established New York magazine. Finally writing stories of substance, Steinem became something of a trendy celebrity. She was admired by the male-dominated news business for her charm, intellect, and good looks. Her mainstream popularity, however, began to fade as Steinem became outspoken on controversial women’s issues.
By the late 1960’s Steinem’s work had become overtly political. The defining moment in her transformation to feminist crusader was in 1968 when she covered abortion law hearings for a magazine story. Deeply moved by the testimonials shared by women who had survived illegal abortions, Steinem emerged from the hearings with more than a story: she had a new vision and sense of purpose. The women’s movement became the guiding force in her life. In 1971, Steinem founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Women’s Action Alliance.
In 1972, Steinem launched Ms., the first mass-circulation feminist magazine. Steinem and others worked without pay to produce the first issue. “I’ll give it six months,” predicted the late news anchor, Harry Reasoner. Such skepticism was unfounded; the entire 300,000-copy run of Ms. sold out in eight days. Ms. has built a worldwide reputation as the media expert on issues relating to women’s status, women’s rights, and women’s points of view.
Throughout its 34-year history, ownership of Ms. has changed several times. Since 1989, readers have enjoyed an ad-free format. The magazine is now owned by the Feminist Majority Foundation, run by Eleanor Smeal. Steinem serves as consulting editor.
Steinem became a household name for her crusade to advance women’s rights. Throughout the seventies, she was a tireless activist and spokesperson for the feminist movement, and lectured in ways that brought other notable feminists to the foreground. Steinem also established the Ms. Foundation for Women, an organization dedicated to helping underprivileged women. The popular “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” was created by the Foundation.
Steinem became a best-selling author in the eighties. In 1983 she published Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, a collection of stories about her past, including her undercover work as a Playboy bunny.
In 1986, Steinem released Marilyn: Norma Jeane, a biography relating the unhappy life of the film star who Steinem knew personally. “My purpose was to try to get to know or to portray the real person inside the public image,” Steinem said in a Washington Post interview.
In Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem (1992), Steinem relates her own experience with feelings of low self esteem, and offers advice through examples of what others have done. In Revolution, she confesses she always felt like “a plump brunette from Toledo, too tall and much too pudding-faced, with looks that might be pretty on a good day but were mostly ordinary.”
Moving Beyond Words came out in 1993, another work of nonfiction in which she expresses her views on publishing, society and advertising.
At age 66, Steinem married for the first time. She and David Bale exchanged vows – as well as 95 cent beaded wedding rings – at a Cherokee ceremony in the fall of 2000. Her South African husband, father of actor Christian Bale, had operated his own commuter airline business in England, having been forced to leave South Africa because of his anti-apartheid work. Sadly, the couple was married only four years when Steinem became a widow. Bale died of brain lymphoma.
Steinem continues to live in New York City, and is at work on a book about her 30-plus years on the road as a feminist organizer. It will be titled Road to the Heart: America as if Everyone Mattered.