Gloria Steinem is a ground-breaking pioneer for women’s rights. She worked as a journalist, writer and activist in the 1960’s and 70’s and was a prominent leader of the second-wave feminist movement (first-wave feminism was the suffragette movement). Steinem cofounded Ms. Magazine, a publication dedicated to women’s rights and concerns and continues today to work as a writer, touring lecturer, and political commentator on progressive social issues.
Gloria Marie Steinem was born in 1934 in Toledo, Ohio. Her Jewish father, Leo Steinem, was a traveling a ntique dealer, selling his wares from their house trailer, and moving the family from place to place. As a result, Gloria did not spend a full year in school until she was 12 years old. In the summers, Leo operated a beach resort in Michigan, where Gloria learned to tap-dance from the nightclub entertainers.
Gloria’s mother, Ruth Nuneviller, was Scotch Presbyterian and a college graduate, who gave up her career as a journalist when she married Leo. Unfortunately, Ruth suffered from mental illness, leading to divorce in 1945, when Gloria was 11 years old. After her father left, Gloria became housekeeper, cook and caregiver to her mother. In her early teens, she tap-danced at local clubs and worked as a salesgirl after school to help out financially. She spent her senior high school year with her sister, Susanne, in Washington, D.C., then attended Smith College, where she majored in government and danced in college productions.
Pauline Perlmutter Steinem, Gloria’s paternal grandmother, was a role model for Gloria Steinem. Pauline was a well-known women’s rights activist, active in the National Woman Suffrage Association, a delegate to the 1908 Council of Women, and the first woman to be elected to the Toledo Board of Education. Despite limited financial resources, she managed to rescue many members of her German Jewish family during the early years of the Nazi terror.
Steinem’s childhood appreciation of Judaism came from her non-Jewish mother. Ruth Steinem made sure that both Gloria and her older sister, Susanne, understood the evils of anti-Semitism and knew about the horrific crimes of the Holocaust. Although raised in a dual Christian/Jewish household, Steinem was drawn to the spirituality and social justice agenda of Jewish feminism. As an adult, she was part of a group known as the “Seder Sisters,” Jewish women in New York City who performed a women’s Seder on the third night of Passover every year. The founding premise of this Seder is that women matter and should be acknowledged for their roles in the Exodus story and their current struggle for equality in Jewish life.
After graduating magna cum laude, Steinem received a Chester Bowles Fellowship for study and research in India, where she learned principles of grassroots organizing. Upon her return, she began a career as a professional journalist by writing freelance pieces for various publications, primarily women’s magazines. In 1963, she made headlines herself when she took a job as a Bunny at the Playboy Club and wrote an exposé for Show magazine about the unglamorous conditions of the club’s glorified waitresses—sex objects in rabbit ears and cotton tails. Simultaneously, Steinem continued to volunteer for progressive causes and social justice movements.
Frustrated in being relegated to writing about food and fashion, Steinem became a founding editor of New York magazine in 1968. She finally could write about her political interests and be taken seriously, becoming a voice for the voiceless and a force for social and political change.
But it was a public hearing on abortion, then illegal in the United States, that led to Gloria’s interest in the fledging feminist movement. After the New York State legislature invited 14 men and one nun to testify in a hearing, a group of early feminists held an alternate women’s hearing in Greenwich Village. Steinem attended as a reporter, and was stunned by the incredible and harrowing stories women told about their own illegal abortions. Steinem had had an abortion herself at age 22 and had never told anyone about it. If so many women needed an abortion at some time in their lives , why was it kept secret and why was it illegal and so dangerous?
Gloria Steinem put her anger and frustration to work. In 1969, she began a second career as a spokesperson for the women’s movement. in community centers, union halls, corporate boardrooms, and at sit-ins and street rallies. She talked about how the cultural identification of masculinity with dominance feeds the roots of violence, and how sex or gender rules in our society stunt the development of children and suffocate the aspirations of both men and women. Steinem became an indefatigable fund-raiser for women’s causes and co-founded many women’s organizations, including: the Women’s Action Alliance (1971), the National Women’s Political Caucus (1971), the Ms. Foundation for Women (1972), the Coalition of Labor Union Women (1974), Voters for Choice (1979), and Take Our Daughters to Work Day. She has played a major role at many important public events, among them every Democratic convention since 1968 and the United Nations Women’s Conference in 1975 in Mexico City. She has also been involved in innumerable electoral campaigns, most notably the presidential bids of Robert F. Kennedy, George McGovern, Shirley Chisholm, and Walter Mondale and his running mate Geraldine Ferraro, as well as the congressional campaigns of numerous women.
In 1971, Steinem cofounded Ms.—the first feminist periodical run by women with a national readership. Her career as a writer flourished, with articles in innumerable magazines. She became a brilliant advocacy journalist, writing about what she believes in—women’s empowerment, racial and economic equality, reproductive freedom, nonsexist child rearing, multicultural education, prevention of sexual abuse of women and children, and, more recently, preserving the cultures of indigenous peoples. Her books include the bestsellers: Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem; Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions; Moving beyond Words; and Marilyn: Norma Jean, on the Life of Marilyn Monroe. Her most recent book was published in 2016: My life on the Road, a candid account of her life as a traveler, a listener, and a catalyst for change.
At age 66, in 2000, Gloria Steinem married David Bale, South African-born English entrepreneur and an environmentalist animal rights activist. He died in 2003.
Steinem received many awards for her writing and activism. In 2013, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. Rutgers University recently created the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture, and Feminist Studies.
In 2011, the documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words premiered on HBO, an hour-long film that told the story of the women’s movement as seen through the eyes of one of its central figures. In the final shot, she looks into the camera and says, “The primary thing is not that they know who I am, but who they are. Being a feminist means you see the world as a whole instead of as a half. It shouldn’t need a name, and one day, it won’t.”
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