When Gloria Steinem turned 80, on March 25th, 2014, the organizers of the Ms. Foundation for Women, which Steinem founded, asked everyone to submit messages about how Gloria has influenced their lives and work. I’ve been wanting to write a post about Steinem and her work for a long time now, so this was a good incentive.
If I had to describe her to someone who has never heard of her or her work, I would say she is the role model women never had before. She is a truly gifted writer, investigative journalist, social reformer and activist, public speaker, political thinker, cultural critic, and a truly kind person, who just happens to be beautiful, stylish, and possesses a superb sense of humour, as well as the incredible gift of inspiring and empowering other people.
When she first started speaking publicly as an activist in the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s, Steinem remarked that her goal was: “to give people a chance to hear their feelings confirmed, know they are not alone, and thus discover they didn’t need outside agitators in the first place” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, 14).
Steinem’s work as a feminist activist for human rights has changed the lives of women and men around the world since the 1970s. Her influence on my own work and life came rather late, in my early thirties, even though I first came across her book about Marilyn Monroe as an undergrad in my early twenties. Back then, as many young women, I did not like labelling myself as a feminist, taking the gender equality, rights, and freedoms that women of Steinem’s generation fought so hard for, unabashedly and unapologetically for granted. It was not until my late twenties and early thirties that I began to understand what it was that I was taking for granted, and why there were still some very grave glitches in the gender matrix.
A few years ago I began to learn about the history of feminism and the Women’s Liberation Movement, in which Steinem played a leading role. I began to see that while many milestones of equality were achieved and instituted in the public sphere – I always had many strong and inspiring female professors, writers, and business women around me – there was still tremendous inequality in the private sphere, in the interactions and power balances in relationships, in child care, and in any other type of care for that matter.
It was not until I began to experience an outrageous sense of inequality in my own relationships – having been raised by liberal parents I managed to avoid this sobering run-in with patriarchal bullshit until I was in my mid-to-late twenties – that I felt the need to understand what was still wrong with gender relations in general.
I wanted to understand why it was still common that men got away with self-centeredness and ego-mania, while women were still raised to believe that if something didn’t work out for them, it must be their fault for not being good enough or not trying hard enough. Or why was it still that “women’s cultural diseases were ’empathy sickness’ and depression, while men’s were anger and narcissism,” as Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Steinem’s biographer, remarked in The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem (1995, p. 392).
It struck me that one can only really understand injustice and inequality (and then do something about them) when one is on the receiving side of them, which is why many men still do not really understand or care about women’s issues. Many of them, like I did until my late twenties, live in a bubble or a matrix that shelters most of them from the injustices of inequality.
It was not until I was in my thirties that I discovered that the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution was only passed in 1972, only eight years before I was born, and that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that enshrines the principles of gender equality in employment, public life, and education was passed in 1982, only two years after I was born. Before that women’s rights were not part of the legal system; women were not legally protected from harassment, discrimination, abuse, etc. So the dust of the revolutionary battles had barely settled by the time I came along, and many battles have not yet been won to this day.
The 1990s, my teen years, for me were first filled with Madonna, camp, Thelma & Louise, Tank Girl, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton, and later with Spice Girls and Sex and the City. It seemed impossible to imagine that these types of strong women have not always been able to assert themselves freely in media and in real life. It seemed confusing why strong, confident female characters were always killed off in Hollywood films, why romantic comedies were still centered on finding Mr. Right, and why real men still had no idea what women actually want and need, or simply don’t care.
When I started reading Steinem’s books, along with everything else on feminism I could get my hands on, I found a goldmine of knowledge, understanding, compassion, empathy, and empowerment through knowledge I have not been able to find to the same extent in any other discipline, such as psychology, mindfulness, neuroscience, critical theory, etc. because Steinem and other feminist writers and thinkers addressed my and other women’s personal experiences directly and with the same value as any other universal issues, particularly engaging with the disconnection I was feeling from the male part of the world.
I realized that my questions, worries, fears, and feelings of injustice were not just my own, but pretty much shared by all women across class, race, and even age. All this time Steinem has been teaching us to “trust one’s own and other women’s experiences over social myths”as Heilbrun phrased it (p.xxiii). Because for centuries “women’s stories have been learned from male accounts,” women have not only been, and continue to be, misrepresented, but what is even more tragic, women “unknowingly practice deceptions of themselves” to fit the stereotypes and roles allotted to them by masculine cultures (p.173).
In 1972, Steinem founded Ms. Magazine, the first and only women’s magazine that dealt with real women’s issues, and gave real women and their experiences an uncensored, un-restricted voice. In the first issue, Steinem wrote, “I have met brave women who are exploring the outer edge of possibility, with no history to guide them and a courage to make themselves vulnerable that I find moving beyond words to express it” (Preview Issue of Ms. Magazine, 1972, quoted in Gloria Steinem, Moving Beyond Words: Age, Rage, Sex, Power, Money, Muscles: Breaking Boundaries of Gender, 1994, p.15)
Even as a young woman Steinem somehow managed to reject the limiting, unrealistic existing roles and stereotypes, and make herself into a real woman and not just a “female impersonator” (as she believed women of the 1950s and especially Marilyn Monroe had been). This is what Simone de Beauvoir meant by “one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman.” Steinem, gradually and quite publicly, became “a person simultaneously brave and vulnerable, who long ago learned to get on with it, to do the best she could, and to look neither backward with regret nor forward with trepidation” (Heilbrun, p.408).
The amount of strength, courage, and creativity it takes to defy convention, to re-imagine a life for oneself outside of socially prescribed and accepted norms, and to re-invent oneself as a free, creative human being is usually beyond most people’s reach. But Steinem set out to understand, explain, and share her own experiences and to empower other. She became a writer and public speaker, speaking to women in their own language, speaking about their personal experience being political, speaking in a way that was not trying to educate or enlighten, but to inspire. She ended her best-seller Revolution from Within with the words: “There is always one true inner voice. Trust it” (Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992, p.323).
Steinem understood that “we write what we need to know” (Gloria Steinem, Doing Sixty and Seventy, 2006, p. xiv). After reading the stories Steinem was brave and vulnerable enough to share from her own life experience, making the personal political, I understood that there is a reason I did not care to be called a feminist in my twenties (even though I have always been one). I was still living in a bubble upheld by caring parents, West-coast political correctness, and my naive belief in a kind of rebellion that just basically got me what I wanted, but didn’t really mean anything. After all, Steinem explained that “It’s men who are rebellious in youth and grow more conservative with age. Women tend to be conservative in youth and grow more rebellious with age; a pattern that has been evident since abolitionist and suffragist times. Furthermore, young women haven’t yet experienced the injustices of inequality in the paid labour force, the unequal burden of childrearing and work in the home, and the double standard of aging” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, p.xiii).
From her early twenties, Steinem understood that writing (and speaking publicly) was a means to power. In a world where most women are still raised (by mass media) to believe that the only way to attain any power is by becoming appealing and pleasing to men, by manipulating sexual appeal and sexual power, and by “getting men to fall in love with us,” which as Steinem explained is women’s most common safety mechanism in society, the feminist movement and Steinem herself put all social structures, practices, and power dynamics under scrutiny.
After college, Steinem worked as an investigative journalist who went undercover to report on the abusive working conditions at Playboy. She was one of the few women who covered political campaigns in the 1960s, and she was one of the first female journalists who felt the need to write about women’s rights and issues, which led her to founding Ms. Magazine. She explained, “For me, writing is the only thing that passes the three tests of métier: 1) when I’m doing it, I don’t feel that I should be doing something else instead; 2) it produces a sense of accomplishment and, once in a while, pride; and 3) it’s frightening. (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, 15).
After decades of writing and editing feminist articles, managing Ms. Magazine, and travelling around the country and the world to campaign for feminist causes, Steinem began writing books (see the bibliography below). She began her best-selling book Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem (1992) with a Buddhist Aphorism, “You have come here to find what you already know,” again empowering her readers to have faith in their own abilities and knowledge, rather than just looking for short-term self-help solutions provided by others.
For Steinem, self-esteem was one of the key elements in the way we are able to co-exist and interact with others. She stressed introspection and self-care as a way of understanding and engaging with ourselves and with others. She noted that, “studies of creativity make the same point: creative people have both higher-than-average self-esteem and higher-than-average degrees of androgyny. The ability to impose one’s own view of reality as the artist does, requires a degree of self-confidence. Furthermore, creativity is most likely to come from intrinsic interests, not external reward; from a desire to express the true self” (Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992, p.278).
In 1995, Steinem wrote that now “there are many readers who can no longer answer the question, ‘Who were you before this wave of feminism began?’ They were simply born into some degree of feminist consciousness, and their higher expectations, their lack of the female cultural problem known as terminal gratitude, are necessary for the long path ahead” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, p. 173).
Growing up with parents who always encouraged my creativity and told me that I can be who-ever I want to be when I grow up, and who raised me among West-Coast gender equality and equity, political correctness, and a majority of female professionals and leaders as the norm, I often wondered what it must have been like before all these politically correct regulations were instituted at schools, universities, and work places – it felt like everyone was over-compensating for something bad that had happened long ago. Like the painting entitled ‘The Battlefield at Marathon’ by Carl Rottmann from 1849 at the Old National Gallery in Berlin that depicts an empty landscape and pink-blue skies which reveal nothing of the massacre that occurred there, it was clear that despite its seemingly over-compensated out-datedness, the need for voicing feminist ideas and practices was there for a reason.
Equipped with the history and analytical tools feminist scholarship provided, I gradually began to see through the gender matrix. I began to see the disconnections in perception between how I saw myself and others, and how they saw themselves and others, and I began to develop a sense of empathy, of being able to relate to otherness without judgement, without barriers, acting instead of reacting, and generally following the principle of relating to people that Steinem learned early in her life, during her trip to India, and shared in several of her books: “you have to listen… you have to know… you have to sit down eye-to-eye.” (Gloria Steinem, Doing Sixty and Seventy, 2006, 39).
At eighty, Steinem continues to travel the world, to speak publicly about feminist and human rights issues, and she continues to write. On November 22, 2013, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The extent to which she personally and the feminist movement in general have changed the world is perhaps comparable to the industrial or technological revolutions, except that the feminist movement did not rely on the invention of any gadgets that enhance human capabilities and productivity, but solely on the courage and vulnerability of women like Gloria Steinem to inspire and empower others.
Every new generation faces the challenge of learning from history. If that history is not made available or explicit, history tends to repeat itself. As Hannah Arendt put it, “if we do not know our own history, we are doomed to live it as though it were our private fate.”
I wanted to write this blog post to understand my own history in relation to the feminist movement and to understand my own value system. But I also wanted to write about Gloria Steinem’s work and influence on generations of people. I hope I managed to do both. I would like to invite you to share this post with people you care about, women and men, to inspire them.
Here are some words of inspiration from Gloria Steinem’s books and speeches:
“As Virginia Woolf said, we must develop the habit of freedom, and that is a very difficult habit to acquire for those of us who have been taught to absorb our values and our instructions from outside for so long. Whether that takes the form of finding our value in serving others, which is the female form of this, now often called codependency – a codependent, of course, is just a well-socialized woman. Or whether it is the male form which is in control, the need to control others in order to find our self-identity. In either case we do not have the habit of self-empowerment, containment, or freedom. […] We cannot be given freedom, we cannot be given self-respect. If that is attempted, we are too weak to use it. We have to move forward with the authority of our own individual voices.” (Gloria Steinem, On Self-Esteem & Scholars, Witches and Other Freedom Fighters, Salem, Massachusetts, 1993.)
“Once we give up searching for approval by stifling our thoughts, or by imitating the ‘masculine’ norm of abstract, assertive communicating, we often find it easier to simply say what needs to be said, and thus to earn respect and approval. Losing self-consciousness and fear allows us to focus on the content of what we are saying instead of on ourselves” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, 196).
“The art of life isn’t controlling what happens, which is impossible; it’s using what happens” (Gloria Steinem, Doing Sixty and Seventy, 2006, p.19).
“Everything comes together once we’ve found the work for which experience and temperament suit us” (Gloria Steinem, Doing Sixty and Seventy, 2006, p.39).
“Free your mind – so your ass can follow” (Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within, A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992, 112)
“Feel the fear,” as psychologist Susan Jeffers says, “and do it anyway” (quoted in Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within, A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992, 153).
“As young women, whether students or not, we’re also still in the stage most valued by male-dominant cultures: we have our full potential as workers, wives, sex partners, and child-bearers. That means we haven’t yet experienced the life events that are most radicalizing for women entering the paid-labor force and discovering how women are treated there; marrying and finding out that it is not yet an equal partnership; having children and discovering who raises them and who does not; and aging, still a far greater penalty for women than for men” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, 230).
“Sex isn’t the only reason for valuing youth in women. With age comes authority, and beauty standards are often a way of getting rid of women just as they are attaining real power. […] Once we look behind the curtain and see that the Wizard of Oz is just a scared society – that beauty standards change with what society wants or fears – we see that beauty is less about looks than about behaviour. For women, behavior is more sexual and reproductive, and for men, it’s more economic and productive. Though we are supposed to think that standards of beauty conform to an objective aesthetic handed down from history or the heavens – which is how society shirks the blame for creating them and makes us feel intrinsically wrong for not conforming to them – they are capricious, perishable standards that people made and people can unmake. […] Once we get a grip on an understanding that, for males and females, standards of beauty are really about what society want us to do or not to do, then we can affect them by taking power into our own hands and altering the way we behave” (Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within, A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992, 220).
“I never questioned the wrongness of my body image until I was in my thirties and saw myself on television. There was this thin, pretty, blondish woman of medium height who spoke in a boring monotone and, through lack of animation, seemed calm, even blasé in a New York way. This was a shock. What I felt like inside was 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 very ordinary, and a voice that felt constantly on the verge of revealing some unacceptable emotion. I was amazed: Where had this woman on television come from? She was so different from the way I felt that I almost resented her – though she did give me some valuable insights into what other people were responding to. It’s taken me the last twenty years to realize that I might better have asked: Where did that woman in my mind come from?? (Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within, A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992, 227).
“Until the 1970s, women had to choose between Miss or Mrs., thus identifying themselves by marital status in a way men did not. Now, more than a third of American women support Ms. As an alternative, an exact parallel of Mr., and so do government publications, business, and the media” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, p.162).
A decade that had begun with the necessity of proving the Freudian-dictated vaginal orgasm to be neurologically nonexistent, plus explaining the clitoral orgasm to be literally true, finally ended up more equally with just orgasm (no adjectives necessary) being more talked about – and experienced” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, 167).
“Of course, one importance of words is their power to exclude. Man, mankind, and the family of man have made women feel left out, usually with good reason. People, humanity, and humankind are more inclusive” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, 169)
“The restrictions of class and race bring to some men the same feeling of being out of control and subject to the whims of others, but rarely in the same degree as women who are trained to feel subject to the needs of a real or potential husband and children as well as to a lack of class or race power” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, p. 25)
“[I was] stopped in the street by a truck driver who tells me that the woman he loves and has been living with for three years wouldn’t marry him and have children because he didn’t want her to go on working – until then he heard some interview in which I asked men to consider how they would feel if they were exactly the same people but had been born female. He tried this exercises for a while, and changed so much that he and his friend were now happily married. He is thanking me – but the miracle of empathy is his own” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, p. 29)
“We share the dreams, capabilities and weaknesses of all human beings, but our occasional pregnancies and other visible differences have been used – even more perversely, if less brutally, than racial differences have been used – to create an “inferior“ group and an elaborate division of labor. This division is continued for a clear if often unconscious reason: the economic and social profit of patriarchy males as a group.” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, p. 122).
“In 1963, the year after Marilyn Monroe’s death, Dr. W. Hugh Missildine, a psychiatrist, published a book called Your Inner Child of the Past. It was an analysis of adult emotional problems based on his nine years as director of the Children’s Mental Health Center in Columbus, Ohio. He believed that the child we used to be lives on inside us. It is difficult for us to change that child’s patterns because they feel like “home.” Recognizing this compelling self of the past can help to keep us from repeating history. Otherwise, we may continue to treat ourselves – and others – as that child was once treated. At worst, such repetition is destructive. Even at best, we are following a pattern we did not choose for ourselves.” (Gloria Steinem, Marilyn. Photographs by George Barris, 1986, 57)
“It may be obvious that we continue to treat ourselves the way we were treated as children, but I lived a diverse and seemingly aware life for more than forty years without figuring it out. I suspect many other people have, too. Only becoming conscious of old and unchosen patterns allows us to change them, and even so, change, no matter how much for the better, still feels cold and lonely at first – as if we were out there on the edge of the universe with the wind whistling past our ears – because it doesn’t feel like home. Old patterns, no matter how negative ad painful they may be, have an incredible magnetic power – because they do feel like home. […] This repetition begins to diminish the moment we’re aware of its source, and the more we heal the past so we can respond to the present.[…] Each of us has an inner child of the past living within us. Those who needed to build no walls have access to that child’s creativity and spontaneity. Those who had to leave this crucial core behind can tear down the walls, see what the child needed but didn’t have, and begin to provide it now. The more we do this, the more we know that we are worth it. And that we always were” (Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within, A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992, 38).
“Children who are encouraged to follow their own interests actually learn more, internalize and retain that learning better, become more creative, and have a healthier and more durable self-esteem than those who are motivated by reward, punishment, or competition with other children.[…] Like children, adults whose innermost feelings and preferences are ignored, ridiculed, punished, or repressed come to believe that there is something profoundly, innately “wrong” with them. And conversely, those who are able to honor these inner promptings know what it is to feel at home with themselves”(Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within, A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992, 154)
“The need for supporting core self-esteem doesn’t end in childhood. Adults still need “unconditional” love from family, friends, life partners, animals, perhaps even an all-forgiving deity. Love that says: “No matter how the world may judge you, I love you for yourself” (Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within, A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992, 68).
“I realized, as so many women have, that the idea that I could “change” a man was the female version of a fantasy of power.” (Steinem quoted in Carolyn G. Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem, 1995, p.369).
“Families mean support and an audience to men. To women, they just mean more work” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, p.131).
“Now, we are becoming the men we wanted to marry. Once, women were trained to marry a doctor, not be one” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, p.161).
“The so-called sexual liberation movement of the 1960s had been mostly about making more women sexually available on male terms” (Gloria Steinem, Doing Sixty and Seventy, 2006, 37).
“Love is not about power. Romance is a means to the end of self-completion, but love is an end in itself. Or, as Margaret Anderson put it, “In love, you want the other person’s good. In romantic love you want the other person.” If we love someone, we want them to continue being the essence of themselves. If so, then we can’t own, absorb, or change them. We can only help them to become what they already are. When we argue with someone we love, for instance, it’s more about trying to make ourselves understood than trying to win. “Perhaps that’s what love is,” as essayist and biographer Phyllis Rose said, “the momentary or prolonged refusal to think of another person in terms of power” (Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992, p.276.)
“Yet women will go right on suffering from the terminal guilt of this double-role problem until men are encouraged, pressured, or otherwise forced, individually and collectively, to integrate themselves into the “women’s work” of raising children and homemaking. Until then, and until there are changed job patterns to allow equal parenthood, children will go right on growing up with the belief that only women can be loving and nurturing, and only men can be intellectual or active outside the home. Each half of the world will go on limiting its full range of human talent” (Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983, 232).
A list on how we relate to one another – in couples, families, and organizations, by Donna Jensen, quoted in Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within, A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992, p.267:
|“Masculine extreme”||Wholeness||“Feminine extreme”|
|Dictates||Invites||Begs or schemes|
|Knows everything||Curious||Knows nothing|
|Arrogant||Attentive||Shut down, numb|
|Out of touch with one’s own feelings||Draws self-wisdom from feelings||Overwhelmed by feelings|
|Unwilling to show weakness||Flexible||Unwilling to show strength|
|Ignores mistakes or blames others||Learns from mistakes||Makes excuses or obsesses about mistakes|
|Feels superior||Feels equal||Feels inferior|
Carolyn G. Heilbrun, The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem. New York: The Dial Press, 1995.
Gloria Steinem, Doing Sixty and Seventy. San Francisco: Elders Academy Press, 2006.
Gloria Steinem, Marilyn. Photographs by George Barris. New York: Plume, 1986.
Gloria Steinem, Moving Beyond Words: Age, Rage, Sex, Power, Money, Muscles: Breaking Boundaries of Gender. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Gloria Steinem, On Self-Esteem & Scholars, Witches and Other Freedom Fighters, Salem, Massachusetts, 1993.
Gloria Steinem, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Second Edition. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1983.
Gloria Steinem, Revolution from Within, A Book of Self-Esteem. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992.