By: Michaela Wiberg, Wagner College ’16
“Law and justice are not always the same. When they aren’t, destroying the law may be the first step toward changing it.” – Gloria Steinem
In the 1970s Gloria Steinem was a household name. At the time she was a journalist and women’s rights activist but she would become one of the most influential voices in the battle for gender equality. Gloria Steinem was one of the first women to question the expectations placed on women by society and the inherent misogyny ingrained into the culture of the time. She saw injustices and refused to stand for them. She founded the first feminist magazine and fought for women’s rights. Her writing and work for equality are world renowned. Gloria Steinem was instrumental in the success of the women’s rights movement in the 1960s and 70s, particularly because of her outspoken protest of sexist laws and media as the spokeswoman for the movement.
Gloria Steinem’s understanding of a woman’s struggle began in Toledo, Ohio. Her parents separated when she was ten because her mother was an invalid. Her mother’s struggles to hold a job and to live while sick were pivotal to Steinem understanding the social injustices faced by women. Though she never blamed her father, it was because of the separation that she first began to see the injustices women faced. Steinem graduated Western High School in Washington, D.C. and then Smith College before starting her journalism career.
Steinem credits her coverage of a 1969 abortion speak-out as the day she truly became an activist. As Steinem herself had had an abortion, this was a personal issue to her. Though abortion was highly shameful and considered an atrocity, and was in face illegal, at the time Steinem thought about it differently. “Speaking for myself, I knew it was the first time I had taken responsibility for my own life. I wasn’t going to let things happen to me. I was going to direct my life, and therefore it felt positive. But still, I didn’t tell anyone. Because I knew that out there it wasn’t [positive].” Steinem is credited with coining the phrase “reproductive freedom” and abortion was just one of the many topics she has tackled, but she certainly believes it was the first to make her see the need for activism. Steinem had begun to question what was expected of her as a woman and societies beliefs as to who she was supposed to be.
Playboy Bunny Experiment (New York, 1963) – In 1963 Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny at the New York Playboy Club to discover the working conditions and reality of being a Playboy Bunny. The resulting article highlighted and detailed how women were treated at the clubs. This article became widely renowned as the first of its kind, an in-depth look at the treatment of women as sex objects, and led to Steinem being employed at New York magazine in 1968, where she would found Ms. Magazine.
The National Women’s Political Caucus and the Equal Rights Amendment (New York, 1970-1971) – Gloria Steinem truly became the figurehead for women’s rights when she advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment in front of the Senate in 1970. She had also written an article for Time Magazine entitled “What It Would Be Like If Women Win” which established her as a leader above the rest in the movement. Steinem soon co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, one of her most famous achievements, an origination created to encourage women to vote in the 1972 election. One of Steinem’s most famous speeches, “Address to the Women of America”, was written for the Caucus’ cause. In the speech Steinem questions the place of women in American society and encourages others to do the same.
“This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
It was through speeches like this that Steinem grew to gain popularity and spread the feminist message. Women were sick and tired of the expectations of society and being looked down upon for their gender.
Ms. Magazine (New York, 1972) – When Steinem founded Ms. Magazine, the first feminist publication of its kind, it became obvious how widespread her message was. Though it was initially only meant to be a one shot special edition, it became an incredible hit and sold out nation-wide in three days. In no time at all, the magazine had 26,000 subscriptions. Ms. Magazine was the first magazine to truly put women’s rights issues into the spotlight. Ms. Magazine was the first truly feminist publication and soon became one of the most influential in the nation. The magazine tackled many women’s rights issued that were considered taboo and thus not publicly discussed. The very first issue of Ms, for instance, contained a feature titled: “We have had abortions.” It was signed by many of the most famous women of the time, not necessarily because they had had abortions but because they supported a woman’s right to have an abortion. It wasn’t even a year later that Roe v Wade passed and abortion was legalised. Ms. Was the first magazine to push the women of the United States to question why men have a say in what happens with a woman’s body or in women’s rights.
Learning to Question – Everything Gloria Steinem achieved for the women’s rights movement was born out of questioning the expectations and views of society regarding women. What culture dictated to be the role of a woman was not what Gloria Steinem wanted. The expectancy of women to become wives and mothers, and for that to be the ultimate goal, was not something Steinem believed to be right. She became the figurehead for women’s rights because of her unrelenting nature in the fight for equality. Her questioning of society’s expectations was a major factor in the success of the feminist movement. Gloria Steinem pushed the women of the 60s and 70s to question the world as she did and lead the fight for gender equality.
Though Gloria Steinem is an amazing leader in the women’s rights movement she has been criticized for pitting race against gender. Some believe that Steinem pushes gender equality as being more important than racial equality or that she compares the two on the basis of racial equality being considered more important. Steinem also has made several trans-phobic comments and admitted to some trans-phobic views. She has stated that she believes that people who are transgender or transsexual harm their bodies in order to conform to gender roles and that feminist should feel uncomfortable about the future of transsexualism and what it means for the feminist movement. Gloria Steinem is a truly phenomenal leader in the feminist movement, she certainly has her own prejudices and this can sometimes make her arguments for equality seem less valid.
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