Gloria Steinem: Warrior for Women

 By Eve Berliner


Gloria in her glory.




Gloria in her years of wisdom.


By Eve Berliner


Gloria Steinem, a gorgeous revolutionary, symbol of womanhood, a monumental figure in the evolution of human emancipation, a feminist warrior, a lifetime fought against the subjugation of woman by the autocracy of man, a lifetime fought for equality.


Woman consigned to dreams of new pots and pans, the slave mentality buried deep, nourishing others but not self. Gloria opened the doors of possibility.  After Steinem and her band of radical sisters exploded on the 1960s and 70s, the outpouring of the generations were drawn to the barricades, the women’s liberation movement a force that erupted from the soul, the guts, the suppressed aspirations of women, a power to be reckoned with.


“Male Chauvinist Pig!”  the outcry of the day!


It goes back to the caveman, the Neanderthals, buried deep in human history and culture, the victimization and oppression of women, control and domination by the male.


There is a softness and an edge to her, a great, steely, inner courage to fight the battle of her gender.


* * *


It began in her Bunny Days, 1963, Spy in the House of Playboy, the great inner sanctum, the fantastical boudoir of the New York Playboy Club as surreptitiously invaded by undercover bunny Gloria Steinem, who reinvented herself as Maria, a former hostess-dancer in Paris and a secretary in Geneva.  Gloria’s exposé of life as a Playboy Bunny in Huntington Hartford’s glossy Show magazine, became an instant launching pad.  The piece was widely read and turned the searchlight on the plethora of rules, regulations, and intense scrutiny given the bunnies by management, and, of course, the lascivious patrons. 


Bunny applicants were tested for syphilis, and forced to undergo internal examinations, presumably for virginity.   The rules were strict, but there were, of course, exceptions…


Gloria studiously pored over her Bunny Bible.  


“If you’re my bunny can I take you home?” 


“Here’s my Playboy key and room key.”   [The Hotel Astor].


Playboy, in the aftermath of Steinem’s article, was legally required to maintain a public liquor license while advertising as a private club.


One year earlier, in 1962, the  prescient Esquire magazine features editor, Clay Felker, had assigned a little known freelancer named Gloria Steinem, to write a serious examination of the new and explosive contraceptive pill that was soon to revolutionize sexuality in America.  With Felker’s guidance, Steinem produced a powerful article probing questions of sexual politics and the “new science” that was to have impact on the women’s movement about to explode on America. 


One year later, 1963, Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.”


In 1969, New York Magazine published a Steinem bombshell, “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,”  which proclaimed women, as well as blacks, an oppressed class, exploring the relationship between black power and the liberation of women, probing the myths and truths of race and oppression and gender.


 “Because the idea is, in the long run, that women’s liberation will be men’s liberation, too,” the article concluded.

* * *



The childhood is somehow hidden inside her, barely discernible.


Fierce determination born early on, in Toledo, Ohio.


        The family on the move, living in a trailer, her father a traveling antiques salesman, moving from town to town, city to city.  Her mother suffered a nervous breakdown when Gloria was one or two years of age and emerged crippled, broken emotionally, incapable of normal life functioning.  At age ten, her father left the family and the parents were divorced.  There was a distant older sister.


In essence, her childhood was stolen from her, a heavy deep weight thrust upon her, a clutching ever-present fear.  Ages ten to seventeen, living alone with the madness of her mother –  schizophrenic aberrations, black depression, anxiety, visions, sanitariums, drunk on chloralhydrate, “hearing voices of war and hostile threat…plunged her hand through a window to escape…,” Gloria would write in her gripping portrait of her mother, “Ruth’s Song  (Because she Could Not Sing It).”


Once she was “bitten by a rat that shared the house and its back alley.”  Her mother took Gloria to the hospital despite the terror of leaving home.


 Gloria was advised by doctors to put her mother in a state hospital but she would not. 




Her mother loved her, that she always knew.


In a sense Gloria has lived out her mother’s unlived life.  Her father was the editor of the university newspaper when her mother, a rebellious spirit, fell madly in love with him. Her mother became the arts editor on the staff. 


Writing was her mother’s dream.


* * *


Unpremeditated, it was the issue of abortion which was to propel Gloria onto the stage of political action. 


The year 1969, Steinem now contributing editor and columnist for the nascent New York Magazine under esteemed editor Clay Felker.  Steinem herself was one of its founders.


Sitting in a church basement in the Village covering a “speak-out” on the subject of illegal abortion in an era when abortion itself was a criminal act, Steinem listened to the harrowing stories, outcries and self-searching by women who had undergone the brutal horror of illegal abortion. 


Steinem herself had an abortion in London at the age of twenty-two. Something deep was stirred in her.


“Speaking for myself,” she was to tell Guardian Observer writer, Rachel Cooke, in November of 2011, “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 was not.”


Steinem was to tell writer, Abigail Pogrebin, who was compiling an oral history of Ms. Magazine that was featured in New York Magazine, “I didn’t begin my life as an active feminist until that day.”


In 1972, Gloria Steinem co-founded the great pioneer feminist publication, Ms. Magazine, which had its beginnings as a special first edition in New York, funded by Clay Felker. The voice of feminism, at last, was controlled, operated and created exclusively by women, a voice that was to resound across the nation.  The first issue sold out in three days.


It contained its own brave proclamation of defiance, a feature entitled, “We Have Had Abortions” and signed by such luminaries as Judy Collins, Billie Jean King, Susan Sontag, Grace Paley, Anais Nin and Nora Ephron.


In 1972, Gloria Steinem testified before the United States Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution.


Steiner spoke forthrightly, decrying legal and social and economic discrimination against women, and pointed to no lesser than Dr. Sigmund Freud as perpetuating the myth of female inferiority.


Herein Section One of The Equal Rights Amendment:


“Section 1.  Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”


For the record, the Equal Rights Amendment, proposed in March of 1972, failed passage.


But one year later, in  1973, Roe vs.Wade became the law of the land.


* * *


An international figure on the world stage during more than five decades of devotion to the human rights of women, Steinem, now 78 years of age, sees the larger perspective of women’s oppression on a global scale. Today she battles not just issues of equal pay and social injustice, but more horrific issues, like sexual slavery, honor killings, rape as a methodical weapon of war, and the international crime of female genital mutilation, seventy-five to one hundred million women its brutal victims, the procedures so primitive and horrific that they result in the total destruction of a woman’s sexuality and inflict lifelong torture. 


Steinem also opposes the circumcision of men.


Steinem is a staunch advocate of reproductive freedom.


She stands in vehement opposition to pornography -- rage, sexual violence, humiliation, sadism, power -- but distinguishes it from erotica.


As she wrote in her fine 1984 collection of writings, “Outrageous  Acts and Everyday Rebellions, “Erotica is as different from pornography as love is from rape, as dignity is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain.”   


Steinem is a signatore of the futuristic manifesto “Beyond Same Sex Marriage:  A New Strategic Vision for All our Families and Relationships,” exploring the place of woman in the new structures of society.


Gloria Steinem is the author of seven books, among them, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983),  Revolution from Within (1992), Moving Beyond Words (1993), and Doing Sixty & Seventy (2006).


Their names tell the story.


* * *

        She may have come from Toledo, Ohio, but Gloria Steinem was an unconventional girl.  Despite her alluring beauty, and many significant love affairs of the heart and mind, Gloria Steinem did not marry until the age of 66 years when David Bale entered her life at an LA party.  Bale, a South African-born entrepreneur and environmentalist, father of the cult actor, Christian Bale, “a hulking, 6’5” and a powerfully charismatic bon vivant,” writes Jason Cochran, a close friend in an online recollection. 


They were wed in the year 2000, the ceremony conducted by and at the home of Gloria’s cherished friend, Wilma Mankiller, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.


Their fate, their destiny, was brief.  Only three years and he was gone. David Bale diagnosed with brain lymphoma.  In 2003. at age 62, after a hard struggle, he succumbed.


Gloria has carried on, the lost love a sadness buried deep within her.


* * *


        The 30th Anniversary Issue of New York Magazine [1998], featured a lead piece entitled, “Gloria Steinem: First Feminist.” 


 Here is what Gloria had to say:


        “From the beginning, I was making choices, not because I knew what I wanted to do but because I knew what I didn’t want.  I didn’t want to get married.  It didn’t take courage not to want the picture of marriage that had been painted for us.  Once you got married, you could make no other choices; that was it.  You took his name, his credit rating, his social identity.  I have no idea why I resisted when so many other women who felt the same way did not.  Maybe it’s because I didn’t go to school until I was 12, so I missed a little bit of social conditioning.  I used to go to school until it was Halloween or something, and then we’d get in our little house trailer and go somewhere else.


        “In my old age – really old age, since I’m going to live past 100, I hope – I would love to have a diner.  A little diner with blue gingham curtains by the side of the road, because diners are the most democratic places.  Everyone goes – truck drivers go, people from the neighborhood, people in their tuxes after parties go.  And they’re populist places.  And in the back room, we could have a little revolutionary meeting from time to time.”




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