For someone who didn't go to school full-time until she was twelve, Gloria Steinem has come a long way.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1934, to a Presbyterian mother and a Jewish father, she spent her childhood living and traveling in a house trailer from which her father sold antiques. When her parents divorced in 1945, she became the caretaker for her depressed mother and dreamed of a way to escape from Toledo. Help came from her elder sister, Suzanne, who took her to live with her in Washington, D.C., where she graduated from high school and then went to Smith College. During college, she spent a summer at Oxford, earned a Phi Beta Kappa key and graduated Magna Cum Laude. After Smith, she spent two years on a fellowship in India where she learned first-hand about oppression.
Although she wasn't in a classroom much as a child, she read and absorbed her mother's Theosophist beliefs. Theosophism was partnered with teaching that Judaism was a proud heritage, about anti-Semitism and the crimes of the Holocaust. “This is going on in the world and we must know about it,” her mother told her daughters.
There was also the heritage of her Jewish paternal grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem. Although Steinem didn't discover the full scope of her grandmother's activism until she was older, she followed more in her footsteps than in any others. Pauline Steinem was an eminent women's rights activist. She was a chair of the educational committee of the National Woman Suffrage Association, a delegate to the 1908 International Council of Women, and the first woman elected to the Toledo Board of Education, on a ticket supported by the socialist and anarchist parties. She was equally active in Jewish groups, as president of the Toledo section of the National Council of Jewish Women, national chair of the Sabbath School Committee and president of the Hebrew Associated Charities. Just prior to World War II, in spite of her being a universalist, not a Zionist, her generous financial support made it possible for many European relatives to emigrate to Palestine at the cost of $500 a person.
In 1960, Gloria Steinem embarked on a career as a journalist in New York City. By 1963, having published articles in Esquire, she was able to work as a full-time freelancer but, as a woman, she was denied the serious assignments she wanted in the political arena. In 1968, she finally broke through at New York Magazine. She was hired as a founding editor and political columnist and covered the 1968 presidential campaign, civil rights, antiwar, and migrant workers' movements. While reporting on events, she joined many of the causes, marching, speaking, and raising money.
Covering abortion hearings in 1969, she realized how many women felt oppressed and had suffered from restrictive government policies on abortion and other issues. At this point her entire focus shifted to the women's liberation movement. Her article, “After Black Power, Women's Liberation,” won a journalism award and in the early 70s she joined forces with Dorothy Pitman Hughes, an African American, on a national speaking tour calling for legalized abortion, equal pay for equal work and passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.
In 1972, the two women published the first issue of MS., a landmark magazine for feminist issues. In the same year, Steinem, who coined the phrase “reproductive freedom,” was vociferous in the call to legalize abortion. McCall's magazine named her Woman of the Year.
Steinem thought she'd be at MS. for a couple of years. Now, more than thirty years later she says, “it's inspiring that it's still here and depressing that it's still needed.” The magazine, like the movement, is now international. Steinem says, ”there is still a generation of women who feel alone.” In America, “white women are the last group who vote for men who don't vote for them.”
She was a founder of the Ms. Foundation for Women, the National Women's Political Caucus, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women.
Asked about her Jewish identification, she says that she's always identified with “out” groups and the Jews were so often embattled.
For twenty years, Steinem has joined a small group of “sisters” who plan and perform a women's Seder on the third night of Passover. Using traditional ritual objects and a non-traditionalist Hagaddah, written by women, they gather for a ceremony of poetry, song, prayer and personal testimony to honor Jewish women and female expressions of spirituality. Steinem says, “the women's Seder introduced me to rites I hadn't known.” It was the first spiritually-centered occasion in her feminist life. “When I feel most drawn to Judaism, it's not the law part that attracts me, it's the mystical part, the Kabala, the Shechinah.” Socially, she feels drawn to “Jewish warmth, sensuality, expressiveness.”
Among the books she has authored are, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, 1983; Marilyn: Norma Jean, 1986; Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem, 1992; and Moving Beyond Words, 1994.
Relishing the “Golden Years,” she says that “I see aging as where the revolutionaries and the radicals are going to be in the critical mass…. Women get more radical with age, men get more conservative…. There's going to be a lot of fireworks and a lot of excitement.”
Appearances on CUNY TV
Eldridge & Co.
Jewish Women in America
- Gloria Steinem
February 4, 2004
- Chelsea Handler and Gloria Steinem
April 14, 2017