A Lifetime Spent Fighting for Women’s Rights
American feminist, journalist, media producer, and political activist Gloria Steinem is considered the world’s most famous feminist for her work in the Women’s Liberation Movement.1 Spanning from the late 1960s to the 1970s, the Women’s Liberation Movement fought for equal opportunities and rights, as well as greater personal freedom for women.2 To this end, Steinem has also been referenced as being involved with the second wave of feminism.
Steinem co-founded Ms. Magazine, the first feminist magazine, and has helped launch a variety of groups dedicated to advancing civil rights.2 Her perseverance in the field of feminism has resulted in influential organizations supporting women’s rights, such as the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the National Women’s Political Caucus, and the Women’s Media Center. Among other honors, Steinem was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 for her activism, an award recognizing her meritorious contributions and bestowed by President Barack Obama. Steinem continues to travel as an organizer and lecturer on issues of equality.3
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Gloria Steinem is most known for her activism in the Women’s Liberation Movement, a social movement in the 1960s and 1970s that sought equal rights and opportunities, as well as greater freedom for women.2, 4
The Women’s Liberation Movement occurred during a period of patriarchal, male-dominated institutions and cultural practices.4 As such, feminist activists had to persevere during challenging contexts and against backlash, forcing Steinem to adopt innovative approaches to advance equal rights. Since her involvement in the 1960s and 1970s, society has seen some progress regarding equal rights and opportunities. Although there is still work to be done, the world is a better place due to Steinem’s feminist activism. While the first wave of feminism focused on gender equality in the legal domain - such as voting and property rights - the Women’s Liberation Movement was part of the second wave of feminism, which addressed a broad range of topics such as sexuality, the workplace, reproductive rights, and family.6
An example of Steinem’s involvement with the Women’s Liberation Movement is the creation of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). Steinem co-founded the NWPC in July 1971 with other female activists including Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Myrlie Evers-Williams.2 The NWPC has since supported gender equality and provided training for women who sought elected and/or appointed offices in government.7 The goal of the NWPC is to ensure the involvement of more pro-equality women in public office, especially to important policy-making posts. In order to do this, the NWPC works with other women’s groups and reviews the qualifications of hundreds of women, selecting names and credentials to submit to new administrations. As a co-founder, Steinem delivered a speech in July 1971 titled, “Address to the Women of America” where she said:
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 humans 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.8
(F) Steinem believes the advancement of equal rights and opportunities for women is crucial for better the world, as demonstrated in her activism and some journalistic pieces such as “What It Would Be Like If Women Win”.5 Steinem has also contributed to political campaigns across the years, voicing her support for and against certain administrations regarding their stance on equal rights. Steinem endorsed Senator Hillary Clinton in both the 2008 and 2016 presidential campaigns, 9 10 and spoke at the Women’s March on Washington in January 2017, after the inauguration of Donald Trump.11 The demonstration was meant to support civil rights and gender equality - issues that were expected to face challenges under President Donald Trump. There has been no shortage of Steinem’s activism in the 20th and 21st centuries, even in the past few years.
Gloria Steinem was born on March 25, 1934 in Toledo, Ohio.12 Spending her early years traveling in a house trailer with her parents, Steinem started attending school on a regular basis after her parent’s divorce in 1944. As a child, Gloria took care of her mother who was chronically depressed and often experienced delusions that would occasionally turn violent. Steinem believed that her mother’s inability to hold a job was due to workplace hostility toward women, and that the apathy exhibited by doctors toward her mother’s condition stemmed from an anti-woman attitude. These experiences convinced Steinem that women lacked equality, influencing her understanding of social injustices.
Steinem moved to Washington, D.C. during her last year of high school to live with her older sister, where she attended Western High School.2 Steinem went on to study government at Smith College in Massachusetts, a liberal arts college for women. After graduating in 1956, Steinem received the Chester Bowles fellowship, which allowed her to spend two years in India writing for journal publications. It was here that her interest in grassroots activism started, participating in nonviolent protests against government policy and inspired by Gandhian activism.3
In 1960, Steinem moved to New York, where she started being more active in politics as a journalist and columnist.1 Her first big story was on the state of contraception, for Esquire Magazine. One of her most controversial pieces came soon after in 1963, when she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny at the New York Playboy Club.13 In a two-part diary-style piece for Show Magazine, Steinem detailed how the women were treated and exploited. Stuffing cleavage, sexual demands, pay, and rules about who to date - to name a few - were all documented. It was 1969, however, when Steinem really embraced her calling for activism. She attended an abortion speak-out for New York Magazine, at a time where women were not afforded the freedom of choice.14 As she listened to women in a secret gathering, sharing their stories, Gloria thought of her own secret abortion in 1957. Her own experience with the illegal procedure, while hearing other women’s experiences, resulted in a “big click”.
After this, Steinem went on to attend many activist campaigns and helped found multiple women’s organizations.2 She co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1971 and also co-founded Ms. Magazine in the same year, the first magazine that treated contemporary issues from a feminist perspective. She helped found the Coalition of Labor Union Women (CLUW) in 1973, an organization of women trade unionists.15 The CLUW supports legislation to end wage discrepancies, as well as the implementation of child-care and parental-leave policies. Steinem aso helped found Voters for Choice and Women Against Pornography, as well as the Women’s Media Center. Founded in 2005 alongside fellow activists Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan, the Women’s Media Center a non-profit women’s organization that connects journalists, bookers, and producers.16
Steinem characterizes herself as a radical feminist, having shown up across all categories related to feminism.17 She co-produced an Emmy Award winning HBO documentary on child abuse, “Multiple Personalities: The Search for Deadly Memories,” and co-produced a movie for Lifetime, “Better off Dead,” examining the forces that both oppose abortion and support the death penalty.3 Steinem herself has been the subject of documentaries and movies, and has received numerous awards, such as being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993, the 2013 Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the 2017 Ban Ki-moon Award for Women’s Empowerment. Steinem has achieved all her successes while overcoming breast cancer and trigeminal neuralgia.1 18
“Revolutions that last don’t happen from the top down. They happen from the bottom up.”
“A belief in equality, without division by sex or race, is now held by a huge majority in public-opinion polls. But a stubborn minority of Americans feel deprived of the unearned privilege of that old hierarchy and are in revolt. The time of greatest danger comes after a victory, and that’s where we are now.”
-Gloria Steinem in her 2020 TIME Magazine article
“Like art, revolutions come from combining what exists into what has never existed before.”
-Gloria Steineim in her collection of essays, Moving Beyond Words
“We’ll never solve the feminization of power until we solve the masculinity of wealth.”
“From now on, no man can call himself liberal, or radical, or even a conservative advocate of fair play, if his work depends in any way on the unpaid or underpaid labor of women at home, or in the office.”
-Gloria steinem in her book, My Life on the Road
“A Bunny’s Tale”: Part 1 and Part 2 by Gloria Steinem, in Show Magazine (1963). In the early stages of her journalism career, Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny at the New York Playboy Club, under the alias of Marie Catherine Ochs. Perhaps one of Steinem’s most famous works, “A Bunny’s Tale” exposed the exploitative working conditions of Playboy Bunnies, including the sexual demands and restrictions imposed upon them.
“After Black Power, Women’s Liberation” by Gloria Steinem, in New York Magazine (!969). This article brought Steinem to national fame as a feminist leader, as she redefined notions of liberty. Moreover, Steinem recognizes the role that African American women played in fueling the momentum for early feminism, and how they shaped the movement.
“What Would it Be Like if Women Win” by Gloria Steinem, in Time Magazine (1970). In this article, Steinem describes the utopic future she envisions, where traditional gender roles would be relaxed and sexist laws would be abolished. Women would see more gender fluidity and equality. The linked article contains the original, revisited by Steinem in 2020, on what she would add or change.
“If Men Could Menstruate” by Gloria Steinem, in Ms. Magazine (1978). In a satirical essay published in Ms. Magazine - the first feminist magazine co-founded by Steinem - she demonstrates her feminist alignments by imagining a world where men could menstruate instead of women. She proposes that in this world, menstruation would become a badge of honor as men compared their relative sufferings, instead of the source of shame that it had been for women.
Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem by Gloria Steinem (1993). In this novel, Steinem recognizes that one must first engage in a revolution within themselves - regarding their self-esteem - before engaging in a political revolution. Steinem exercises her writing abilities here, covering ways to take control of one’s self-esteem and encouraging readers to trust their “one true inner voice”.
Moving Beyond Words by Gloria Steinem (1994). This collection of essays examines the state of the women’s movement in the 1990s and explores possibilities for the future. Steinem focuses on issues including female politicians, economic empowerment and life affirmations.
“Gloria Steinem: First Feminist” in New York Magazine (1998). In this interview, Steinem recounts covering an abortion speak-out for the magazine back in 1969. Steinem herself had an abortion when she was 22 years old, and she describes how she didn’t begging her life as an active feminist until that day when she felt a “big click” at the speak-out.
As If Women Matter: The Essential Gloria Steinem Reader by Gloria Steinem (2014). Steinem publishes another collection of thought-provoking essays, this time purely focused on feminism. The essays stem from her experiences in India and other developing countries, to her activism in the United States. Steinem touches on topics such as violence and human trafficking, including a never-before released essay on sex trafficking titled, “The Third Way”.
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem (2015). In this memoir, Steinem explores how her early years shaped her later life, one of which was constantly on-the-road. Steinem considers her own growth as she has travelled, listening to and learning from others, and how this shaped her activism in the women’s movement.
The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!: Thoughts on Life, Love, and Rebellion by Gloria Steinem (2019). The quotes included in this profile only offer a snippet into Steinem’s many inspirational insights. In this illustrated collection of Steinmen’s most inspirational - as well as controversial - quotes, readers can develop a richer picture of Gloria Steinmen.
- Karbo, K. (2019, March 25). How Gloria Steinem became the “world’s most famous feminist”. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/article/how-gloria-steinem-became-worlds-most-famous-feminist
- Gloria Steinem. (2021, March 21). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Gloria-Steinem
- About - Gloria Steinem. (2021). Gloria Steinem. http://www.gloriasteinem.com/about
- Burkett, E. (2020, November 6). Women’s rights movement. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/womens-movement
- Steinem, G. (2020, March 5). 50 years ago, Gloria Steinem wrote an essay for TIME about her hopes for women’s futures. Here’s what she’d add today. TIME. https://time.com/5795657/gloria-steinem-womens-liberation-progress/
- Burkett, E. (2021, March 24). Feminism. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/feminism
- National Women’s Political Caucus. (2007, December 17). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/National-Womens-Political-Caucus
- Gloria Steinem addresses the women of America. (2012, May 30). History. https://www.history.com/topics/holidays/gloria-steinem-addresses-the-nwpc-video
- Feldman, C. (2007, September 18). Has Gloria Steinem mellowed? No way. Houston Chronicle. https://www.chron.com/life/article/Has-Gloria-Steinem-mellowed-No-way-1839201.php
- James, B. (2016, February 10). Media bigwigs donate to Hillary Clinton; Writers donate to Bernie Sanders. International Business Times. https://www.ibtimes.com/media-bigwigs-donate-hillary-clinton-writers-donate-bernie-sanders-2301896
- Hartocollis, A., & Alcindor, Y. (2017, January 21). Women’s March highlights as huge crows protest Trump: “We’re not going away”. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/us/womens-march.html
- Steinem, G. (1983). Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions. Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
- Mills, N. (2013, May 26). Gloria Steinem’s “A Bunny’s Tale” - 50 years later. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/may/26/gloria-steinem-bunny-tale-still-relevant-today
- Pogrebin, A. (2011, October 28). How do you spell Ms. New York Magazine. https://nymag.com/news/features/ms-magazine-2011-11/
- Coalition of Labor Union Women. (2019, December 16). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Coalition-of-Labor-Union-Women
- What we do. (2021). Women’s Media Center. https://www.womensmediacenter.com
- Schnall, M. (1995, April 3). Interview with Gloria Steinem. Feminist.com. https://www.feminist.com/resources/artspeech/interviews/gloria.htm
- Gorney, C. (1995). Gloria. Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/1995/11/gloria/