Why We Love Gloria Steinem

At the end of last month, writer, activist, producer and trail-blazing feminist Gloria Steinem celebrated her 80th birthday. For those of you wondering “Gloria who?” Gloria Steinem (not Who) is arguably one of the most influential American women of the twentieth/twenty-first century and is credited with being a leader of the modern women’s movement. While working as a journalist in the sixties, Steinem covered an abortion hearing for New York Magazine. This was the first moment, according to Steinem, when the talented young writer considered engaging in activism: “I heard women standing up and saying in public and taking seriously something that only affected women. Up until then, I’d never heard that. If it didn’t also affect men, it couldn’t be serious.” Since then, Steinem has been taking society by storm – increasing the visibility of women outside of the private sphere, rallying for equal rights, challenging gender norms, and, in more recent years, speaking out against child abuse, the death penalty, and systemic violence.

In 1972, Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine – one of the first magazines featuring topics that were rarely talked about, let alone acknowledged in a widely distributed print medium. Articles touched on issues like sexual harassment, discrimination on the basis of gender, sex, domestic abuse, and double standards. According to the magazine’s webpage, “after the first regular issue hit the newsstands in July 1972, the network news anchor Harry Reasoner challenged, ‘I'll give it six months before they run out of things to say.’” Unsurprisingly, the joke’s on Harry Reasoner – the magazine flew off the shelves like freshly baked camel cookies in the presence of starved freshman at orientation. Turns out, women have brains. Since its promising debut, the magazine has continued to publicize issues related to women that deserve to be at the forefront of national dialogue.

It is in part thanks to Ms. magazine and Gloria Steinem that three-dimensional women and the issues that affect women have been able to carve out a niche in the mainstream media. Still, Steinem reminds us that there is work to be done. She points to the continued focus on beauty standards and beauty products in magazines with a female target audience: “really they’re catalogues, not magazines,” quips Steinem. Her suggestion? “They’re much cheaper because of advertising, but I think we would be better off if we paid for the magazines – just as we do for books – and they had what we care about in them.” 

Steinem also has concerns about the media in general. Her strongest criticisms pertain to the content of journalistic pieces: “the premise of most media is that only conflict is newsworthy.” The media dedicates an enormously disproportionate amount of space to conflict – murder trials, abduction, war, terrorism. Though few people would argue that these issues do not deserve national attention, the case can be made that there is an underrepresentation of solutions in the media. Presumably, for every conflict that the media presents, there is at least one person working to resolve it – “why not make solutions as newsworthy as problems, and treat conversation about possibilities as interesting?”  Perhaps doing so will engender more collaborative, effective strategies for addressing today’s issues. But the media’s focus on conflict isn’t the only area that needs improvement; Steinem also laments the lack of narrative in news pieces. Narrative is disdainfully regarded as a soft or feminine approach to news, whereas articles that center on facts and statistics are hard and masculine, reputable and useful. Steinem challenges this dichotomy: “It happens that our brains work on narrative, because we’ve been sitting around campfires for our entire being. So, we’re starved for narrative. And I think that’s why we turn to celebrities. They’re the only narrative in town. It’s also part of the reason we dislike media.”

It wouldn’t be right to let Gloria’s eightieth birthday slide past without also taking a moment to reflect on the condition of feminism presently. When asked what some of the most pressing issues for women are today, Steinem first conceded “whatever each individual woman is facing” may be considered important, since “only she knows her biggest challenge,” before saying that “female bodies are still the battleground, whether that means restricting freedom, birth control, and safe abortion in order to turn them into factories or abandoning female infants because females are less valuable for everything other than reproduction.”  She also acknowledges that rigid gender norms still govern society, often impeding women from obtaining equal rights and representation. Of course, Steinem has a recommendation for moving society forward: “defy [gender roles] and highlight people who are defying them. As we keep saying, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. The more you actually see it – real people doing different things – the better off we are.”

Though we still have a ways to go before gender equality is a reality, leaps and bounds have been made since Steinem first came on the scene in the late sixties. “Women and girls no longer feel crazy, alone or flying in the face of nature if they have the outrageous idea that they should be treated as full human beings.”  Our generation has much to celebrate because of the determination and bravery of women like Gloria Steinem. Hopefully, we will find a way to improve the reality of future generations of sisters, all the while remembering that “[to know] that the system is crazy, not you, is a huge leap forward.”

These are some of our favorite quotes from Steinem to keep us motivated as we move forward: 

The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.

Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment in itself.

Any woman who chooses to behave like a full human being should be warned that the armies of the status quo will treat her as something of a dirty joke. That's their natural and first weapon. She will need her sisterhood.

Without leaps of imagination, or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all, is a form of planning.

 

 

Sources

Benjamin, Scott. "No Slowdown For Gloria Steinem." CBS News. N.p., 22 Jan. 2006. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.

"Gloria Steinem Quotes." BrainyQuote. Xplore, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2014.

"Herstory: 1971-Present." Ms. Magazine Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.

Jones, Abigail. "Gloria Steinem at 80: Taking Stock of Today's Women's Movement." Newsweek. N.p., 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.

"Q&A.” The Official Website of Author and Activist. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.

Salamone, Gina. "The Gloria Steinem Factor: On Feminist Icon's 75th Birthday, She Has Much to Celebrate, as Do We." New York Daily News. N.p., 24 Mar. 2009. Web. 6 Apr. 2014.

 

 

 

 

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