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How Gloria Steinem Became a Feminist Shero

Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem is the familiar face of feminism for generations of men and women all over the world. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Here we are. Four waves and well over a century into the feminist movement, and let's just say there's still a fair amount of confusion over what the heck a feminist actually is. "A big misconception about feminism (still!) is that feminism means that you don't like men," says Jennifer Berger, executive director of About-Face, a nonprofit that teaches teen girls to question messages in media and other forms of culture. "Nope. We don't like patriarchy, which is a system — albeit created by men — that puts men at the center of everything."

That's certainly one way to sum it up. Another succinct definition that you may want to point misled people to? "A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men."‬ Those are the simple, straightforward words of a woman many consider to be the "Mother of Feminism" (or at least one of its more modern incarnations): Gloria Steinem.

For people like Berger, whose organization educates girls in the classroom and online to take action in the form of long-term social change, Steinem is a revolutionary pioneer and someone who changed the face of the feminist movement. "Anyone who's a feminist has had that 'moment' when we realize we have to do something about sexism," she says. "There are so many feminists who are self-identified men who truly want equality between genders, races and all people — I've met so many of them! Feminism is: 'a belief that women and men should have equal opportunities.' That's it! Who can't get behind that?"

Thanks to the work of Steinem and countless others, it's getting harder to deny the importance of the feminist movement and the ongoing need for more participation and understanding in the fight for equality.

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The Early Years

Steinem was born March 25, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio. When her parents divorced in 1944, she was left to take care of her mentally ill mother, but once she graduated from high school and her sister took the reins at home, Steinem went off to study government at Smith College in Massachusetts. Not only did she study; she thrived. In 1956, she graduated magna cum laude and even earned a fellowship that allowed her to spend two years studying and researching in India. It was this two-year stint abroad that sparked Steinem's interest in grassroots activism and social justice.

Once she returned to the United States, Steinem started a career as a freelance writer and felt more compelled to get involved in the nation's view of and treatment of women as second-class citizens. "I didn't begin my life as an active feminist until I went to an abortion speak-out in a church basement in the Village in 1969, when I was already in my mid-30s," Steinem wrote for New York magazine (which she helped co-found) in 1998.

I was there covering it, and I was sitting on the windowsill on the side, still being a reporter. I remember one young woman talking about how a board of men at the hospital wanted her to tell them how she got pregnant — it was some kind of voyeuristic exercise. Then they told her that they would give her the abortion, but only if she agreed to be sterilized. That was unusual only in that she was white ...There was something about seeing women tell the truth about their lives in public, and seeing women take seriously something that only happens to women. In my experience, things were only taken seriously if they also happened to men. It made some sense of my own experience — I had had an abortion and had never told anyone. It was one of those moments when you ask, 'Why? Who said?'

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The Launch of a New Kind of Media

Witnessing these events from the sidelines inspired Steinem to leave her journalist role behind and take a more active role in the feminist movement, which entered its second wave circa 1968, influenced by critical events including the civil rights movement and the fallout of the Vietnam War. In 1971, Steinem joined forces with other well-known feminist leaders like Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan to form the National Women's Political Caucus, which remains the only national organization solely dedicated to increasing women's participation in all areas of political and public life.

That year was also a pivotal time for Steinem because it was the year she launched a game-changing publication: Ms. magazine. What began as a New York magazine insert in December 1971, went on to have a life of its own as a standalone magazine in 1972. It was like no other women's publication on newsstands — or anywhere, really. It covered serious topics like domestic abuse and was even the first national magazine to feature the subject on its cover in 1976.

Gloria Steinem
Gloria Steinem with attorney Bella Abzug, nicknamed "Battling Bella," Democratic Congresswoman from New York, giving a speech in 1972.
Leonard McCombe/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

"Ms. got started by Ms. Steinem, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Mary Thom and others like Patricia Carbine, Joanne Edgar, Nina Finkelstein and Mary Peacock," Berger says, pointing out that Steinem and her team created a novel and alternative kind of media directed at women. "They wanted to have a magazine dedicated to the women's movement that wasn't all about how to look prettier and serve your husband better and be more attractive to men in general. And they didn't want advertising in it, which can totally change what a magazine or website editor thinks they can cover, and how exactly they can cover it."

According to Berger, Ms. was a revolutionary milestone in media and the feminism movement. "We have to remember that the internet did not exist at all, so magazines and newspapers and very limited TV were in the media then," she says. "Ms. was truly groundbreaking, a total shift, like their movement was a shift. It paved the way for other feminist magazines like Bitch, and Bust. And it probably also started a trend toward smaller magazines feeling like they could get established with Ms. as a business model they could look up to. In fact, I thought I might start a feminist teen magazine in the 2000s, but then publishing on the internet basically ate the magazine world for lunch."

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Fighting for a Cause

Steinem served as a Ms. editor for 15 years and while she continues to play a role as a consulting editor, she's paved the way for change in a multitude of areas beyond the pages of the publication. Steinem co-founded a variety of organizations that helped shape the role of feminism in America over the decades. In 1971, she helped establish the Women's Action Alliance, which promotes non-sexist, multiracial children's education and in 1977, she co-created Voters for Change, a pro-choice political action committee which later merged with the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. In 2004, she was a key player in creating the Women's Media Center, which promotes positive images of women in media — a cause Berger has devoted her career to.

"Honestly, who wasn't inspired by her?" Berger says, citing some of the feminist movement's modern leaders who she feels were directly influenced by Steinem. "One is Dr. Jean Kilbourne, who exposed how the media represents women in the film "Killing Us Softly," and she is my major inspiration in my drive to help girls decode the media messages they're getting every day ... and the line will continue from there. Others who take after her as writers, like Jessica Valenti, Lindy West and Jaclyn Friedman, also come to mind."

Despite the decades of work from feminists like Steinem, Berger says the true message of feminism is still muddled and misconstrued. "Because of this misconception, it's still hard for a company or organization or nonprofit to even use the word 'feminism' if they want to include folks from all over the country or world," she says. "So at About-Face, we really don't say we're a feminist organization, but if you know what feminist ideals are, you can see that we're inspired by them. We're working to be sure teen girls know their power and use their voices to advocate for themselves to create equality."

There are other pervasive stereotypes that Berger says continue to limit the reach and impact of Steinem's vision. "It's also a misconception that feminism is for white women like me," she says. "The idea of 'white feminism' needs to go away — it refers to the fact that some white women who are feminists don't have a good handle on how to be strong allies for women of color. That's not a problem with feminism as a whole, but a problem with the women who first called themselves feminists, who excluded women of color or did not address their needs too. And it's a problem with some of the current white female feminists. White women need to become truly aware of their privilege, show up as allies when we're wanted, and help eliminate that term. I think more women of color are feminists now, but for a while there, it was not a term that was accepted. Alice Walker, the writer, coined the term 'womanism' to get around this knotty issue."

While Steinem may not have had it all figured out in her early days, Berger believes she gained important knowledge and experience as she progressed throughout her career "Gloria evolved," Berger says. "She didn't know much about native, indigenous rights or about workers' rights early on, but became friends with Wilma Mankiller and Dolores Huerta and showed up at their fights to help out or help them get media coverage."

Today, Steinem lives in New York City and appears to still be fighting for feminism. In 2013, President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2017, Rutgers University created The Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies. In 2009, she seemed to sum it up quite nicely, saying, "The idea of retiring is as foreign to me as the idea of going hunting."

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