Much Ado About Gloria Steinem

Earlier this month HBO released the documentary Gloria: In Her Own Words offering a look at Gloria Steinem’s personal life and involvement in the women’s movement.   Following the release of the documentary, Steinem was interviewed  by journalist and activist Maria Shriver for Interview Magazine to further reflect on the documentary, her life, and her thoughts on feminism and the women’s movement. Let’s take a look at that, shall we?

This Is What A Feminist Looks Like

Signature aviators

First a little background — Steinem began her career working as a journalist in the 1960’s, but the fluff stories she was handed were a far cry from the serious political pieces she wanted to write. She knew her exclusion from serious journalism was due to her womanhood and thus her consciousness of the inequity experienced by women in the workforce and society at large began evolving.

Steinem was afraid of public speaking but clearly beat that phobia to become an outspoken organizer and speaker for the women’s movement and the movement’s most visible leader (often to the exclusion and detriment of women of color, a fact which is more or less ignored in the HBO documentary).

Steinem wanted to be “someone who describes possibilities through revolution rather than reform.” And she is.

We’re All Bunnies

As you may already know from our earlier story covering the show, starting in September  NBC will be airing The Playboy Club, a series set in the 60’s showcasing the first Playboy Club in Chicago. Steinem actually went undercover as a Bunny researching for an article Show magazine early in her journalism career and, based on her experiences there, gives the whole TV show project two major thumbs down.

While for many years following her undercover work she resented the decision to do so, now she feels otherwise.  She explains:

Even now, people ask why I was a Bunny, Right-Wingers still describe me only as a former Bunny, and you’re still asking me about it-almost a half-century later. But feminism did make me realize that I was glad I did it–because I identified with all the women who ended up an underpaid waitress in too-high heels and  a costume that was too tight to breathe in. Most were just trying to make a living and had no other way of doing it. I’d made up a background as a secretary, and the woman who interviewed me asked, “Honey, if you can type, why would you want to work here?” In the sense that we’re all identified too much by our outsides instead of our insides and are mostly in underpaid service jobs, I realized we’re all Bunnies–so yes, I’m glad I did it.

There’s No Such Thing As Masculine and Feminine

You’ve probably all seen the clever slogan, “I’m becoming the man I wanted to marry”, which Steinem often repeats.  On the topic of marriage and the shifting power dynamics between men and women:

SHRIVER: But I hear a lot from young women today who will say, “I’m better educated and more ambitious than a lot of guys. The guys can’t keep up with me, so I can’t find a guy.” I hear it all the time: “I’m too independent for the guy.”

STEINEM: That might be another problem, which is that the person who’s saying these things still believes that men need to have more money, have more education, be more successful, and weigh more than you. By the time you’re finished with all of these things, it’s a wonder that you even like each other. I mean, you may very well fall in love with somebody who makes less money, who’s younger than you, who weighs less than you. [laughs]a

SHRIVER: And if that doesn’t fit a woman’s idea of a man . . .

STEINEM: It’s the cultural idea of masculine and feminine that’s the problem—that there is such a thing as masculine and feminine.

SHRIVER: There’s not?

STEINEM: No, there’s human.

Also important in this conception of the masculine and feminine was the heated conversation around the contention that lesbians were messing up the women’s movement, inspiring Betty Friedan to refer to lesbians as a divisive “lavender menace.” Steinem was against this. The women’s movement is not a public relations movement, she insisted — it’s a revolution and gay rights are a part of that. NOW (National Organization for Women) voted to include lesbian rights as policy issues in 1971.

As an outspoken women, Steinem faced severe criticism for being angry, or a bitch. She explains:

 I think the first price you pay as women who step out front in thatway is that conventional society doesn’t consider it feminine, so you’re challenging your gender role-in the same way that men are when they don’t assert themselves. Then another price you pay-especially right now-is the attention you get from the media, which is just unpredictable. And then a third price, in my case, was that no matter how hard I worked, whatever I accomplished was attributed to my looks. If you’re working your ass off, then you don’t want to be told that you only got what- ever because of the way you look . . . You know, it takes the heart out of you.

As many successful women know, it’s extra-debilitating to face constant accusations that you have slept your way to the top.  Steinem acknowledged that all women, including her, had major self-esteem issues and insecurity, and she wrote about this struggle in Revolution From Within: A Book of Self Esteem. This followed years of seeing smart, talented women with low self-esteem which she recognized as a symptom of patriarchy, racism and classism.


Feminism Then And Now

Many today feel women aren’t engaged in feminism as they were in the 60s, but Steinem refutes that idea: “I spend a lot of time on college campuses, and I don’t quite understand where the idea comes from that young women are not moving forward. In fact, statistically, if you look at the public opinion polls, young women are much more supportive of feminism and feminist issues than older women are.”

The need for safe and affordable abortion was a main motivation for Steinem when she started out in the women’s movement, and she notes today that need has been augmented by causes such as a lack of sex-education and lack of access to birth control. Other issues include that women shouldn’t have to carry most of the weight of child-rearing and the persistent ubiquity of unequal pay in the workforce. She likes the SlutWalks, and other demonstrations against sexual harassment as examples of exciting feminism in action.

This feels meta:

“It has always been clear to me that the stories of each other’s lives are our best textbooks. Every social justice movement that I know of has come out of people sitting in small groups, telling their life stories, and discovering other people have shared similar experiences.”

Jamie lives in Boston and is currently a PhD student in Global Governance and Human Security at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She is a freelance writer and also a team associate for the Boston chapter of Hollaback!.

Jamie has written 79 articles for us.


  1. I picked up a Steinem collection from a free box a few years ago, instinctively carrying a little of the accepted cultural knowledge that here is this kind of old-hat second-wave feminist. And while much of it did seem very much of its time, in other respects it was such a breath of fresh air. Though possibly problematic in some ways, her essay “Erotica vs. Pornography” in particular really reshaped my conception of sex (about which I’d been sort of a tormented prude until then) and starting to take my own (gaygaygay) desires more seriously:

    “For instance, the separation of ‘play’ from ‘work’ is a feature of the human world . . . As a result, we celebrate play, art, and invention as pleasurable and important leaps into the unknown . . . In the same way, we have explored our sexuality as separable from conception: a pleasurable, empathetic, important bridge to others of our species.”

    It seems so obvious now, but I’d never heard it framed quite that way before, and I still find it an incredibly elegant encapsulation.

  2. Gloria Steinem is one of my heroes.

    My mom is a high school history teacher and when she taught U.S. history and covered the feminist movement, she would have her students read Steinem’s essay where she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny. It was often mind-blowing to kids of both genders who’d grown up to see being a Playboy girl as this sexy, coveted things, just how terrible the actual Bunnies in the Playboy Clubs were really treated.

  3. Yes, Gloria is incredible and has done some amazing journalism and activism. I’m glad she’s getting mainstream cred, finally. And yes, she is a product of her times from a couple of standpoints. As you pointed out, she, as with many of the second wave feminists, greatly excluded women of color from their liberation struggles. And secondly, Gloria said some pretty hurtful and horrible things about trans people which were totally a product of her generation but weren’t universal sentiments among all feminists either. Here’s a link describing some of the problematic statements she made (which had a big negative impact on trans health care, emergency housing and inclusion within feminism):

  4. I know this is way late but Amy Richards came to my school the other night to present this movie and i can’t tell you how much it changed my life seeing this movie and learning so much more about feminism. Gloria is a beautiful women and can i just say she was a BABE back in the day. 🙂
    Gloria is someone i look up and i have learned so much from her now.

  5. Pingback: Ally Profile: Gloria Steinem | We Are Straight Allies

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.