30th Anniversary Issue / Gloria Steinem: First Feminist

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-thirties. 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. And that wonderful abortion doctor from Pennsylvania was there, the one who helped thousands of women. He charged very little and handed you socialist literature on the way out. One woman’s boyfriend had told her she couldn’t get pregnant if it was his second orgasm. I can remember people laughing. 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?”

It wasn’t until 1971, when Ms. started, that the public speaking really took off. For twenty years, not a week went by when I wasn’t on a plane. I started out life as a writer, and writers write in part because they don’t want to talk. It was an alarming departure to go out and speak in public. I think the worst moment came when I had to address the Washington Post editorial board at the request of Kay Graham, to try to convince them to stop opposing the extension of the deadline for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. The editorial position of the Post is very important in Washington, and so I had the feeling that what I did that day might make a huge difference. I lost all my saliva, and my voice was quavering. It was a nightmare. And they were implacable. Full of sports metaphors: “Well, you know, you can’t change the rules in the middle of the game.” I never convinced them. But we won anyway, on the extension at least.

I remember someone once asked Jack Kennedy why he was paying such close attention to the renovation of the square across from the White House, and he said, “It may be the only thing my presidency is remembered for.” You never know whether what you do will turn out to be important or not. My most quoted line was said completely off the cuff. Some other editors at Ms. magazine were throwing me an omelet party at some restaurant in the neighborhood for my 40th birthday. And a reporter said to me, kindly, “Oh, you don’t look 40.” And I said, just off the top of my head, “This is what 40 looks like – we’ve been lying for so long, who would know?” Age really was a great penalty for women.

People thought we were too angry. Then they started to think we were against sex. From Emma Goldman to Margaret Sanger up to this new wave of feminists, everybody has been saying women have a right to sexual pleasure. So I’ve been trying to figure out how the idea that feminists are anti-sex came about, when it’s so clearly not the case. Especially me – I was the one always accused of using men, of being too sexual. Someone once sent me a cartoon of a tombstone that said at last she sleeps alone.

When I had a fellowship at the Smithsonian, I asked for a couch in the office because I liked to lie down and take a break. This ended up as a sex joke in the Washington Post, that I had a couch in my office: Obviously it must have been for sex – we were sluts. There was one postcard I used to keep on my wall at Ms. It was like poetry; it had everything in it. It said, “Now that I have read your magazine, I know for sure that you are a commie, lesbian, long-haired dyke, witch, slut, who dates negroids.” And then the finish: “Isn’t that just like a Jew.” They assumed I was Jewish, because they thought feminism was a Jewish plot to divide the Christian family.

After twenty years, I couldn’t do it anymore. I’d been through five stages of burnout; I got breast cancer; the universe was telling me to slow down. I think about the members of Congress sometimes – they have a staff. A movement person has much more work than a member of Congress, and no staff, really. In a way, a movement is like a campaign that never ends. That Election Day never comes.

I still travel, probably too much. I just got back from South Africa; tomorrow I’m going to Birmingham to visit the clinic that was bombed, and next week I’m going to California. I’m in the process of writing a book about these last 28 years or so of being on the road. I don’t know what the title is, but the subtitle is America As If It Really Mattered. I’m writing it on the grounds that we should write what we can uniquely write. There may be someone who’s been on the road as much as I have for as long as I have, but if so, I don’t know who it is.

From the beginning, I was making choices, not because I knew what I wanted to do but because I knew what I didn’t want: I didn’t want to get married. It didn’t take courage not to want the picture of marriage that had been painted for us. Once you got married, you could make no other choices; that was it. You took his name, his credit rating, his social identity. I have no idea why I resisted when so many other women who felt the same way did not. Maybe it’s because I didn’t go to school until I was 12, so I missed a little bit of social conditioning. I used to go to school until it was Halloween or something, and then we’d get in our little house trailer and go somewhere else.

In my old age – really old age, since I’m going to live past 100, I hope – I would love to have a diner. A little diner with blue gingham curtains by the side of the road, because diners are the most democratic places. Everyone goes – truck drivers go, people from the neighborhood, people in their tuxes after parties go. And they’re cheerful and cozy and you get just the kind of reward food you want. They’re truly populist places. And in the back room, we could have a little revolutionary meeting from time to time.

Interviewed by Susan Dominus

30th Anniversary Issue / Gloria Steinem: First Feminist