If you are a woman, Gloria Steinem is like an indispensable computer program, always running in the background of your life. You don’t always remember that she’s there, but without her, your life would be constrained in ways you can hardly imagine.
Run for office? Lead a company? Become an engineer? Go to space? Work free of sexual harassment or live on equal legal footing with your husband? Control your own reproductive fate?
So many of the rights that women enjoy -- even the most conservative women -- exist because of relentless feminists like Steinem, who, at 79, shows no signs of slowing down.
Her career began explosively in 1963, with her turn as an undercover Playboy Bunny and her Show magazine expose of the job’s degradations.
“I learned what it was like to be hung from meat hook,” she said at the time, though she has subsequently expressed regret for the stunt that made her famous. “I could not have made a bigger mistake,” she told the Associated Press in 2011, on the occasion of an HBO documentary celebrating her career. “It was personally and professionally a disaster. In the short term it was much harder to get serious assignments, and in the long term it’s been used to ridicule me."
She went on to become the exceedingly attractive face of a movement vilified as ugly and angry. With many famous allies, she founded numerous organizations devoted to women’s equality and to battling insidious forces, like pornography and female genital mutilation. She is probably best known for co-founding Ms., a once-influential monthly magazine, which began in 1971 as a New York magazine insert.
I caught up with Steinem this week at the first annual Makers conference, a woman-power confab at a posh seaside resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, where she was -- though she’d surely dismiss the idea -- first among equals.
Every woman who listened, every woman who spoke over the course of the three-day event -- Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, Martha Stewart, astronauts Cady Coleman and Mae Jemeson, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell, diplomat Melanne Verveer, actors Jane Fonda and Geena Davis, comedian Chelsea Handler -- was well aware of her debt to Steinem.
“You’ve raised many women, for sure,” said Jennifer Aniston, who interviewed Steinem girlfriend-to-girlfriend onstage Monday night.
Steinem, jet lagged after a flight from India, hit many notes. She said that she was not sorry “for a millisecond” that she has not had children of her own, that equal pay for women “would be the greatest economic stimulus that this country could ever have” and that her favorite book is “Sex and World Peace,” in which author Valerie M. Hudson demonstrates that the best indicator of whether a country is violent or apt to wage war against another country is not poverty, religion nor natural resources, but its level of violence against women.
“What’s the best word to describe you?” asked Aniston.
“Hope-aholic,” Steinem replied.
“What would you like to be remembered for?”
“As a person who had a good heart and tried to make the world a little more kind.”
“What’s the question you are most sick of people asking?”
“ ‘How is the women’s movement? Where has it been, and where is it going?’ It’s huge. You can’t answer that.” (For the record, though, when asked what the next generation of women should do, she replied, “I think they know. I don’t think they need me to tell them.”)
The next day, I met with Steinem in a private room at the Terranea Resort. She shivered against the Palos Verdes fog blowing in through an open door, and she wrapped her frail frame in a coat embroidered in brilliant colors. She could easily be mistaken for a woman 20 years her junior. Her hair has the same familiar blondish streaks, and in a bow to vanity, she removed her glasses (smaller than her famous oversized aviators) for a photo.
In India, she said, where she devotes much of her time to the grassroots group, Apne App, founded by a group of Mumbai prostitutes to help women and girls break away from the sex trade. (Apne App was inspired by a documentary about the sexual enslavement of Nepalese girls “sold” to brothels in Mumbai.)
At home, Steinem said, she often campaigns for Democratic candidates (though never as a surrogate), and said her job is to persuade Republican and independent women to vote Democratic.
“I’m sorry to say that a lot of us go to Republican women and say, ‘How can you be Republican?’ So, naturally, who would respond to that? Nobody. You have to say, ‘Look, the party left you, you didn’t leave the party. Your party was the first to support the Equal Rights Amendment, reproductive freedom under the first Bush, and Goldwater.… So let’s just forget about words like Democrat and Republican, and let’s look at the issues.’ ”
In 2012, after supporting Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primary, she worked on behalf of Barack Obama. Next time, though, she believes the country is ready, as never before, for a female chief executive -- and maybe even Clinton.
“There’s no predicting, as you know, but the difference for me is, last time, I knew she couldn’t win,” Steinem said of Clinton. “It was too soon. This time, I think she can. She changed it. The vision of her taking the amount of [guff] that she did, staying strong, focused, smart and being the kind of secretary of State she was, I think, began to allow people to envision a woman in the White House.”
Even a woman in the White House will not bring full equality until things change in the house that matters most, Steinem said.
“I still think that we won’t really have equal leadership until men are raising children as much as women are,” she said. “Because we still associate female authority with childhood. It’s true for women, but it’s especially a problem for some men who, when they see an authoritative female is who is more powerful than they are, feel regressed to childhood. That’s why, if you remember, big grown men on television said things about Hillary like ‘I cross my legs whenever I see her,’ and ‘She reminds me of my ex-wife.’ And all those guys on campuses wearing shirts that said, ‘Too bad Hillary didn’t marry O.J.’ ”
In 2000, Steinem, always so dismissive of marriage as a legal trap for women, tied the knot with her boyfriend David Bale, the South African father of actor Christian Bale. He was 59; she was 66.
“Finally,” trumpeted one newspaper, “a fish gets her bicycle.”
“We’d spent 30 years changing the laws to make marriage legal,” said Steinem. “I wasn’t anymore going to lose my name, my credit rating, my legal domicile. So why not?”
It was a short-lived union: Bale died of lymphoma in 2003.
“So how was marriage?” I asked.
“Well, it didn’t exist,” Steinem said. “I mean, we loved each other and we were together, but getting married was only about the green card.” (Bale was facing possible deportation. In contemporaneous news accounts, however, Steinem had insisted that the wedding was for real, not for convenience.)
Also, she said, her friend Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee nation, had offered the pair a Cherokee wedding ceremony, “Who could resist that?”
She was taken aback by the reaction to her marriage.
“What made me crazy is that people would say to me ridiculous things like ‘At last you found your soul mate, and you waited your whole life,’ ” said Steinem, whose string of ex-lovers included Mike Nichols and Mort Zuckerman. “I said, ‘Excuse me! There were other men that I loved too, and this man was married before, and he had great children. There isn’t just one person.’ ”
But there is, and always will be, only one Gloria Steinem.