How Gloria Steinem became the 'world’s most famous feminist'

Book excerpt details a lifetime fighting for women’s rights.

Photograph by Jack Mitchell, Getty
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A portrait of feminist and author Gloria Steinem in 1975.
Photograph by Jack Mitchell, Getty

How Gloria Steinem became the 'world’s most famous feminist'

Book excerpt details a lifetime fighting for women’s rights.

National Geographic's book In Praise of Difficult Women by Karen Karbo profiles women throughout the world who have pushed societal norms and boundaries in areas spanning the gambit from politics, art, media, books, and more.

On October 7, 2016, the New York Times published a profile of Gloria Steinem and her love of New York. The story began: “Gloria Steinem started her career as a CIA operative, got her break as a Playboy Bunny, married Christian Bale’s father, and now produces a show for the cable television channel Viceland...” At 82, the story continued, Steinem still kept a “rock star’s schedule,” organizing, lecturing, fundraising, stumping for political candidates, and promoting her new book, My Life on the Road. The piece was a little flip, but generally balanced and positive—and if I were Gloria, slogging from city to city on a book tour, my roller bag bumping along behind me, I would be fine with it. Yes, the lead was stupidly reductive, but nothing a little self-soothing at the minibar couldn’t fix. As I polished off a tiny bottle of Dewar’s, I would congratulate myself for letting go of my irritation. After all, what could it possibly matter?

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Illustration of Gloria Steinem by Kimberly Glyder for the book In Praise of Difficult Women.

But that’s why Gloria Steinem is a difficult woman. Things do matter. Language matters. History matters. Truth matters. Within the week, she fired off a response to the Times piece with a letter to the editor, clarifying facts behind the racy lead. She was not a CIA operative, but had attended two Soviet-backed youth festivals in the 1960s, her travel financed by a foundation subsidized by the agency. She had never been a Playboy Bunny, but donned the outfit to go undercover for 10 days to write an exposé. And David Bale, her late husband, was not simply the father of a famous actor, but actually had an identity of his own, as an entrepreneur and animal rights activist.

The tone was classic Gloria Steinem: cool, calm, and witty. I was impressed that she’d taken the time—especially considering that the sentence in question was misleading, but the facts weren’t technically incorrect. Known informally as the World’s Most Famous Feminist, Gloria has been pushing the women’s lib rock uphill for 55 years. She shows no signs of putting her feet up and getting caught up on her binge-watching.

Gloria’s own childhood would make for an excellent show on premium cable. She was born in Toledo, Ohio, on March 25, 1934, during the height of the Depression. Her gregarious father, Leo, was “a traveling antique salesman,” which sounds like an actual profession. In truth he was a charming nomad, pathologically unable to stay in one place, who dragged his wife, Ruth, and two daughters around the country in a trailer, buying and selling antiques simply to get to the next place.

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Gloria Steinem and Dorothy Pitman Hughes stand at a podium in 1970, a year before they co-founded Ms. magazine.

It was a blast for little Gloria. She writes in My Life on the Road about the joy of stopping along the way for Nehi grape soda at middle-of-nowhere gas stations and checking into a hotel when the family needed a shower. Sometimes, at home in Toledo, her dad would get such an intense hankering to be on the road that they would leave the dirty dinner dishes sitting on the counter and just go. This was pretty much hell on her anxious mother, who worried about the things responsible women are always left to worry about, such as where the next meal might be coming from. Ruth was mentally fragile, and had suffered a breakdown or two before Gloria was born.

When Gloria was 10, Ruth and Leo divorced; her older sister was already off at Smith College. Leo took off for California, leaving Gloria alone to look after her mother. Her relationship with Ruth was challenging and poignant. Over and over again, she saw the doctors dismiss her mother’s obvious distress and mental illness—and long before she was a feminist, recognized an anti-woman bias when she saw it. (Read why so many American women die during childbirth.)

Gloria enrolled at Smith, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1956. After college, she moved to New York to become a journalist. Her first meaty assignment was a story for Esquire on the state of contraception. It was 1962, and the Pill was big news—even though it would take 10 more years until it was available to all women, regardless of marital status. The notorious Playboy Bunny story, written for a magazine called Show, came a year later. Gloria zeroed in on the way in which the Bunnies were exploited and sexually harassed in Hugh Hefner’s New York Playboy Club. Her radical conclusion: Just because Bunnies served horny businessmen highballs and medium-rare steaks didn’t mean they were good with being felt up.

In 1969, Gloria reported on an abortion speak-out for New York magazine. Let us recall that freedom to choose would not come along until 1973, and that the women gathered in the church basement in Greenwich Village who stood up and told their stories were basically criminals who were probably lucky to be alive. Gloria had had her own secret abortion when she was 22, performed in London by the doctor to whom she dedicated My Life on the Road. She traces the speak-out and the story she wrote about it to her active embrace of feminism.

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From left, Gloria Steinem, Freada Klein and Karen Savigne look over a magazine in the Ms. magazine office.

In 1971, Gloria co-founded Ms. magazine with African-American activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes. For the next two decades, she was on a plane every few days, traveling to get the word out about why the lives of women were every bit as important as the lives of men.

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan addressed the ennui felt by educated middle-class white women pressed to surrender their ambitions and identities to the rigors of the suburban home and hearth. But Gloria’s view was always global. She understood that race, class, and caste (she traveled for two years after college in India) tend to double and triple the degree of oppression to which women are subjected. She herself was dismissed as a “girl reporter” and had trouble renting an apartment because landlords believed that single women were too irresponsible to be financially reliable. (The feeling was that if by some miracle they were able to pay their rent every month on time, it was because they were prostitutes or some man’s mistress.) Although that attitude was infuriating, Gloria was already well aware that it was nothing compared with the injustices women of color and women of the developing world suffered.

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From left, journalist Gloria Steinem, comedian Dick Gregory, writer Betty Friedan, and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Patricia Roberts Harris hold hands during the Equal Rights Amendment March in Washington D.C., 1978.

Sometimes you’re a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t sort of difficult woman. Gloria is an empathic, good-natured consensus builder, with a dry, self-deprecating wit. She is smart, and by all reports, kind. She listens. She allows people to crash at her cool Manhattan brownstone whenever they want. Really, what’s not to like?

Oh, so much.

Beginning in the early 1970s, after launching Ms., Gloria found herself to be the so-called face of feminism. Esquire dubbed her “the intellectual’s pin-up.”

She was (and still is) despised by conservatives (some of whom think that feminism is an evil capable of bringing down the nation). But many of her own feminist sisters were openly disgruntled with the media’s interest in Gloria. New thinking, radical ideas, bold analysis, and a collective of raised consciences were supposed to float the feminist boat— and not a woman who so thoroughly rocked a miniskirt. (Read Nat Geo's interview with Gloria Steinem.)

A lot of the backlash went back to that damn 1963 Show story—and the accompanying picture of Gloria in full Bunny regalia (strapless satin one-piece, weird little collar with tiny black bow tie, matching satin cuffs, and large, frankly ridiculous satin ears attached to a headband). The fallout from the Bunny story lasted decades. Whatever it was Gloria aimed to do—investigative journalism, political activism, magazine founding, and editing—she was dismissed for being too attractive. Complete insanity, because for women—like it or not, then as now, possibly forever and ever, amen—being considered attractive is always one of the highest cards in our respective decks.

The common wrongheaded thinking about feminism (still!) is that only plain women want equal rights because they aren’t hot enough to attract a husband. In other words, they would play the patriarchal game if they could. You would think all the erudite people opining about second-wave feminism in the 1970s would have been smarter than that—or at least have been aware that life was complicated. (Clay Felker, founder of New York magazine and Gloria’s one-time boss, once said that child care was the only real problem of women; if they just imported more nannies, everything would be fine.)

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Gloria Steinem speaks during the Women's March on Washington in 2017.

But what if a beautiful wife’s husband died, divorced her, or turned out to be such an abusive jerk that she couldn’t stay married any longer? What if, beauty notwithstanding, a woman was smart enough to want a credit card in her own name? (Not possible until 1974.) What if her boss pressed himself on her at work? (Sexual harassment not actionable until 1977.) Or she got pregnant? (Roe v. Wade, 1973.) That stuff happened, and happens every day. Why wouldn’t women want laws to protect themselves? (Hear U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg discuss the power of ‘difficult women.’)

When I was in grade school, a friend’s mother was pregnant with twins and I remember being frightened by her size. She couldn’t sit down or stand up without the help of two people. Her feet were so splayed, they’d broken the sides of her shoes. I told my mother I never wanted to get pregnant. When she asked why, I said, “because what if someone chases me? I won’t be able to run!” She said, “That’s what your husband’s for.” I looked at her and said, “That doesn’t make any sense.” I was eight years old. Even at that age, I knew women could only rely on men for so much.

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Gloria Steinem and Tarana Burke appear on stage at a women’s breakfast during the Cannes Festival of Creativity in France, 2018.

In any case, Gloria’s beauty wound up being good for the feminist cause. She wrote, “When a reporter raised the question of my looks as more important than anything I could possibly have to say... an older woman rose in the audience. ‘Don’t worry, honey,’ she said to me comfortingly. ‘It’s important for some who could play the game—and win— to say: The game isn’t worth shit.’”

Gloria became the face of feminism, and also, because this is how the world works, the voice. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” was famously attributed to her, but in fact was coined by Australian activist Irina Dunn. Gloria also never said, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.” That was coined by an Irish woman cab driver.

Being pretty didn’t make Gloria Steinem’s love life any easier. Women who play by the rules are excused for changing their minds—that’s just what we silly ladies do! Move the sofa over there. No, there. Let’s go to that Indian place for dinner—no wait, I want Mexican. I love you, but I’m not in love with you, or actually, maybe I do love you.

If you’re going to be difficult, people are much less forgiving. If you insist on planting your flag in the sand for your politics or other beliefs—even if it’s just a belief in yourself—be prepared to be called out the moment you evolve, rethink something, change your mind, contradict yourself, or just behave in an inexplicably human way. It’s as if by flouting expectations, we’ve also unwittingly agreed to be held to impossible standards.

In the early 1990s, Gloria and New York real estate developer Mort Zuckerman were an item. It was a difficult time: She was struggling with a book, had survived a bout of breast cancer, and would soon turn 60. People were appalled by her choice of Zuckerman. He was a rich capitalist who was known to send a limo to pick up Gloria when she returned from one of her speaking engagements. This was viewed as flagrant hypocrisy on Gloria’s part. It was as if, as a feminist, she was never allowed to be exhausted, depressed, or in need of cosseting by a beau with enough money to send a car to pick her up.

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Cover art for In Praise of Difficult Women by Karen Karbo.

Rumors raced around Manhattan with such speed that it’s a wonder the city didn’t spontaneously combust. The completely inaccurate gist was: Mort Zuckerman said he would marry Gloria if she could give him a baby, and she was frantically, desperately dashing from one fertility specialist to the next. She was frantically, desperately dashing to specialists, but they were oncologists. The relationship didn’t last, but the disapproval did. In 2000, she married younger man David Bale (he was 59, she was 66). More uproar: We thought Gloria Steinem hated marriage!

“I didn’t change. Marriage changed,” she said. “We spent 30 years in the United States changing the marriage laws. If I had married when I was supposed to get married, I would have lost my name, my legal residence, my credit rating, many of my civil rights. That’s not true anymore. It’s possible to make an equal marriage.”

Now in her 80s, Gloria is my role model for aging. On March 25, 2014, she celebrated her 80th birthday by riding an elephant in Botswana. After that she was on her way to India, then California. She still dyes her hair, but has passed on plastic surgery. She still has terrific bone structure. One thing she loves about being older is her lack of libido. “The brain cells that used to be obsessed are now free for all kinds of great things,” she remarked. “I try to tell younger women that, but they don’t believe me.” (Discover 12 historic LGBTQIA+ activists who changed the world.)

Some difficult women become more difficult with age, but Gloria doesn’t even have to do anything. She is one of those women who rankle people merely by still being aboveground. You would think the collective cultural impulse would be to treat Gloria Steinem as a cool old person, a grand dame of a time gone by when tinted aviator glasses were not worn ironically. This, sadly, is not the case. Controversial old guys tend to get a pass (see adopted daughter–marrying Woody Allen)—but not so crusading, outspoken women.

For half our divided nation, Gloria is a beloved icon. For the other half, her politics are problematic. In spring 2016, CEO Federica Marchionni, formerly of ultracool Dolce & Gabbana, was hired to bring a bit more style to the traditional American clothing company Lands’ End. The company launched a series called Legends, “our ode to individuals who have made a difference in both their respective industries and the world at large. We honor them and thank them for paving the way for the many who follow.”

Gloria Steinem was invited to be the inaugural Legend. She was photographed wearing a perfectly respectable blazer and scarf. Her interview with Marchionni was standard “You go, girl!” issue, covering such seemingly mainstream issues as equal rights and women in the workplace. Reproductive freedom was never mentioned. It didn’t matter.

“What are you thinking to glorify a pro-abortion feminist when you are trying to sell clothing to families?!” wrote one unhappy customer on the company’s Facebook page.

Without stopping to think that the damage had already been done, Lands’ End pulled the profile and issued an apology. In so doing, they effectively alienated everyone: the people who will never forgive them for having thought to celebrate Gloria in the first place as well as a lot of left-leaning pro-choice women. “You have lost my business by succumbing to pressure from the far right,” one woman wrote in an email. “I have been a Lands’ End customer for 40 years. Gloria Steinem is indeed someone to be honored.”

Federica Marchionni stepped down not long after.

At the time, Gloria wasn’t available for comment as she was on the road. But she said, through an assistant, that her “stance on all issues remains the same.”

I read this and laughed. Gloria Steinem is not going to change her tune at this late date to placate a clothing catalog. Or anyone else, for that matter. But appreciate the lightness of her words, the playfulness. If Gloria has taught us anything, it’s that we can stand our ground, speak our truth, and fight the good fight—all without sacrificing our wit or cool hair.