News flash: Gloria Steinem was a feminist! Okay, you knew that. But we learned a lot from recently reading Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s biography of the quintessential ’70s feminist, The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem. As one would expect, Steinem was far more complicated than the caricature she became as the target for all anti-feminist sentiment of the last several decades. A few interesting tidbits:
- She grew up pretty poor (feeling rats nipping at her feet) and taking care of a severely depressed mother after her parents’ divorce.
- She didn’t realize she was a feminist until she attended an event where women were speaking out about their abortions; she’d gotten one herself while traveling abroad after college.
- She had a wicked dust-up with Betty Friedan when her media profile eclipsed that of the Feminist Mystique author, culminating in Friedan helping to spread falsehoods about Steinem having CIA connections. But Steinem resisted answering the charges publicly because she didn’t want to play into the tired “catfight” cliche.
- She was a tireless giver who spent pretty much all of her 30s and 40s traversing the country to rally for feminist causes; she had a breakthrough when she started going to therapy at age 50. It occurs to us that, in a way, we’re grateful she didn’t go to therapy until then, since any sane therapist would have likely convinced her to take it easy.
- She had a particular fondness for — some would say weakness for — men. And she didn’t always choose wisely. She wrote about her misguided romance with magnate Mort Zuckerman, whom she knew didn’t share her values but whose fun personality and generosity toward her lured her in anyway. We love knowing she wasn’t always a perfect feminist, even far into her 40s.