8 Ways Gloria Steinem Improved Our Lives

Noël Duan
·Assistant Editor
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Gloria Steinem raises fists with fellow feminist activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes. (Photo: Instagram)

Leading second wave feminist, activist, and writer Gloria Steinem turns 81 today, and this Upper East Sider is so, so, so much more than a pretty face. In many ways, her good looks helped her gain the attention to advance the agenda for women’s rights—but in many ways, they also held her back when she wanted to be taken seriously. In Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem, biographer Carolyn G. Heilbrun noted, “Steinem was able instantly to create a bridge to feminism when she revealed, simply by appearing, that one did not need to be man-hating or ‘shrill’—the media presentation of a feminist—to be a feminist. Though a combination of beauty and power threatened men, it reassured women.” Throughout her life, Steinem repeatedly faced comments from male reporters about her “stunning” looks “in spite” of her feminism. To one man, she responded, “Well, I should comment on your appearance but I don’t have the time.” Heilbrun aptly summed up Steinem’s persona: “Here was a woman who looked good enough to be one of Esquire’s sexy dolls, but who threatened to take away their rights to these dolls.” Last year for her 80th birthday, The New York Times published an op-ed to honor her: “This Is What 80 Looks Like.” Her friend Robin Morgan told columnist Gail Collins, “I think for her as an individual, in one sense aging has been a relief. Because she was so glamorized by the male world and treated for her exterior more than her interior.” This is a woman who seems to have it all—a top college education, good looks, and brilliant drive—but what has made her the icon that she is today is that she lends her vulnerabilities and strengths out to millions of women and men who face social and political injustices every day. Here are eight great reasons to honor, celebrate, and give gratitude on Steinem’s birthday.

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Gloria Steinem in her early years as a freelance writer. (Photo: Getty Images)

1. Even before she became The Gloria Steinem (a.k.a. the face of feminism), she was penning empowering pieces for women. As a young woman, she wrote an article for Glamour: “The Student Princess (or How to Seize Power on the Campus of Your Choice).”

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Gloria Steinem as a Bunny at the New York Playboy Club. (Photo: Instagram)

2. As a young writer, she went undercover as a Bunny at the New York Playboy Club, where she discovered that even beyond just being objectified, Bunnies were making far lower wages than advertised. After the article, “A Bunny’s Tale,” was published, she had trouble landing a new job and was made fun of in explicit cartoons—just because she spent a few weeks as a Bunny.

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The July 1972 issue of Ms. Magazine featuring Wonder Woman as a feminist icon. (Photo: Ms. Magazine)

3. She co-founded feminist publication Ms. Magazine in 1971. “I realized as a journalist that there really was nothing for women to read that was controlled by women, and this caused me along with a number of other women to start Ms. Magazine,” she said. In 1976, it published a cover photo of a woman with a bruised face—it was the first national magazine to address domestic violence.

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Feminist activist Gloria Steinem has written seven books. (Photo: Getty)

4. Her essays are timeless in their relevance and hilariously and eloquently composed in a graceful manner that highlights their truthfulness without alienating any readers. Her famous 1978 essay in Ms., “If Men Could Menstruate,” demonstrated how if men had their periods, “menstruation would become an enviable, worthy, masculine event.” She cheekily wrote, “Men would brag about how long and how much.”

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Throughout her years of activism, Gloria Steinem has not only written prolifically, but also spoken extensively across the world. (Photo: Getty)

5. She co-founded Take Our Daughters to Work Day in the summer of 1992 in order to address issues of self-esteem and exclusion amongst young girls. In 2003, the program was officially expanded to include boys. But even before the official name changed to Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day, the annual event was meant to provide both boys and girls more opportunities to explore careers and dreams at an age when gender roles are more fluid.

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Gloria Steinem at a Women’s Strike for Equality meeting in the ‘60s. The NY Daily News caption read, “Writer Gloria Steinem is an attractive participant at the Women’s Strike for equality meeting.” (Photo: Getty)

6. In 1971, she was one of 300 female activists who founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, a multi-partisan organization that, to this day, works to actively support, recruit, and elevate women in political office.

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Gloria Steinem and Salma Hayek at an Equality Now event in Beverly Hills. (Photo: Getty)

7. She made feminism extremely accessible to a generation of women who had grown up in the 1950s and experienced the post-World War II backlash of women’s liberation. Whether or not you agree, she has criticized feminist academics for using words that “obfuscates, distances, and removes insight and information from readers who need them most.” In her fair judgment, she adds that feminist academics have had to do this “to get taken seriously and tenured in an academic world.”

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Gloria Steinem holding a protest sign (for a LIFE photoshoot) in the ‘60s. (Photo: Instagram)

8. She has spoken and written about growing up with her mentally ill invalid mother, who was incapable of taking care of her and who was consistently neglected by doctors who were apathetic to the health needs of women. She admits to her own faults—of the times she yelled at and was bitter towards her mother for not being who she could have been. “Perhaps the worst thing about suffering is that it finally hardens the hearts of those around it,” Steinem wrote. In sharing her stories of what her mother taught her about love, Steinem taught millions of men and women to forgive their mothers—and fathers—for not being perfect, and sometimes just surviving in an unfair world.

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