Gloria Steinem and Passing the Torch

Gloeia SteinemGloria Steinem’s conversion, the moment when she morphed from journey-woman magazine writer to “active feminist,” occurred well into her career. The “big click” came when she was covering a pro-abortion speak-out in New York in 1969, and realized how much she identified with the message, and not just the reporting of it.

“I didn’t speak publicly until I was 35 or so,” she explained during a recent public appearance, this one in Santa Barbara, California. Her background had been first as a tap dancer and later a writer, “and neither one of them talks in public.”

Now pushing 80, her schedule on this particular day suggests she’s not planning on being silent anytime soon (especially when there’s the possibility of a progressive woman mounting a serious bid to be U.S. president soon). The co-founder of Ms. Magazine is finishing her seventh book, Road to the Heart: America As If Everyone Mattered, and last November received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, alongside luminaries ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Dan Kahneman.

“I’m often asked if I’ll be passing the torch onto someone else,” Steinem told the audience. “I say no, I won’t be passing it on. I’m using it to light the torches of others. The idea that there’s only one torch is part of the problem.”

“The idea that there’s only one torch is part of the problem.”

Steinem is no pioneer–among the second wave of American feminists, literary fellow traveler Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, for example, had been in print since 1963—but she has a legitimate, if contested, claim as the pre-eminent American feminist (sorry, Susan B. Anthony).

But it’s that changing of the guard, whether as a lighting ceremony or hand-off, that exercises many academic observers of the U.S. women’s movement. Who might fill the shoes of Steinem and her second-wave cohort, the women’s libbers, as a more disparate and less orthodox third wave rolls in?

Steinem dubbed her talk “the longest revolution,” a reference to the women’s rights movement that dates at least as far back to Juliet Mitchell’s 1966 essay in the New Left Review.  Given the century-long battle to achieve equality on paper, she said, don’t be surprised if it takes another 100 years for actual equality—“and we’re only 40 years in now.”

The suffragists and abolitionists of the 1800s comprised the first wave, and Susan B. Anthony died in 1906—some 63 years before Steinem’s personal epiphany. Should a new critical mass coalesce, it may not be soon.

How Steinem assumed the torch of the revolution– “It’s a revolution, not a public relations movement,” she insisted—has been contentious. Is it hers to begin with? Her early “leadership” proved “highly problematic” for some fellow travelers, as Bernadette Barker-Plummer examined in a 2010 piece in Journalism & Communication Monographs:

The women “leaders” who were invited to speak in these early stories may not even have been particularly representative. Critics, for example, point to the public ascendance of Gloria Steinem, who had not been especially active in the movement until then and to the role that Steinem’s conventional femininity and beauty played in the choice of her as spokesperson. Steinem turned out to be much more than a media pawn, of course. As Bradley (2004) notes, she was also a quick study and a reflexive activist who made the most of this role and used it to make many useful interventions in public debates.

Her coronation, in a sense was conferred by her fraternity in the media when it needed a mouthpiece, historian Alice Echols wrote in 1989. “Ironically, the movement’s self-imposed silence empowered the media, allowing them to choose Gloria Steinem a talented journalist sympathetic to feminism, but a virtual unknown in movement circles as a movement spokesperson.”

Longevity helps, as did having a suite of causes, all on display in Santa Barbara—Overthrow the patriarchy! And monotheism! And capitalism and nationalism, too! And have fun while doing it! – that were linked in their opposition to hierarchy but that also trumpeted that she is no one-trick pony. But should the pony head for the pasture?

Steinem’s audience this particular night, gathered in a Depression-era theater, all velvet seats and decorated walls, suggests that at least for Steinem’s brand of “shoulder-pad feminism,” as Maureen Dowd referred to it during Hilary Clinton’s 2008 presidential bid, may be going the way of Anthony’s signature bun. While demand pushed the event from its originally scheduled 860-seat college theater to a downtown hall with room for more than 2,000, the majority of the crowd clearly recalled Steinem’s career personally, and not as something they had read about in school. (Keep in mind that tickets went for $43 a pop—but students could enter for free.)

Seven years ago, Alyssa N. Zucker and Abigail J. Stewart, in an article titled, “Growing Up and Growing Older: Feminism as a Context for Women’s Lives,” polled a variety of University of Michigan alumnae to “Please name and briefly describe three women in this century [20th] who you think did at least one of the following: wrote an influential book, worked for women’s rights, influenced women’s lives.” Four women were named by at least 10 percent of the respondents: Eleanor Roosevelt (31 percent), Gloria Steinem (29 percent), Betty Friedan (26 percent), and Hillary Rodham Clinton (13 percent).

The group most directly affected in late adolescence by second-wave feminism was the middle cohort [those age 46]. They identified Gloria Steinem—perhaps the most public face and voice of that wave—as an influential woman most often and significantly more often than did the other cohorts [ages 26 and 66].

And yet … As Dowd noted the very next year in talking about a younger, but still middle-aged, generation of feminists, “And they don’t like Gloria Steinem and other old-school feminists trying to impose gender discipline and a call to order on the sisters.”

It was an evolution that journalism lecturer  Kaitlynn Mendes observed in a 2012 article reviewing four decades of reporting on feminism in the journal Media Culture & Society:

Through labelling the Second Wave ‘old-school’, the discourse not only argues that something new and modern is needed (after all, perhaps it is), but that whatever develops needs to be radically different from the past; that is, rather than being angry, shrill or radical (as these are the bulk of the charges against the Second Wave), feminism today should be modern, fun, and not take all the old gender politics too seriously (see also Douglas, 2010). Furthermore, it is frequently stressed that to be a Second Wave feminist, one must conform to the party line, whereas contemporary feminism can be individualized according to one’s own interests and concerns.

Observed, but didn’t necessarily endorse. As Mendes concluded:

Public constructions of feminism are consequently in serious need of revising so as to focus on its aims as a political project, before there is any hope of liberating women. Educating the public, and particularly news workers, about feminism’s history, goals, and political origins and differences is an important first step in this process.

But only a first step, as Steinem herself noted. “I don’t think,” she explained to an audience member distraught because her younger peers didn’t appreciate the struggle, “gratitude ever radicalized anybody”

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