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An Unsinkable Feminist Sails into Her 50th Year Jubilant About Her First Best-Seller

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Once upon a time (circa 1969) Gloria Steinem was touted as “the pinup girl of the intelligentsia.” But even when she was only the prettiest journalist in Manhattan, Steinem wrote: “Because I have work to care about, it’s possible I maybe less difficult to get along with when the double chins start to form.” Now 49, she seems safe from such midlife blights. A founder of Ms., Steinem has evolved into one of the most powerful feminists in the country. And her first collection of work, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, $14.95), is a best-seller.

Not bad for someone whose formal schooling was sporadic until she was 11. The daughter of an Ohio newspaperwoman and an often itinerant antiques dealer, Gloria went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Smith College. As her March 25th birthday—No. 50—approaches Steinem talks about aging gracefully with Senior Writer Mary Vespa.

More than a decade ago I did a dumb thing by going along with a press mistake and saying I was two years younger. This was prefeminism naturally. At the time I was going with a man who kept telling me that it was insane, suicidal, masochistic and otherwise unhealthy for any woman to tell her age. It’s interesting how that one small lie—if it comes out of insecurity, not security—can make you feel completely false and terrible. I started using my actual age about a year later.

Then when I turned 40 I decided to celebrate it publicly. Ms. gave me a birthday party, and some reporter kindly said, “You don’t look 40.” I said, “But this is what 40 looks like. We’ve been lying so long who would know?” That comment has gotten more response than almost any other I’ve made, so I know age is still a problem for women—and I keep on telling mine.

I grew up in the 1950s, a very, very, very conservative time. It was so conformist for women that when I majored in government at Smith instead of something more feminine like English or languages, it was regarded as odd. Two years ago I went back for the 25th reunion of my class. Before going, I worried that having a public identity would isolate me from women who had been my friends. I discovered that most of my friends had become feminists, too—but, ironically, being famous is not the worst crime. Being thin is. In order to make a connection with some of the other women, I was constantly explaining that I do, indeed, have a weight problem. I’m not immune from the fact that food is the most socially acceptable drug for women. I’m a sugar junkie. There is hardly a moment when I’m not thinking about food. Unfortunately, I don’t do formal exercise—though I do walk a lot, and I love to go dancing. If I look good, it’s probably genes, plus the gift of having work that I care about. Women who have mental stimulation every day actually age up to 10 years less, physiologically, than more isolated women do. In a real sense, revolution may keep us young.

I haven’t faced the inevitable problems of age yet. I’ve never been in a hospital, and I have more energy than ever. I wash my hair in the shower, and spend less time on how I look than I did 20 years ago when we were still wearing too much makeup and worrying about whether our shoes matched our dress.

On this book tour, I’ve had a new burst of why-aren’t-you-married questions. In fact, I’ve been seeing Stan Pottinger—someone I met because he was a civil rights lawyer—for more than eight years, but I have no desire to get married. I’m very happy the way I am. Perhaps one reason I haven’t felt the need to have children of my own is because for seven years I took care of my mother, Ruth, an invalid who had separated from my father when I was 10.

Just before that Smith reunion, I went back to Toledo where most of my teenage years were spent. It has taken me a long time to get over feeling insecure because I grew up semipoor. For years and years and years I would pass any slum dwelling or ramshackle house in the country and imagine that I would end up living there. Now I’m more secure. I know if I became a bag lady—and I don’t mean to romanticize that kind of tragic life—I would survive.

I do behave as if I’m immortal, which makes for poor planning. I never saved a penny until this year, and I’ve never owned a car. My only property is a two-room apartment.

Otherwise, the one negative aspect of aging for me has been a certain alienation—for example, when I mention the Andrews Sisters and then realize I’m the only person present who remembers them. But the world for me is full of excitement. There are countless things I want to do: books, a movie treatment, more writing, more organizing here and with women in other countries. Age brings out a certain defiance in me. I can’t imagine not wanting to live until I’m 120.