On the weekend that the feminists flocked to Atlantic City, Gloria Steinem stayed home in New York. It was neither oversight nor indifference. After five years as the feminist movement’s most visible spokeswoman, Gloria Steinem, now age 40, is weary. “I have a repeated dream,” she says. “I’m struggling with somebody very hard for my life. I have to hurt them to save myself. I can’t, and I wake up. I guess this is the classic impotence dream.”
“None of us,” she goes on, speaking of feminine leaders, “should do this for more than three years. I’ve had all the ideas I’ll have in this spot. And I’m tired of all that people write about me; I can’t take it any longer unless I grow another skin.”
Accordingly, she has cut her public appearances from 15 a month to five. When her present commitments are over she will book herself out of the lecture halls altogether. “My current rule,” she says, “is don’t do anything that another feminist could do instead.”
But even if she never pronounced another feminist slogan, Steinem could count upon a secure place in the history of the movement’s founding mothers. She had surfaced as a public figure in the late ’60s and almost immediately became the reluctant dragon lady of the women’s movement, albeit burdened by an irony: while she was talking about job discrimination, bias and machismo, much of her audience was talking about how leggy, shapely and witty she was. Interviewers asked her about romance and the fashionable Steinem “look.”
“The public image of yourself bears almost no relation to reality,” she says now. “I’m continually confronted by people who say, ‘Oh, you’re not as bad (or as “tough” or “hostile” or whatever) as everybody says.’ If I die, it will be of terminal injured innocence.”
Still, if Steinem did not actively seek personal publicity, she did not flee under any bushels to avoid it either. It was, in fact, by capitalizing on her looks that she first gained attention as a writer, landing a job as a Playboy bunny in 1963 and writing an exposé based on her experiences. Before that she was just another young woman from Toledo looking for a career in New York.
Gloria was 11 when her father, Leo, a sometime antique dealer and resort operator, was divorced from Gloria’s mother, Ruth. Ruth Steinem worked as a newspaper reporter while raising Gloria and her sister Susanne, 10 years older than Gloria, in what were admittedly not luxurious surroundings. (Steinem is still close to her mother, who lives in Washington, D.C. and with Susanne, who is now married and the mother of six. Ruth Steinem recently cajoled her younger daughter, “Sue just got a new winter coat. See, if you were married…”) Gloria had a poor academic record in high school, but did well on her entrance exams and was admitted to Smith College, from which she graduated magna cum laude in 1956. Her mother sold their home in Toledo to help pay expenses.
After her bunny masquerade Steinem became a regular contributor to such magazines as Vogue, Glamour, McCall’s (which in 1971 named her its woman of the year), Life and Cosmopolitan. She began to move in chic circles, dating men like Mike Nichols, jazz musician Paul Desmond and Olympic star Rafer Johnson. Then in 1969, while she was writing about a meeting of a New York City women’s group, her consciousness was turned.
“I’d always understood what made me angry about the Playboy Club or the double standard or being sent out for coffee or not being able to do political writing,” she said later. “But I had thought that my personal problems and experiences were my own, not part of a larger political problem.” Once alerted to that problem, Steinem attacked it energetically, joining forces with such other leading feminists as Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm. Since she was articulate and photogenic, Steinem was repeatedly asked to speak for the women’s movement, from lecture platforms, on television talk shows and in political circles. Swiftly, she became something of a cult figure—and brought on charges that she was an opportunist.
“It’s the practice of the media to set up leaders and knock them down, which is very damaging to movements,” she says. “We need to have enough women in the public eye so that we can’t all be knocked down.”
Her main means of getting out of the way so far has been Ms. magazine, which she helped found in 1971 and has made (as a first-among-equals editor) into a successful, if somewhat strident, magazine. “The magazine,” she says, “is literally the first time I’ve had a regular job.”
Her private life is, as ever, low-key. She currently lives in a two-room apartment in Manhattan’s East 70s with a cat named “Crazy Alice,” a lot of books and a refrigerator that is usually empty, except perhaps for some yogurt.
Steinem has never been married and says she does not fear living out her life without a husband. “Marriage is something I would consider only out of severe depression,” she says. “The surest way to be alone is to get married. Surveys show the happiest people are single women or married men.”
With her speaking schedule cut down, she has turned back to writing and says that in the future she would like to write fiction, as well as “something autobiographical.” She will occasionally cast a nostalgic look back at the days when she was just a girl with a promising future, not The Woman. “If I could do everything over, I’d be in the same place right now,” she says wearily. “But I wish it was 1958.”