Updated January 27, 1992 12:00 PM

SHE IS JUST BACK FROM A SEASIDE vacation in Mexico, and it shows. Clad in black trousers and ethnic silver belt, a hint of tan across her cheeks, Gloria Steinem looks fit, relaxed and much younger than her 57 years.

“Oh, it was wonderful,” she says. “It was maybe the third time I’ve gotten away for a week in 20 years—the first time with no phone. Since [Ms.] magazine was started, I couldn’t leave. There was always some emergency.”

Still, three vacations in 20 years? She ponders for a moment. “I guess there’s another level too,” she says. “I was out of the country for a few days in 1961 when my father was in the car accident from which he later died, and he couldn’t reach me. So maybe the association…”

The insight is pure Gloria Steinem—revised version. After spending more than two decades fighting for the rights of women everywhere, the world’s most famous feminist—the woman who cofounded Ms. magazine and helped alter the consciousness of a generation—has decided to turn some attention on herself. That means cutting back on her killer speaking schedule and indulging in the occasional south-of-the-border spree. But more important, it means looking inward. Once convinced that “the examined life is not worth living,” Steinem now takes pleasure—and sees value—in self-knowledge.

“Before, I wouldn’t have looked for the memory of my father’s accident as a bruise from the past,” she says. “And of course once you do, its power over you starts to diminish.”

It is truths of that sort that she explores in her new book, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. A chatty amalgam of sociology, pop psychology, self-help and self-disclosure, the book is hardly the purely political Steinem of old (“Sometimes I shock friends now by saying something like, ‘I’m taking yoga,’ ” she says), and reviewers so far have been unimpressed. (A “squishy exercise in feeling better,” declared Newsweek’s Laura Shapiro.) Yet Revolution, Steinem says, “isn’t a turning away from the women’s movement, it’s the next step. You can’t do the external without the internal.”

When she began writing four years ago, in fact, Steinem’s only intention was for her book to help women—other women. “The idea came from years of traveling and seeing women who wore smart and courageous and funny but just didn’t believe in themselves,” she says. She soon broadened its scope to include men. But when a friend read the first draft, according to Steinem, she said, “I think you have a self-esteem problem. You forgot to put yourself in.”

Steinem, who had begun psychotherapy in 1986, recognized the truth—and rewrote the book to include it. Her own self-esteem deficiencies included a tendency to escape pain through overwork and an inability to feel valuable unless she was helping others. “I was a neglected child,” she says, “so I thought my inner world was less real than other people’s, and I hadn’t stopped to replenish it.”

The wonder is that she had kept going anyway. Since Steinem’s intelligence and charisma first captured public attention in the early, heady days of feminism, she has run herself ragged for the cause: Until recently she labored at Ms. for up to 18 hours a day and traveled weekly to speak, consult and advise. Even when organized feminism flagged under the backlash of the Reagan era, Steinem never lost her zeal. “She is a saint,” says Marlo Thomas, a longtime friend. “Most people get tired and just send a check, but Gloria gives and gives.”

By the 1980s she was nearly giving out. A diagnosis of breast cancer in 1986 (she has been healthy since), the end of a relationship of several years with real-estate developer and publisher Mort Zuckerman in 1987, and the sale of Ms. to an Australian corporation that same year all conspired to raise her stress levels. Says investment banker Stanley Pottinger, who dated Steinem in the 1970s and remains a close friend: “The evidence of burnout was obvious to me. The magazine was Gloria’s family, so when it was sold, it was devastating.” Says Steinem: “I was tired and angry, and I just sort of cut off those feelings.”

It was a habit she acquired early. The daughter of an itinerant antiques dealer and a newspaperwoman turned troubled housewife, Steinem spent much of her childhood shuttling between Michigan, where her father, Leo, ran a resort at Clark Lake, and California and Florida, where he took his wife, Ruth, and two daughters most winters via trailer. Gloria went to school only sporadically until she was 11. “I used to play solitaire a lot,” she says. “I endowed each suit with a personality, and I spent all my time trying to treat the clubs equally so they wouldn’t know I liked the hearts better.”

In 1946 Leo and Ruth divorced, leaving Gloria to care for her mother, by then virtually incapacitated with depression and delusions. (Gloria’s sister, Suzanne, older by nine years, was in college.) Mother and daughter spent six painful years in a rundown Toledo house, part of which they rented out. Money was a constant worry, and the house had rats. One night when she was a teenager, Gloria awoke drenched in blood from a rat bite that had struck a vein. When she and her mother returned from the emergency room, says Steinem, “the rat had licked up the blood. What I wanted most in life then was a cage to sleep in, so I’d be safe.”

Salvation came at Smith College, which Steinem could afford when her mother sold the Toledo house. “I felt so lucky to be there,” says Steinem, who majored in government. “I thought I’d just marry a professor and stay forever.”

A woman of her time, she thought vaguely about having a career, “until I married,” she says. Yet after becoming engaged during her senior year, she backed out. “In the 1950s, once you married you became what your husband was, so it seemed like the last choice you’d ever have,” she says. The idea of children frightened her too. “I’d already been the very small parent of a very big child—my mother,” she says. “I didn’t want to end up taking care of someone else.”

A postgrad fellowship in India set her on the road to helping humankind instead. “I thought, so much poverty in one place and so much wealth in another—this can’t continue,” she says. “When I came home I couldn’t take taxis because I identified them with rickshaws. I’d insist on sitting in the front.”

She spent a number of years in the ’60s free-lancing for magazines like Esquire and Vogue while helping to organize farm workers and working for the civil rights movement in her spare time. As a woman, and an attractive one, she found it difficult to land the serious assignments she coveted—particularly after she went undercover as a bunny to expose the exploitation at Playboy clubs for Show magazine. Far too many male journalists treated her in the manner of one unforgettable editor at LIFE who, according to Steinem, told her, “We don’t want a pretty girl, we want a writer. Go home.”

She was delighted when Clay Felker hired her to write a column on city politics for New York magazine in 1968, and it was while covering a speak-out on abortion for New York four years before Roe v. Wade that her feminist instincts were awakened. Steinem, who had had a legal abortion in London after college, remembers thinking: “If one in four of us has had this experience, why is it illegal?”

She had stumbled upon her calling. She began writing magazine pieces about women’s liberation and giving speeches. She appeared almost always with other women, but it was Steinem the media noticed. “She has star quality,” says writer Jane O’Reilly, a fellow feminist. “People really like to look at her, the way they like to look at Julia Roberts.” And there was more to it than that. “My permanent image is of Gloria with a notebook, writing down the names and addresses of people asking for things—’Please, my husband beats me,’ ” O’Reilly says. “She resonates kindness.”

But Steinem’s status as a media darling—the sexy feminist—inspired a certain resentment too. Betty Friedan denounced her for opportunism. “I never felt it was very personal though,” Steinem says. “She just really felt that she owned the movement.” (Says Friedan today: “In the early days we had ideological and political differences, but she has made her own contribution.”)

In 1972 Steinem helped start Ms. magazine, featuring stories traditional women’s magazines wouldn’t touch. “It’s been satisfying to see sexual harassment or battered women rise from the level of cover stories in a relatively small magazine to being national issues,” Steinem says. Readers loved it from the start, but advertisers weren’t so sure. Steinem spent countless hours trying to persuade them that Ms. readers weren’t the lunatic fringe. She succeeded, well enough, until 1987, when lack of advertising support and rising production costs forced the magazine’s sale.

Through it all, somehow, she found time for romance. Always a hit with men—”It’s her wit, and her elegant fingers,” says ex-beau Pottinger—Steinem had liaisons with directors Mike Nichols and Robert Benton, among others. And then there was Zuckerman, to whom Steinem devotes several pages in her new book, though he is never named. The tycoon and the activist had little in common (“I had to suppress the thought that his weekend house cost more than several years’ worth of funds for the entire women’s movement…” Steinem writes), but she was drawn to his energy and humor. Also, she says, “he was unhappy, and I thought he could become happier by using his power in what I thought would be more satisfying ways.”

Zuckerman did, as it turned out, give Ms. a financial boost, but the relationship was doomed. Today he says simply: “The Gloria Steinem that I went out with was a wonderful woman—brilliant, beautiful, witty and completely dedicated to her movement and her magazine.”

Says Steinem: “We didn’t share any interests, except dancing. It really wasn’t his fault. I was the one not being true to myself.” That realization was part of the crisis that led to her book.

These days, for the first time since she was 21, Steinem has no steady relationship—”and it’s terrific to realize you can be happy on your own,” she says. She lives with her cat, Magritte, in a Manhattan duplex filled with books and colorful kilims, and she spends as much time as possible writing, as she has always longed to. She takes exercise classes and has become a vegetarian. “I hope I’ll never again allow myself to get so flat-out, burnt-out exhausted,” she says.

Friends say they notice a change. “For the first time, she feels entitled to give herself a little more,” says Marlo Thomas. Pal Liz Smith isn’t so sure. “She seems to me just as self-sacrificing and troubled about the state of things as ever,” Smith says.

Both observations may be true. Steinem knows there is still work to do and has decided that the best way to help is to pause and help herself. “We need to be long-distance runners to make a real social revolution,” she says. “And you can’t be a long distance runner unless you have some inner strength.”