Lori Anderson: Ageing as a rebel a feminist issue

Lori Anderson honours the woman who believes that revolution is the elixir of youth
Gloria Steinem courageously tackled the establishment - and did it with great hair! Picture: APGloria Steinem courageously tackled the establishment - and did it with great hair! Picture: AP
Gloria Steinem courageously tackled the establishment - and did it with great hair! Picture: AP

There are not many feminist icons who have styled their hair after high-class hookers but then again, there aren’t many Gloria Steinems. The soon-to-be 80 year old, who cites the streaky brunette Holly Golightly as her hair inspiration, attended her last high-profile public event clad in a black leather studded jacket and black cigarette trousers. Before you judge her, remember her protean mantra for the decades, “this is what 80 looks like”, or at least it will on 25 March.

Then again, she’s always had great style. For me, Gloria was on a par with Ali McGraw when it came to cool 1970s chicks. What bell bottoms and pea coats were to Ali, aviator glasses were to Gloria. Only now are we hearing that she wore them to hide what she thought of as her “fat face’. Yes, even feminists have body issues.

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The journalist, author and activist Gloria Steinem was born in Toledo, Ohio to parents who were poor and struggled with life. The family travelled in a trailer from town to town as her father tried to make a living selling antiques. When Steinem’s mother had a nervous breakdown, she found herself as a ten-year-old carer but she was bright and recognised that education offered a way out. After winning a place at Smith College in Massachusetts, she refused to return to Toledo even when her father was dying for fear of never being able to leave. Women around the world are now better off for the splinter of ice lodged in the heart of Gloria Steinem.

She arrived in New York in 1960 to pursue a career in journalism during the Mad Men era, when sexism permeated the office like stale cigarette smoke. Her editor offered better assignments in exchange for sex. She refused and instead worked harder on the articles assigned, usually about nylon stockings. In 1963 she saw the opportunity to marry her burgeoning feminism to her craft, by going undercover as a Playboy Bunny at the Playboy Club in New York. The two-part article revealed the seedy world where girls had to pay $2.50 a day for the upkeep of a costume so tight, as Steinem said: “it would give a man cleavage” and a workplace where they had to not only endure shifts in three-inch heels but the indignity of a gynaecological examination for VD prior to their first shift. She quoted from the Playboy Club Bunny Manual which insisted: “you are holding the top job in the country for a young girl.”

Unfortunately the articles, though well received, stalled her career as a journalist as she was no longer deemed to be “serious” and for the next few years she struggled to secure commissions. As she was unable to write about what she felt, she became increasingly involved in activism and it was while attending an “abortion speak out” – where women spoke of the problems faced securing an abortion, then illegal, that she realised her calling. Steinem had had an abortion in London when she was 22 and went on to coin the term “reproductive freedom” about the necessity for women to be able to choose whether or not to have children.

Shortly after, she founded Ms magazine, the first publication owned and staffed entirely by women. An early feature was headlined: ‘We have had Abortions’ and was signed by a range of women including Billie Jean King, the tennis player, and Nora Ephron, some of whom had not had the procedure but still wished to demonstrate their solidarity with their “sisters”. Roe versus Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalised abortion, passed a year later and then Steinem went on to testify before the Senate arguing for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to secure fair pay for women.

As she declared in An Address to the Women of America: “This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race – because they are easy and visible differences –have been the primary ways of organising human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labour on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than chosen or those earned. We are talking about humanism.”

Little wonder Richard Nixon was caught on the White House tapes ranting about Steinem and Henry Kissinger wanted to date her but she was never going to be dependent on a man, having popularised the phrase: “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.”

I admire and respect Gloria Steinem because she had the courage to tackle the establishment and imagine the future in which we now live and she did so with great hair. In 1970, in an essay for Time magazine, she advocated “same sex marriage” when describing a utopian future, and she was one of the earliest writers to highlight the barbarity of female genital mutilation in an essay in 1979. (She also argued that men shouldn’t be circumcised because of religious tradition.)

We’ve come a long way since the 1960s but a lot of road still lies ahead and I’d like Gloria to continue to lead the way. “I hope to live to 100,” she said. “There is so much to do.” Steinem’s beauty secret? “Revolution, it keeps you young.”

Happy Birthday Ms Gloria, here’s to the next 20 years of outrageous acts and everyday rebellions.