Recently The New York Times ran a lengthy Sunday article on Gloria Steinem, “A Woman Like No Other”. Having known her since 1969, I posted a statement and a link to the Times story on Facebook, saying, among other things, that on the issue of women’s liberation, no one spoke with greater moral clarity than Gloria. I copied her on my posting. This was her response:
“Thank you so much for your kind words, posting on your website – all of it, especially the moral clarity part.
“My problem and what I tried to say to the reporter was that there never was or should be one person representing a movement. Even in the early years, there was Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Pauli Murray, Eleanor Holmes Norton and more. It’s no accident that three out of even those four are black women.
“In the very first-ever big Harris poll of women’s opinions on women’s issues, black women were more than twice as likely as white women to support women’s liberation, the movement and its issues. But then the media focused on white women and kept saying the movement was ‘white middle class’, and some black women began to feel unwelcome. That’s the destructive thing – and focusing on yours truly doesn’t help.
“Even in the civil right movement, the emphasis on MLK alone didn’t work so well either. It rendered invisible the women who were the origin, backbone and majority of that movement – including the great Ella Baker, who was older than MLK, trained him; trained SNCC etc. People should know her as well as him.
“Anyway, it is what it is. I find it helps if I just never appear in an all-white photo or an all-white speaking group, or if older women always invite a young one along – and vice versa.
“Thank you for your good will – and my jacket!”
(We had presented her with a Red Sox jacket, which she wore through her speech at Fenway.)
Her response touched me. I understood the Times article had pained her, because to know Gloria Steinem is to know her profound humility. I was moved to write back:
“As it relates to you and the women’s movement: There are many reasons why you became the face of feminism; it’s not a mystery, given the nature of our society. You are beautiful, graceful, and intelligent. (Would Madame de Staël, who was not particularly attractive but no less intelligent, be as celebrated in Sarkozy’s France as she was Napoleon’s time? Not likely, as modern media would have deemed her face unfit for prime time.) But that same media made you an iconic figure.
“I know you are uncomfortable with this, but, as you noted in your response, ‘It is what it is.’ You can protest, and have, but you can’t change it. The real test is not media having made you the ‘Superwoman of Women’s Liberation’, that was not your doing, but how you responded. And, from my knowledge of you and the women’s movement, you responded superbly. Have you occasioned resentment and jealousy among other women leaders? No doubt. Have they thought it unfair media celebrating you and ignoring them? Same answer, no doubt. But you cannot be blamed for that. Others may not understand this, but it is important you understand it – and stop holding yourself accountable for it, because, seriously, it’s ridiculous.
“As Machiavelli wrote in the 8th Institute:
For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, and are
more often influenced by the things that seem than those that are.
“And there is this: Your voice is needed now more than ever. The assault upon women poses new dangers. At its core is Christian fundamentalism. Coming out of that background I understand it and I know it does not yield to modernity; it is a belief in a literal Bible and when scripture says women should be submissive to men (see Ephesians 5:22), it is accepted as a commandment from God. Our liberal friends don’t get it; media doesn’t understand it, having joined fundamentalists with evangelicals in one large church tabernacle, but it is real and it is dangerous because it is a mindset that reduces women too often to servitude.
“When some future historian comes to write the story of our time, yours and mine, they will write you were a transformational figure in American history. And they will write it because it is true. And for that great contribution, a great cloud of witnesses shall be eternally grateful, because you changed our world.”
And, she did!