What is Gloria Steinem’s advice to young women these days? To do “whatever they fucking well please,” America’s foremost feminist said, stabbing into poached eggs at a brunch-mobbed diner on a recent Sunday. “ Ha ha ha! … Have some fries.”
Ms. Steinem, a luminous 71, still curses, looks hot and paints her nails. Extremely thin and clad in black, she was wearing her frosty gray-blond hair in a loose ponytail. She kept her aviator sunglasses on as she ate. “I still care how I look,” she said. “But I don’t go out and get skin cancer by tanning any more. I mean, if I can’t get dressed in 20 minutes, it’s not worth the time.”
In an era when the word “feminist” has been hijacked by the right wing and turned into an epithet, women are still noticeably absent from positions of power and many young women are repelled by the idea of calling themselves “feminists”—preferring to spend their time and energy showing off their midriffs and getting bikini waxes instead—Ms. Steinem’s outlook remains stubbornly positive. She said that sometimes her own generation “doesn’t recognize what activism and feminism look like in the younger generation. Because my generation was more threatened by sexuality or nudity, in the sense that we felt threatened if we didn’t behave in a certain ladylike way. When we see young women running around with their stomachs exposed and tattoos and whatever, we don’t understand that to them, it’s an expression of power.” She added that she probably “dismayed” her own elders early on by wearing a miniskirt and a button that said “Cunt Power.”
These days, Ms. Steinem lives with a mutt named Moji and a 15-pound cat that she rescued named Galahad—“which some asshole declawed”—in the same Upper East Side apartment she’s occupied since the 1960’s. The dog was inherited from her husband of three years, the dashing environmentalist David Bale (father of American Psycho actor Christian), who died in 2003. “We never could quite think of ourselves as ‘husband and wife,’ because it’s such a loaded term,” Ms. Steinem said. “So we used to say ‘the friend I married’ …. The tendency to identify a woman by her husband was mitigated because I had more public identity than he did. So it kind of came out even.”
Bale loved to accompany her to lectures, she said, and was popular with young college gals. “They just wanted to know that it was possible to be a whole person and still have a relationship with a man.” Their wedding ceremony was performed by a Cherokee Nation chief in rural Oklahoma, with 99-cent beaded rings distributed to the guests. The bride took a bit of heat for getting married, but not nearly as much as one might have expected for someone whose public identity was forged on the front lines of women’s lib.
But then again, Gloria Steinem has always played a curious role in the women’s-rights movement. She never published a manifesto or developed a Big Theory. While Andrea Dworkin was raging against pornography and other sisters were staging “marriage interventions” and refusing to shave their legs, Ms. Steinem appeared sexy and beautiful with her swinging coif and giant shades, serving as the movement’s glamorous muse. (She infuriated some of her fellow feminists at the time by hogging all of the media attention.)
Ms. Steinem first splashed onto the scene in 1963 with “I Was a Playboy Bunny,” an article about her time waitressing at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club; she later wrote a political column for Clay Felker’s New York magazine; she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus and Ms. magazine in 1971, which she edited until 1987. After the last Presidential election, she launched a women’s media center and is also looking into starting a women-owned national radio network. She is presently at work on another memoir, about her travels as an organizer around the United States since 1969. “I thought it might be important in a minor way to do as a genre, because it’s not a female genre,” she said. “‘On the road’ is thought to be too dangerous for women. The on-the-road books you think of are by men.”
Although Ms. Steinem can drive, she’s never owned a car. Having spent some time in California with her late husband, she appreciates New York as a “big village” where she can walk everywhere. She hangs out a lot with the former editors of Ms. and has a dinner group of girlfriends that they refer to as “the coven,” which includes Carol Jenkins, the former WNBC news anchor, and the novelists Marilyn French and Esther Broner. Ms. Steinem fraternizes—sororitizes?—with younger women, too, including members of the rock band Betty, who she said look after her pop-culture education, (which included a cameo appearance on The L Word last year).
Indeed, Ms. Steinem is able to appreciate many forms of mass media that offend some of her more rigid colleagues. “Mainstream television is probably at least 25 years behind where women are. So it’s always a mixed bag,” she said. She dug the HBO program Sex and the City, with some reservations. It’s “unrealistic and self-destructive in its devotion to its idea that you can run in high heels, and that your relationship with a man is the single most important thing in your life, more than your own self,” she said. But it “does show friendship among women.”
On the other hand, the popular renaissance of her old nemesis, the wrinkly chauvinist Hugh Hefner, drives her nuts. “He’s such a jerk … he’s pathetic. He is so pathetic,” Ms. Steinem said. “Now he’s going around with four young women in their 20’s instead of just one. It’s sort of moslem, actually. And it’s pathetic. I mean, there is not a person watching that show that thinks that they would be there if he weren’t rich. Please! In the absence of his wallet, forget it! Ha ha ha. I feel sorry for him.”
Ms. Steinem herself has managed to maintain a cultural currency that is strong, but not polarizing or threatening. Her presence at any event practically guarantees its success, and she refuses to slow down. In the last two weeks, she visited Toronto for a domestic-violence conference; attended the opening of The Color Purple on Broadway; went to women’s-issues book parties at the United Nations and in Providence, R.I.; and spent several days at Smith College, her alma mater, working on her archives. All of this activity was interspersed with lunches, appointments and the fact that “the first three hours of your day is spent looking at that fucking idiotic e-mail invention that drives you crazy.”
She said that her No. 1 priority at the moment is “getting rid of George Bush, by any means necessary short of violence,” because, obviously, it affects everything else. “We are not in his control,” Ms. Steinem said, “so I say, fuck him. You can write your article, I can write my book. He can’t do anything about it.”
By and large, aging is freeing and empowering, she said. “In a general way, women become more radical as they get older. The pattern is that women are conservative when they’re young. That’s when there’s the most pressure on us to conform, when we’re potential child bearers and sex objects. And we lose power when we get older. Which is a very radicalizing experience.” Men are the opposite, she said—rebels when they’re young, uptight when they’re grown-ups.
If she could go back and give young Gloria Steinem some advice, what would it be? “I would certainly have much more compassion for her than I did at the time,” Ms. Steinem said. “You know, I wish our future selves could meet our past selves and say, ‘It’s O.K., it’s O.K. … Do what you want to do. That’s the important thing.
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