From the early days of Gloria Steinem’s life, the word “conventional” could hardly be used to describe her world. Most of her childhood was spent on the road living out of a trailer with her mentally-ill mother and father - a traveling salesman. This transient lifestyle, coupled with the frailty of her mother’s condition kept Steinem from attending school regularly until the age of 11 - after her parents finally separated.
In the wake of her parents divorce, Steinem was left to care for her mother - an experience that would play an important role in shaping views that would later define her. Watching the treatment of her mother struggling to keep a job gave Steinem a unique perspective on the social injustices in the workplace when it came to women.
Fueled by her views that women unfairly lacked social and political equality, Steinem went on to study government at Smith College. This was an unconventional choice at a time when marriage and motherhood were the undisputed status-quo. This was a decision that would mark the beginnings of a legacy built upon breaking traditional thinking.
As her journalism career began to unfold after graduating in 1956, Steinem brought light to important topics that directly addressed the treatment of women. Some of her most notable works include her 1963 expose where she went undercover as a Playboy Bunny. In this article, she reported on the exploitative working conditions of the bunnies and the near criminal sexual demands made of them.
Continuing her trend of tapping into taboo topics, Steinem co-founded the feminist themed magazine Ms. with Dorothy Pitman Hughes. Originally an insert in the New York magazine, Ms. went on to become its own independent publication. Its content must have hit a nerve because the 300,000 test copies sold out nationwide in 8 days. Within weeks, Ms. had received 26,000 subscription orders and over 20,000 readership letters. Under the guidance of Steinem, the magazine tackled serious issues like domestic violence - in fact, it became the first national publication ever to feature such a topic with a cover story.
Steinem still remains on the masthead to this day as one of the six of the founding editors.
Around the same time Steinem was using journalism as her main platform of expression, she started exploring activism. Joining up with high-profile feminists and over 300 hundred other women, the National Women's Political Caucus was formed. In her speech “Address to the Women of America” Steinem spoke of what would become the cornerstone of her ideas -
“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 organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
Fierce and Fabulous
Even the fiercest women have to fight through challenges and scrutiny. Steinem’s commitment to the feminist movement was questioned due to her glamorous image. Steadfast and fearless however, she did not let this criticism deter her efforts of getting her message out. Proving that lipstick, a supportive bra and feminism can co-exist in the same breath.
It seems ironic that she also happened to beat one of the biggest killers of women - breast cancer, after she was diagnosed in 1986.
Steinem continues her crusade to this day. She travels internationally as an organizer, lecturer and media spokesperson on issues of equality.