Today, feminist icon Gloria Steinem turns 80—and she’s celebrating by riding elephants in Botswana. The rest of us might mark the occasion by applauding the many ways she’s been a trailblazer for American women.
Last November Steinem was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but the Ohio native got her start as a journalist, making a name for herself in 1963 with an exposé as an undercover yet scantily clad employee of the Playboy Bunny Club. Such stories—and the sexism she encountered—led her to activism. She campaigned for and testified in the Senate on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and has helped start pro-women political groups, including the National Women Political Caucus.
“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn but to unlearn,” Steinem once said.
Here are five ways she taught, or untaught, everyone how to treat women.
She Proved Women’s Stories Matter
Women's magazines were filled with recipes and homemaking tips before Steinem cofounded Ms. magazine in 1971.
A women’s magazine about more than man pleasing, housekeeping, and appearance perfecting, the first issue of Ms. sold out in a week, proving that women had ambitions and interests beyond wife and mother. It was also the first magazine created, owned, and run entirely by women. (Even the masthead at Ladies’ Home Journal was male-dominated, which inspired a 1970 sit-in.) That legacy is alive wherever we see intelligent writing about real issues women care about, from Feministing to Jezebel.
Of course, much work remains on the media front: Men still hold the bulk of power positions, which is why, in 2005, along with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan, Steinem founded the Women’s Media Center, which works to ensure that women’s stories are told, our voices included.
She Showed Us Feminists Can Be Funny and Get Manicures
Once upon a time, it was believed that a feminist was, by definition, staunchly unattractive and devoid of humor. Steinem exploded those stereotypes. In a 1984 Observer piece Martin Amis wrote:
[Steinem] is the least frightening kind of feminist, being possessed of…both a sense of humor and good looks…nice, friendly, feminine…the long hair expertly layered, the long fingernails expertly manicured.
Appalling, right? But the surprise of Steinem’s appearance and attitude ingratiated her—and the movement—to many naysayers. Sexist men were comforted, stylish women intrigued, and like any woman, Steinem suffered the backlash: Was she only getting attention because she looked good?
Ultimately, it didn’t matter. What did was this: Whatever Steinem was, she owned it. She has continued breaking the rules. Forty years ago, Steinem said, “This is what 40 looks like.” Then, those words represented a small—but significant—rebellion. There was no positive-aging movement back then; women often lied about their age. But she refused to play along.
In ways big and small, Steinem is a case study of the confidence that comes with self-acceptance: How else could she tap-dance with such abandon (dance along around the :45 mark)?
She Taught Us Children Aren't Mandatory
Famously, Steinem didn’t marry until she was 66 (and then only so South African–born husband David Bale could secure a visa) and never had children. Where once such a woman was met with pity or scorn, today the cookie-cutter heterosexual, nuclear family is no longer a given.
Steinem envisioned this back in 1970; in a Time magazine piece titled “What It Would Be Like If Women Win,” she wrote:
What will exist is a variety of life-styles…parents-and-children will be only one of many ‘families’…. Single women will have the right to stay single without ridicule.… Lesbians or homosexuals will no longer be denied legally binding marriages, complete with mutual-support agreements and inheritance rights.
Granted, the arc of history is indeed bending toward justice, but it is taking its sweet time.
Case in point: Jennifer Aniston interviewed Steinem in February and asked how she’d handled the attitude that a woman’s worth is “associated with our marital status or whether we’ve procreated.” Never one to misplace her sense of humor, Steinem quipped, “I guess we’re in deep shit!”
Then she got serious:
She Taught Us to Pick Our Battle, and Keep Fighting
In 1969—before Roe v. Wade—Steinem covered an abortion “speak-out” for New York magazine, an event she calls the “big-click,” her feminist awakening. She had an abortion when she was 22, and her description of the experience is enlightening:
[Abortion] is supposed to make us a bad person. But…I never felt that.… It was the first time I had taken responsibility for my own life. I wasn't going to let things happen to me. I was going to direct my life.
That’s why “reproductive freedom”—a phrase Steinem coined—is so central to feminism. If a woman is unable to control when and whether she has children, her life is reactive, not her own. Everything else follows from that. Sadly, these rights are still under siege. And any woman who wants agency over the course of her life should be fighting against those attacks.
She Showed Us How to Make Our Anger Work for Us
“The truth will set you free,” Steinem said. “But first it will piss you off.”
Anger remains taboo for women, but it’s a great motivator. Asked once if she felt women today are ungrateful for the gains of feminism’s second wave, Steinem said, “I hope so!... Our job is not to make young women grateful. Gratitude never radicalized anybody. We had to get mad on our own behalf; we didn’t walk around saying ‘Thank you so much for the vote.’ We got mad because we were treated unequally, and they are too.’ ”
So, in honor of Steinem’s 80 years of life and incredible legacy, let’s get mad! Surely, nothing would make her so happy.