The feminist icon — who fully deserves that overused designation — turns 80 today, a milestone in a life of making the world better for women. Here are some of the reasons this veteran activist and author is awesome.
1. She came up the hard way. She attended elite Smith College, but on a scholarship. She spent much of her childhood traveling around the country in a house trailer with her father, an itinerant antiques dealer, and as a result she did not spend a full year in school until she was 12 years old. Around this time her parents divorced, and Gloria became the caretaker of her mother, who suffered from severe depression, brought on partly by having to give up her career as a journalist in order to raise her family. In 1952, Gloria left her native Toledo, Ohio, for Massachusetts and Smith. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1956 and then spent two years studying in India on a fellowship.
2. She went undercover as a Playboy Bunny. “Bunnies” were the women who waited tables, checked coats, and did other service jobs at the nation’s Playboy Clubs, a spin-off of Hugh Hefner’s magazine. In the early 1960s, the clubs were considered the ultimate in sophisticated entertainment, and being a Bunny was seen as a glamorous job. In 1963, Steinem went undercover to do a story for the short-lived Show magazine that exposed how unglamorous the work really was. Bunnies wore uncomfortably tight costumes about the size of a one-piece bathing suit, plus rabbit ears and a tail (the latter often pulled by customers), and stuffing in their bras. They also wore three-inch heels while doing work that kept them on their feet for hours. The tail-pulling was the least of the sexual harassment they suffered at the hands of patrons, and the salary plus tips came nowhere near the $200-$300 a week estimate with which the clubs lured Bunny applicants. While the story still stands as a serious piece of investigative reporting, the mere subject of it undercut Steinem’s reputation as a journalist for years and cost her several assignments. Nevertheless, she wrote in a 1995 epilogue that she was glad she had done it, as it brought her connections with women who “might not have picked up a feminist book or magazine.”
3. Speaking of feminist magazines: Steinem cofounded Ms. in 1971. She also helped found New York magazine in 1968, and she has written for numerous other magazines and authored several books.
4. Steinem has worked tirelessly to better the lot of women through cofounding the National Women’s Political Caucus, Voters for Choice, Take Your Daughters to Work Day, and the Ms. Foundation for Women.
5. While some other feminists of the 1960s and ’70s saw lesbians as a “lavender menace” that would undermine the cause of women’s equality, Steinem has long stood for an all-inclusive movement. “It just makes sense that feminists and gays should be supportive of one another,” she once said at a National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association conference. “After all, we’re fighting the same enemies. The people who don’t want women’s rights are pretty much the same people who don’t want gay rights.” In a 2013 Advocate column, she spoke out in support of transgender people, saying, “Those lives should be celebrated, not questioned.”
So, happy 80th, Gloria, and may you celebrate many more! To learn more about her, visit her official website, GloriaSteinem.com.