The Education of A Woman

The Book of the Week is “The Education of A Woman, The Life of Gloria Steinem” by Carolyn G. Heilbrun, published in 1995.

Born in March 1934, Gloria Steinem was raised in an unconventional household. Her formal education was spotty due to the seasonal livelihood of her parents. They ran a summer resort at Clark Lake, Ohio, and traveled by recreational vehicle to warm climates, such as California or Florida, in the winters. Care of her mentally ill mother was left to her, as her sister Suzanne was nine years older than she was.

Her father was a carefree spendthrift, an obese, bibliophilic dreamer; her mother, a nervous Nellie. However, the former took her seriously and conversed with her as he did an adult. When she was eleven, her parents divorced. She lived with her mother in East Toledo, Ohio. In poverty.

Steinem rebelled against the statistically likely role of her gender in her generation: get married, raise children, do housework and serve her husband. Fortunately, her family was sufficiently interested in her higher education to provide for her Smith College tuition by selling a house. Steinem majored in government.

When Steinem finally began the life she wanted to live, it was like her father’s. No nine-to-five job (which meant intermittent income) and tax evasion. Steinem assisted Clay Felker with the founding of New York magazine. But she was best known for co-founding and being the mouthpiece for Ms. magazine starting at the tail end of 1971.

Other career highlights included assisting with the candidacies of Norman Mailer and Jimmy Breslin for New York City mayor and New York city council president, respectively. Theirs was sort of a joint venture.  Together, they proposed that the metropolitan area and adjacent regions become the 51st state of America. They also floated the idea of banning cars– to be replaced by a public monorail that would grace the perimeter of Manhattan while small crosstown buses shuttled the remaining city occupants to and fro.

Unsurprisingly, Mailer hired Steinem because he wanted to have sex with her. Anyway, the media harped on all the dalliances with the many men Steinem had during her career. In this way and many others, the media were actually a hindrance to the feminist movement. For another, they had many a field day with the cat fights of the females in the movement.

As a successful public figure, Steinem inevitably generated jealousy. She insightfully wrote, “Just as men victimize the weak member of their group, women victimize the strong one.” Also, “The greater part of sexual harassment in the workplace occurs between powerful men and less powerful women.” Not only males, but certain females, such as Betty Friedan and Elizabeth Forsling Harris gave Steinem trouble through the years.

Harris had “borderline personality disorder”– she was a narcissistic attention whore with anger management issues, who made unreasonable demands. She created a hostile work environment at Ms. magazine. Sadly, Steinem was too nice when it came to such people. She was non-confrontational and tolerated Harris’ behavior for too long.

Steinem crisscrossed the country giving speeches on feminism. Her anger about the treatment of women emerged in her commencement speech to the Smith College Class of 1971.

In late 1977, Steinem began a fellowship at the Woodrow Wilson Center, using her time to plan a feminism book. The feminist cause helped the civil rights cause and vice versa. The book was sorely needed by America; for, all but one of the Center’s executives were white men, all the secretaries were white women, all the cleaning personnel who operated machines (like floor waxers) were black men, and all other cleaners were black women.

The author put her two cents in: “The environment must become a paramount consideration on a planet hideously misused by male ambitions of domination, exploitation, and arrogance.”

Read the book to learn why the feminist community and Ms. were always embattled financially and ideologically, and much more about Steinem’s awakening in her later years.