Skip to main content
A Magazine for

Gloria Steinem Why she will always be a feminist icon

Gloria Steinem is featuring in this year's Festival of Debate. Amy Mullen-Brown explains Steinem's history and why she remains essential to the feminist movement.

Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem is a writer, lecturer, political activist, feminist organiser and an inspiration. She has been fighting for women’s equality for over half a century and has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama. Steinem has dedicated her life to standing up for what she believes in.

Growing up, Steinem spent half of the year in Michigan and the other half in Florida and California. This meant she didn’t attend school on a regular basis until she was 11. In an interview with Emma Watson she said that in some ways, this was a good thing as she dodged a lot of brainwashing, especially in terms of gender studies and women’s roles within societies.

She went on to attend Smith College and studied government, which was a non-traditional choice for a woman at the time. It was clear early on that she did not want to follow the most common life path for a woman. Societal norms in those days meant that the expectations of a woman was to get married and birth children. After finishing her degree in 1956, Steinem received a fellowship to study in India. She had also broken off a marriage proposal. If she had got married when she was supposed to, Steinem would have lost her name, credit rating, legal domicile and most of her civil rights.

Gloria Steinem at a women's conference in Nov 1975
Jay Godwin

Whilst she was in London waiting for her travel visa, she had an illegal abortion at 22-years-old. Steinem found a physician in the phone directory who was near to where she lived. In an interview on Brut America’s YouTube channel she said: “It was the luck of my life.”

The man told her he would refer her to a woman who would do this for her but she should never tell anyone his name. Steinem never did, until many years later when she dedicated a book to him after his death titled My Life On The Road. This luck allowed her to have a safe abortion and allowed her to change her life and go travelling to India.

In the dedication below, Steinem says that the doctor asked her to promise him two things:

First, you will not tell anyone my name.

Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.

To which Steinem responded in the book saying: “Dear Dr. Sharpe… I’ve done the best I could with my life. This book is for you.”

My Life On The Road

She first worked for Independent Research Service and then established a career for herself as a freelance writer. One of her most famous articles from the time was a 1963 expose on New York City’s Playboy Club for Show magazine when she was 29. Steinem went undercover, working as a waitress, or a scantily clad “bunny” (as they called them at the club). She wrote about the sexual harassment women faced on the job and discovered their working conditions. Steinem reported that they had to have an internal exam and were told it was for the state of their health. In Brut America’s video, she says this was not true and it was to make sure women - who were then encouraged or forced into sexual activity - did not have venereal diseases. She said in the same conversation that on one hand it was an investigative journalism piece but on the other hand, she was for years (and still is, even now) identified as one of the former bunnies.

Steinem became more and more noticed in the women’s movement. Firstly, in the late 1960s, she helped create New York magazine and wrote a column on politics for the publication and reported on an abortion hearing given by the radical feminist group known as the Redstockings. She expressed her feminist views in such essays as “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation.” After the hearing her, male colleagues took her aside one by one and said: “Oh Gloria, do not get involved with these crazy women.”

Gloria Steinem from the Jewish Women's Archive
Joan Roth / Jewish Women's Archive

A huge moment for Steinem was when she co-founded and launched feminist magazine Ms when she was 37 with Dorothy Pitman Hughes. It was the first periodical created entirely by women. Finally, there was a magazine that women controlled and was by women talking about women and their experiences, rather than it being through a male lens. The first issue featured a letter from Gloria and 52 other prominent female writers, athletes, artists declaring that they had all had abortions. The year before this letter, a Supreme Court decision established abortion rights in America. The issue sold 300,000 issues in just over a week. After the success of Ms Magazine she travelled almost constantly for two decades as a public speaker and organiser.

In 1972, Steinem campaigned for Shirely Chisholm, the first black woman to run for U.S President. Steinem spoke out about the fact that Chisholm didn’t get the coverage she deserved but said that, with or without that coverage, she represented a coalition of the powerless. Steinem was an early advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and adding gender equality to the U.S Constitution, testifying before the Senate in 1970 and marching on Washington D.C to demand its passage in 1978. She would continue to challenge the intersection of feminism with black rights, Latinx rights, Indigenous rights, and LGBTQ+ rights.

She delved deep into women's issues in her writing. Her 1983 collection of essays, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, featured works on a range of topics. Another collection of writings include Moving Beyond Words: Age, Rage, Sex, Power, Money, Muscles: Breaking Boundaries of Gender, published in 1994. In 1993, her concern about child abuse led her to co-produce an Emmy Award–winning TV documentary for HBO, Multiple Personalities: The Search for Deadly Memories. Herself and Amy Richards co-produced a series of eight documentaries on violence against women around the world for VICELAND in 2016.

Coming into the 2000s, in 2005, she and Jane Fonda founded the Women's Media Center to promote women in positions of power into the industry. She also endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election and spoke at the Women's March on Washington the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as president.

Now in her 80s, Gloria Steinem has advocated tirelessly for marriage equality, the #MeToo movement, and the protection of reproductive rights. She has been seen to say: “I’m sure that I got from my father this love of freedom, of independence, of not being accountable to anyone and I have remained a freelancer all my life.” She is a feminist icon and, through the different waves of feminism, has always fought for what was right.

Learn more

To hear more from Gloria Steinem herself, join the Festival of Debate online on Tuesday April 26. Book your tickets here.

More Equality & Social Justice

More Equality & Social Justice