Episode 33

Living the Revolution, by Gloria Steinem

Published on: 8th June, 2021

Allebest: Welcome to Breaking Down Patriarchy! I’m Amy McPhie Allebest. This past year I watched the TV series Mad Men, which depicts life in 1960’s and 70’s America, especially focusing on gender dynamics. One of the most striking bits of dialogue - and it wasn’t emphasized so at a different time in my life it might have flown right past me without me noticing - happened in a scene set in about 1965 in New York City, when the Civil Rights Movement was starting to really pick up steam, and a woman is talking about how she is not allowed to join certain clubs or be served in certain restaurants or get a room at a hotel or a credit card, and many jobs aren’t available to her, and even in the job she currently has she’s paid far less than her male counterparts…. all because she’s a woman.  And one of her male coworkers jeers, “What, do you want a women’s march?” The show does such a good job creating the world that you can feel how utterly preposterous that sounded - a women’s march. There hadn’t been demonstrations for women’s rights since the days of the suffragettes, and as we learned from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, those feminists were looked down on in the 1950’s and 60’s. But then as a viewer you also have that dramatic irony of realizing, oh my gosh, the women’s movement was about to start but they didn’t know that yet! So with that historical context in mind, we’re going to start today’s episode with a recording from 1970, when that idea of a women’s march had become a reality, and thousands of women were taking to the streets to demand equal rights. 


(Sound clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eP_8a7PSik)


That was Gloria Steinem, in a speech at a Women’s Liberation March in about 1970, and today we are going to read a similar speech by Steinem, called “Living the Revolution”. But before we start, I want to introduce my reading partner, Amy Pal. Hi, Amy!


Pal: Hello!  I’m very happy to be here.


Allebest: Amy and I met in about 2011, in the same church congregation and our kids attended the same Spanish Immersion elementary school. And fun fact: Amy was my daughter Lindsay’s Math teacher for about a year, and I taught her son in Literature circles when he was in 4th grade. Amy is one of the most wise, even-tempered, rational people I know, and I have benefited immeasurably from the hours and hours we’ve spent talking as we’ve run together in the hills of Northern California. So can we start by having you talk a bit about yourself?


Pal: Sure.  So, I was born in California but mostly raised in Salt Lake City.  I grew up in a large family - I have one brother and five sisters - and I absolutely loved being part of a big, bustling family environment.  I was raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon church, and I’m active in my local congregation.  My parents both have professional degrees and both worked in their fields of study.  To me, as a kid, my mom was seemingly always around and readily available to me, but she, in fact, worked quite a lot in both paying and non-paying positions.  She is a highly accomplished musician.  While I was growing up, she was teaching and performing a lot, working on big music projects, involved in a lot of great things.  Her job afforded her some flexibility - she could do some of her teaching and practicing from our home, but she also needed to attend committee meetings and a lot of rehearsals.  Seeing my mom engaged in worthwhile activities both inside and outside of our home had an immense influence on my understanding of a woman’s role in society.  And, she certainly provided an example to me of balancing children and career, so I grew up believing that was doable with some planning and a supportive partner.  Both of my parents strongly encouraged me to attain higher education degrees. I never considered not going to college.  I completed my undergrad and graduate degrees in Boston.  I studied speech and language pathology but I almost switched my major to psychology because I found that subject so fascinating.  Luckily, there were plenty of ways that my psychology instruction could and did inform my speech and language practice, so my coursework was well utilized.  While I was in school, I met a fantastic man and we married after we graduated.  We stayed in Boston several more years, working and doing a bit more schooling, before moving to California.  We have two terrific boys, now young men, really, which I’m still trying to process.  Along the way, I’ve tried out a few different career paths besides the speech and language work.  They have all been part-time because I wanted to be around while my kids were growing up and I was fortunate enough to have that option.  I found a lot of joy and stimulation being at home with my kids.  I also found a lot of joy and stimulation in learning new skills and trying them out in various jobs.  My husband has been extremely supportive of whatever I wanted to try and provided me space and time to explore my interests.


Allebest: And then what does the term “Breaking Down Patriarchy” mean to you?


Pal:  When I hear “Breaking Down Patriarchy”, I visualize the deconstruction of a brick and mortar building.  It is a rigid, solid, heavy, strongly adhered building and it takes time to break that building down, but it can be done. I believe it requires unlearning, as Steinem actually mentions in this speech, unlearning for women and men.  And once the old building is down, there is a period of re-building - constructing a new foundation, a new footprint, new rooms with new purposes - and the rebuilding is planned, approved, and completed by all who will use it.  So, there’s a lot of negotiating and cooperating to get this new building up.   This building is stronger and roomier and built to last.  New learning can happen during the building process and it can happen inside the building itself once it is completed - and that new learning involves everyone, not just one class or gender or race.  Everyone has the capacity to teach, learn, lead, and love in that building.


Allebest: So on one of our runs, Amy, you were talking about the TV series “Mrs. America, which chronicles the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970’s, and you were talking about Gloria Steinem… and meanwhile I had been thinking that I needed to add in iconic Steinem speech to the list of essential texts, so it worked out perfectly! So let’s get our listeners acquainted with Gloria Steinem - she’s such a fascinating woman and a cultural icon, so like Mary Wollstonecraft and Sojourner Truth and Pauli Murray we’re going to spend some more time on her than on some of our other authors, so we’ll each share some of her bio. Amy, can you start us off?


Pal: Gloria Steinem Bio

Gloria Steinem was born on March 25, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio, the daughter of Ruth and Leo Steinem. Her mother was Presbyterian, mostly of German and some Scottish descent. Her father was Jewish, the son of immigrants from Germany and Poland. Her paternal grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem, was a suffragette who worked for women’s rights in many different capacities, and also rescued many members of her family from the Holocaust.

The Steinems lived and traveled in a trailer, from which Leo carried out his trade as a roaming antiques dealer. Before Gloria was born, her mother, Ruth, then age 34, had a "nervous breakdown," which left her unable to walk, trapped in delusional fantasies that occasionally turned violent. She changed "from someone she described as energetic, fun-loving, book-loving"  into "someone who was afraid to be alone, who could not hang on to reality long enough to hold a job, and who could rarely concentrate enough to read a book". Ruth spent long periods in and out of sanatoriums for people dealing with mental illness. Steinem was ten years old when her parents finally separated in 1944. Her father went to California to find work, while she and her mother continued to live together in Toledo.

Steinem did not attribute her parents’ divorce to male chauvinism on the father's part—she claims to have "understood and never blamed him for the breakup". Nevertheless, the impact of these events had a formative effect on her personality: while her father, a traveling salesman, had never provided much financial stability to the family, his exit aggravated their situation. Steinem concluded that her mother's inability to hold on to a job was evidence of general hostility towards working women. She also concluded that the general apathy of doctors towards her mother emerged from a similar anti-woman prejudice. Years later, Steinem described her mother's experience as pivotal to her understanding that women lacked social and political equality.

Steinem attended Smith College, from which she received her A.B. magna cum laude.

In 1957, Steinem had an abortion. The procedure was performed by Dr. John Sharpe, a British physician, when abortion was still illegal. Years later, Steinem dedicated her memoir My Life on the Road (2015) to him. She wrote: "Dr. John Sharpe of London, who in 1957, a decade before physicians in England could legally perform an abortion for any reason other than the health of the woman, took the considerable risk of referring for an abortion a twenty-two-year-old American on her way to India. Knowing only that she had broken an engagement at home to seek an unknown fate, he said, 'You must promise me two things. First, you will not tell anyone my name. Second, you will do what you want to do with your life.'"

Steinem’s first “serious assignment” as a journalist was a 1962 article about the way in which women are forced to choose between a career and marriage. [This article is, as listeners will remember, on the same topic as Betty Friedan's book The Feminine Mystique, and was published a year before Friedan’s book was published. 

In 1963, while working on an article for Huntington Hartford's Show magazine, Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny at the New York Playboy Club. The article, published in 1963 as "A Bunny's Tale", featured a photo of Steinem in Bunny uniform and detailed how women were treated at those clubs, and you can still see that photo online if you look it up! Steinem has maintained that she is proud of the work she did publicizing the exploitative working conditions of the bunnies and especially the sexual demands made of them, which were barely legal. But for a brief period after the article was published, Steinem was unable to land other assignments; in her words, this was "because I had now become a Bunny—and it didn't matter why."

Steinem was often referred to as “the pretty one” in the feminist movement and some tried to dismiss her because of her looks.  As if a woman couldn’t be pretty and an activist or pretty and a journalist.  Maybe her looks worked in her favor in some cases - perhaps to get in the door with politicians or others in seats of power - but I would imagine that was due more to her intelligence and wit, her skills of persuasion and listening, than to her being attractive.

In 1969, she covered an abortion speak-out for New York Magazine, which was held in a church basement in Greenwich Village, New York. She felt what she called a "big click" at the speak-out, and later said she didn't begin her life as an active feminist until that day. As she recalled, "Abortion is supposed to make us a bad person. But I must say, I never felt that. I used to sit and try and figure out how old the child would be, trying to make myself feel guilty. But I never could!  Speaking for myself, I knew 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, and therefore it felt positive. But still, I didn't tell anyone. Because I knew that out there it wasn't." She also said, "In later years, if I'm remembered at all it will be for inventing a phrase like 'reproductive freedom'  ... as a phrase it includes the freedom to have children or not to. So it makes it possible for us to make a coalition."



In 1969, she published an article, "After Black Power, Women's Liberation" which brought her to national fame as a feminist leader. As such she campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in its favor in 1970. And we’re going to talk about the ERA on our very next episode! That same year she published her essay on a utopia of gender equality, "What It Would Be Like If Women Win", in Time magazine.

On July 10, 1971, Steinem was one of over three hundred women who founded the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), including such notables as Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, and Shirley Chisholm. As a co-convener of the Caucus, she delivered the speech "Address to the Women of America", stating in part:

“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.”

In 1972, she co-founded the feminist-themed magazine Ms. alongside several other founding editors. Its 300,000 test copies sold out nationwide in eight days, and within weeks, Ms. had received 26,000 subscription orders and over 20,000 reader letters. [And if listeners want to look at the cover of the first episode of Ms magazine, you can see it on our Facebook or Instagram accounts, @bdownpatriarchy, where we post visuals and other supplemental content.] Also, it’s worth talking about the title “Ms.” Men don’t have a distinguishing title to announce whether they’re married or not! That’s a powerful political act for a woman to refuse to be defined by her marital status - whether or not she belongs to a man.

In 1976, the first women-only Passover seder was held in Esther M. Broner's New York City apartment and led by Broner, with 13 women attending, including Steinem. And here I have to comment about the disproportionately large number of Jewish women who have made world-changing contributions to women’s studies. Just on this podcast we have read: Riane Eisler, Gerda Lerner, Betty Friedan, later we’ll read Naomi Wolf and Peggy Orenstein, and Rebecca Solnit’s dad was Jewish… I’m so amazed and impressed and grateful for the work of Jewish women!

Anyway, jumping ahead a bit, in 1984, Steinem was arrested along with a number of members of Congress and civil rights activists for disorderly conduct outside the South African embassy while protesting against the South African apartheid system.

At the outset of the Gulf War in 1991, Steinem, along with prominent feminist Kate Millett and others, publicly opposed an incursion into the Middle East.

During the Clarence Thomas sexual harassment scandal in 1991, Steinem was vocal in her support for Anita Hill and suggested that one day Hill herself would sit on the Supreme Court.

She has spoken out against female genital cutting, among many other issues. Interestingly, she is very anti- pornography, which she distinguishes from erotica, writing: "Erotica is as different from pornography as love is from rape, as dignity is from humiliation, as partnership is from slavery, as pleasure is from pain."Steinem's argument hinges on the distinction between reciprocity versus domination, as she writes, "Blatant or subtle, pornography involves no equal power or mutuality. In fact, much of the tension and drama comes from the clear idea that one person is dominating the other."

Other interesting facts: Contrary to popular belief, Steinem did not coin the feminist slogan "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." When Time magazine published an article attributing the saying to Steinem, Steinem wrote a letter saying the phrase had been coined by...

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Breaking Down Patriarchy
An Essential Texts Book Club
Breaking Down Patriarchy is a podcast for everyone! Learn about the creation of patriarchy and those who have challenged it as you listen to bookclub-style discussions of essential historical texts. Gain life-changing epiphanies and practical takeaways through these smart, relatable conversations.

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Amy Allebest

I grew up in Colorado as the oldest of 5 children, reading, writing, drawing, singing, and practicing the piano and violin. I attended Brigham Young University, where I met Erik Allebest during my first week of freshman year, studied abroad in Israel, lived in Chile for a year and a half as a missionary, and married Erik all before graduating with a degree in English. Erik and I moved around - to Colorado, Southern California, Utah, Spain, and Northern California - while Erik started and ran chess businesses for a living (primarily chess.com) and I stayed home to raise our four children. Those four kids have become brilliant, hilarious people and are our very best friends. I am a long-time trail runner, a recent CrossFitter, a lifelong reader and writer, and an almost-graduate of Stanford University's Master's of Liberal Arts program.