Gloria Steinem is my favorite feminist rock star. And not just because she’s a rock star—I love her for her humility, her dedication, her seriousness, her playfulness, her inner and outer beauty, her reverence and irreverence in equal measure and in all the right places. I’m happy to honor her this week because she has just won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As President Obama conferred the medal upon her, he described her as a “trailblazing writer and feminist organizer” who has “been at the forefront of the fight for equality and social justice for more than four decades.”
The President then described some of the work Ms. Steinem has done—from establishing Ms. Magazine and Take Our Daughters to Work Day to raising our collective consciousness about the intersection of sex and race. That’s the stuff everyone knows—and it’s impressive. But Gloria Steinem is my favorite feminist rock star mostly because of the little things, the details that many people don’t know because they don’t always make national news. So, without further ado, here are five awesome things everyone should know about Gloria Steinem:
- She knows the power of self-esteem: Ms. Steinem grew up in poverty and often had to care for her mother, who was mentally ill. Her father left them when Gloria seemed old enough to handle things. This personal background, combined with societal messages that, for girls and women, all power is seated outside ourselves rather than within, left Gloria with a self-image that was very different from what others thought of her. She chose to examine this self-image, to un-learn the disempowering messages of the past, when she was well-established as a feminist trailblazer. She wrote a vital book about self-esteem that is both personal and political entitled Revolution from Within in which she examines the importance of self-esteem, as it is the basis upon which all communities are built—and the lack of it has caused no end of pain. I’m reading this book right now, and it is truly revolutionary.
- She’s endured some very personal backlash: In 1963, Gloria went undercover as a Playboy Bunny and then wrote a well-known article exposing the sexism of the experience, “I Was a Playboy Bunny.” In the years following, Playboy magazine continually printed her photo amid, as she describes it, “…ever more pornographic photos of other Bunnies.” In 1984, the photo the magazine used was one taken at a Ms. Foundation for Women banquet on Gloria’s fiftieth birthday. In the photo, Ms. Steinem’s breast was partially exposed as she reached upward; no one else has ever printed this photo. Feminist trailblazing always comes with a personal pricetag, but we rarely discuss it—Gloria has suffered humiliation and pain because she chose to fight sexism for all women. And she kept fighting anyway.
- She celebrates the Divine feminine: Mention the Divine feminine on the street, and you’re likely to get some raised eyebrows, as people suspect you might have just said something vaguely blasphemous at worst and impolite at best. Mention it in the company of feminists and many will change the subject or look at you blankly, as some believe religion is a topic best left out of liberal conversation. But start following questions about patriarchy and religion, about faith and women and sexism and society, and you end up at God. There’s no two ways about it, and there’s no way around it. I love Gloria because she not only knows this, she has articulated it beautifully: “God may be in the details, but the goddess is in the questions. Once we begin to ask them, there’s no turning back.” Indeed.
- She’s always been about true sexual empowerment: When asked if she was surprised by the way young women dressed in 2009, Gloria responded that she used to wear miniskirts and a button that said “Cunt Power.” Gloria has always been chic and glam, all that and a bag o’ chips, and she has never been willing to let objectification devour sexual empowerment—for herself or any other woman.
- The best is yet to come: At nearly 80, Ms. Steinem isn’t done being her kickass self. Whenever she is asked questions about a successor, or what her greatest accomplishment has been, or if she’s ready to find a comfy spot and retire, or if she’s ready to “pass the torch,” her answer is always a resounding no. She’s got work left to do, and there’s nobody like her for doing it. Part of what she’s doing now is defending young women from the viciousness of the media and uplifting their voices. As Ms. Steinem puts it, she’s “…using her torch to light other people’s torches.” I count myself extremely fortunate to be among those whose torch she has lit.