No Slowdown For Gloria Steinem

A Pakistani man runs away from the blast site at Qissa Khawani bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Thursday, May 28, 2009.
AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad
Walk into Gloria Steinem's New York brownstone and you see something you may not have known she had: a frilly side.

"People sometimes remark that it seems softer and more feminine," she says.

In fact, the home of the most recognized face of the American women's movement is a testament to her domesticity.

Are people surprised to see this very feminine side of Gloria Steinem?

"I'm glad you think it's feminine, I thought it's a little papal," she says with a laugh.

And here's something else that may come as a bit of a jolt: Steinem is 71 years old.

"I have to say that, as one of the golden oldies, I always wonder if I'm the oldest now," she said jokingly at a recent reception at Yale.

Somehow the word "old" doesn't fit Gloria Steinem. She's traveling, writing and lecturing as much as she did 34 years ago when she was the "New Woman" on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

Steinem is still a major draw at high schools and college campuses, where most in the young audience only know her from history books.

"At the age 6, I was into Susan B. Anthony. And in the sixth grade, the only logical step to that in my opinion in the 20th century would be Gloria Steinem. And so when I was eleven I began reading her," said Gloria Loya, a Yale student.

And just as in the past, those expecting a fire-breathing radical, like teenagers at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, are in for a surprise.

"Do you not think it's possible for someone to actually be comfortable being a housewife? Because, frankly, I think that's a choice that any woman should have," one male student asked her.

"I think men should have it, too. And as long as I see no men making the choice, I worry about things that are unequal. I just think it's an index of suspicion," she replied.

Remarked another male student: "This was going to be something that was going to make a lot of boys in the audience, especially the students, a little angry. They weren't going to agree with as much as what she was going to say. But I thought I agreed with a lot of what she had to say, a lot more than I would have ever thought."

For Steinem, feminism has been a journey of evolution. As a child, she had a doll collection. "I had dolls of many nations," she recalled.

She grew up in the Midwest and spent much of her childhood caring for her mother, who suffered from mental illness.

After graduating from Smith College in 1956, she moved to New York. There, as a journalist at the age of 28, she made waves by going undercover as a Playboy bunny, to write an article which ultimately improved conditions for the many women who went to work wearing ears and tails and little else.

Many years later, Steinem's experiences at the Playboy Club were the basis of a 1984 movie, "A Bunny's Tale," starring Kirstie Alley as Steinem.

Steinem says the event that turned her into an activist was an abortion hearing she covered for New York Magazine. It was a time when abortions were mostly illegal and risky.

"I heard women standing up and saying in public and taking seriously something that only affected women. Up until then, I'd never heard that. If it didn't also affect men, it couldn't be serious. Something that was illegal, shameful, theoretically," she says.

"(Women who had abortions) had to enter a criminal underground. And suddenly I thought, wait a minute. You know? If one and three or four of us and I too had had that experience, why is it illegal? And that was the beginning of the unraveling."

Steinem went on to help create Ms. Magazine, now in its 34th year, and became the photogenic face of the women's movement.