This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
Gloria Steinem has had several long and venerable careers, working as an activist for women’s rights, a journalist, and an author. With her 85th birthday upon us, we are honoring her by looking back at some of the milestone moments in her life for inspiration and the encouragement to continue to grow, evolve, and advocate ourselves. To look at Steinem’s life is to learn that it’s never too late to learn about something or pursue something new.
Her Early Years
Steinem’s childhood was far from traditional. She was born in Toledo, OH on March 25, 1934, but spent much of her time trekking across the country because her father was a traveling salesman. Because of this, Steinem didn’t spend a full year in school until she was 11, when her parents divorced and she moved back to Ohio with her mother. She spent many of her teen years caring for her mother, who struggled with mental illness.
When Steinem was 18, she attended Smith College, a women’s liberal arts college in Massachusetts, where she studied government. At the time, it was uncommon for women to pursue a degree in this field.
Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images.
Her Career As A Journalist
After graduating from college in 1956 at age 22, Steinem went to India to participate in the Chester Bowles Fellowship with Independent Research Service, an organization under the National Student Association (NSA) that was later found to have ties to the CIA. During that time, she participated in non-violent protests against government policy. Steinem worked with Independent Research Service for two years until moving to New York City to pursue an all-too-familiar career: freelance writing.
At the age of 26, she began working for Help! magazine, an American satirical publication, as well as contributing to other outlets. Her early bylines were in lifestyle sections that were largely referred to as “the women’s pages,” because major publications informally banned women from writing about serious topics such as politics. “When I suggested political stories to The New York Times Sunday Magazine, my editor just said something like, ‘I don’t think of you that way,’” Steinem once recalled. It didn’t stop her from continually pushing for harder-hitting assignments.
A few years later she published one of her most well-known stories, “I Was A Playboy Bunny,” in Show magazine. She went undercover as a waitress in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club and witnessed the sexism women working there face. The recognition she gained from this story helped cement her place as a feminist journalist.
Photo: Tina Fineberg/AP/REX/Shutterstock.
Her Career In Activism
It was in her 30s that Steinem’s reputation as a journalist and feminist really took off. In 1968, at 34, she became a founding editor and political columnist for New York magazine and got progressively more involved in the feminist movement as a public figure. Her activism shaped the scope of her work as a journalist and she began writing extensively on issues such as abortion, gender equality in the workplace, and child abuse. Her writing about abortion came from a place of experience — at 22, Steinem got an abortion in London when it was still illegal. Her 2015 memoir is dedicated to the doctor who did the procedure. “It took us a while to figure out,” Steinem told the Guardian in 2015, “but patriarchy — or whatever you want to call it, the systems that say there’s masculine and feminine and other bullshit — is about controlling reproduction. Every economics course ought to start not with production but with reproduction.” One of her most notable works during this time was an essay about what women want from feminism and the way they protest, titled “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation.”
In 1971, at the age of 37, she founded her second publication, Ms. magazine. It was the first magazine to be founded and run entirely by women.
When she was 36, Steinem testified before the U.S. Senate on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment as part of the policy council of the Democratic committee. In 1971, she co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, an organization which works to increase the number of women working in politics. A few years later in 1973, at 39, Steinem founded the Ms. Foundation for Women to advance power and equity for all.
Photo: Patsy Lynch/REX/Shutterstock.
Her Career As An Author
Her first collection of essays, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, was published in 1983 when Steinem was 49 and beginning her career as a published author. She has since published nine books. Her most recent, a memoir of her life titled My Life on the Road, was published in 2015 at the age of 81.
At 52, Steinem was diagnosed with breast cancer; she was diagnosed early and was able to beat it with treatment. She reflected on her experience in an interview with New York magazine in April 1998. “After 20 years, I couldn’t do it anymore. I’d been through five stages of burnout; I got breast cancer; the universe was telling me to slow down,” said Steinem.
For much of her life, Steinem remained unmarried, dismissing it as an institution that destroys relationships. However, at the age of 66, she married David Bale, an entrepreneur, animal rights activist, and father of the actor Christian Bale. It came as a surprise to many. Over the years Steinem has described marriage as feeling like “a restriction, not an enlargement” and that she “couldn’t imagine getting married.” After marrying Bale, she told People, “Being married is like having somebody permanently in your corner. It feels limitless, not limited.” They were married for three years until his death from brain lymphoma.
What She’s Doing Now
Now, Steinem is known around the world for her contributions to the pursuit of equality and women’s rights. She sits on the board of numerous causes and organizations. In 2013, when Steinem was 79, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At 83, she became an advisor for the Time’s Up Movement. Her career has grown and evolved over decades of advocating for causes she cared about and finding new ways to tell her own story and the stories of others.
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