If you are a woman, Gloria Steinem is like an indispensable computer program, always running in the background of your life. You don’t always remember that she's there, but without her, your life would be constrained in ways you can hardly imagine.
Run for office? Lead a company? Become an engineer? Go to space? Work free of sexual harassment or live on equal legal footing with your husband? Control your own reproductive fate?
So many of the rights that women enjoy -- even the most conservative women -- exist because of relentless feminists like Steinem, who, at 79, shows no signs of slowing down.
Her career began explosively in 1963, with her turn as an undercover Playboy Bunny and her Show magazine expose of the job’s degradations.
“I learned what it was like to be hung from meat hook,” she said at the time, though she has subsequently expressed regret for the stunt that made her famous. "I could not have made a bigger mistake," she told the Associated Press in 2011, on the occasion of an HBO documentary celebrating her career. "It was personally and professionally a disaster. In the short term it was much harder to get serious assignments, and in the long term it's been used to ridicule me."
She went on to become the exceedingly attractive face of a movement vilified as ugly and angry. With many famous allies, she founded numerous organizations devoted to women’s equality and to battling insidious forces, like pornography and female genital mutilation. She is probably best known for co-founding Ms., a once-influential monthly magazine, which began in 1971 as a New York magazine insert.
I caught up with Steinem this week at the first annual Makers conference, a woman-power confab at a posh seaside resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, where she was -- though she’d surely dismiss the idea -- first among equals.
Every woman who listened, every woman who spoke over the course of the three-day event -- Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, Martha Stewart, astronauts Cady Coleman and Mae Jemeson, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell, diplomat Melanne Verveer, actors Jane Fonda and Geena Davis, comedian Chelsea Handler -- was well aware of her debt to Steinem.
“You’ve raised many women, for sure,” said Jennifer Aniston, who interviewed Steinem girlfriend-to-girlfriend onstage Monday night.
Steinem, jet lagged after a flight from India, hit many notes. She said that she was not sorry “for a millisecond” that she has not had children of her own, that equal pay for women “would be the greatest economic stimulus that this country could ever have” and that her favorite book is “Sex and World Peace,” in which author Valerie M. Hudson demonstrates that the best indicator of whether a country is violent or apt to wage war against another country is not poverty, religion nor natural resources, but its level of violence against women.
“What’s the best word to describe you?” asked Aniston.
“Hope-aholic,” Steinem replied.
“What would you like to be remembered for?”
“As a person who had a good heart and tried to make the world a little more kind.”
“What’s the question you are most sick of people asking?”
“ ‘How is the women’s movement? Where has it been, and where is it going?’ It’s huge. You can’t answer that.” (For the record, though, when asked what the next generation of women should do, she replied, “I think they know. I don’t think they need me to tell them.”)
The next day, I met with Steinem in a private room at the Terranea Resort. She shivered against the Palos Verdes fog blowing in through an open door, and she wrapped her frail frame in a coat embroidered in brilliant colors. She could easily be mistaken for a woman 20 years her junior. Her hair has the same familiar blondish streaks, and in a bow to vanity, she removed her glasses (smaller than her famous oversized aviators) for a photo.
In India, she said, where she devotes much of her time to the grassroots group, Apne App, founded by a group of Mumbai prostitutes to help women and girls break away from the sex trade. (Apne App was inspired by a documentary about the sexual enslavement of Nepalese girls “sold” to brothels in Mumbai.)
At home, Steinem said, she often campaigns for Democratic candidates (though never as a surrogate), and said her job is to persuade Republican and independent women to vote Democratic.