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The next Gloria Steinem?

Speaking in Baltimore this week, feminist icon Gloria Steinem came across like a really hip great aunt, the kind of woman who’s lived a rich, layered life. But at 84, her days of organizing are largely behind her. Will anyone fill that leadership void?

Speaking at the Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore this week, feminist icon Gloria Steinem came across like a really hip great aunt, a smart, interesting woman who’s lived a rich, layered life — a life worthy of reflection and, on some scale, reverence, whether you subscribe to her politics or not.

She studied in India in her 20s; co-founded New York and Ms. magazines in her 30s; published essay collections in her 40s; survived breast cancer in her 50s; married in her 60s (a Cherokee chief officiated at her wedding — I mean, c’mon); was the focus of various documentaries in her 70s; and published a memoir in her 80s.

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Now, two months shy of 85, she’s at work on another book in a string of many (this time about the “hidden figures” of the women’s movement, she said) and is the subject of two theatrical productions: a film called “The Glorias: A Life on the Road,” in which Julianne Moore plays her; and the off Broadway play “Gloria: a life,” in which Christine Lahti plays her.

I admit, I didn’t know much about her beyond her public image when I raised my hand at work for free tickets to the Baltimore Speaker Series event (The Sun is a sponsor). And I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder when I went, still bristling from her comments a few years ago dismissing the political will of millennial women by saying they only supported Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton because young men did.

But she won me over pretty quick. She’s just an i cool woman, at ease with herself and still unapologetically glamorous — something she was once criticized for, as if being feminine is somehow anti-feminist.

During the 90-minute Q&A, she praised the role of black women in feminism (“Black women are the women’s movement,” she said), credited her mother’s sacrifices for her own successes (“I do think I’m living out the unlived life of my mother”), and kept to a theme of individuality and humanity (“I don’t think we can dictate identity, do you? We get to say who we are.”)

If she could pass one law today, she said, it would be that women’s bodies were afforded the same protections as their private property. She spoke at length about the threats today to reproductive rights, which has long been a driving force in her activism.

Still, her best days of organizing are largely behind her, and that’s as it should be. Four generations have been born since hers came to be. It’s time for others to forge a feminist path forward. And there’s no shortage of powerful, young role models to look to for inspiration — performer Beyoncé, actress Emma Watson, Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, producer Lena Dunham and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to name a few.

Nor is there a shortage of work to be done. While a record number of women, 102, were elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November, fewer than two thirds of the country’s men think having more women run for office is a good thing for society (57, 58, 60, 54 and 57 percent, respectively, for generations Z, millennial, X, boomer and silent). Pathetically, just 54 percent of the women in Ms. Steinem’s generation — the silent generation or, per Tom Brokaw, the greatest generation — think it’s a good thing.

Women still make far less money than men on average, are still expected to shoulder the burden of child-rearing and housework, have minimal representation in the boardroom and are subject to the same tired old attacks from tired old men: Witness the ridiculous attempt by conservatives to shame Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for having danced as a college student and by circulating a photo of some other woman in a bathtub, claiming it was the freshman member of Congress. (Feel free to go after her for making false statements or misinterpreting facts, but for crying out loud, leave her figure alone.)

Ms. Steinem is expected to be in New York on Saturday, at one of several hundred women’s marches set to take place around the country. It just might turn out that the next leader of the women’s movement is not an icon like Ms. Steinem, after all — but all of us, together, standing strong and making our collective voices heard.

“We are more activist and rebellious everywhere I go than any time I have seen in my entire life,” Ms. Steinem said. “We are woke, we are seriously woke in a way that I have never seen.”

Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is tricia.bishop@baltsun.com; Twitter: @triciabishop.

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