Gloria Steinem: A Brief Biography

Gloria Steinem is one of the most well known and respected leader of the feminist movement in America. Her writings and speeches have impacted the way women’s issues are perceived and understood in the last half a century or so. Alongside Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm, Steinem has carved a unique place for herself in the pantheon of feminist leaders.

Born on 25th March, 1934 in mid-western state of Ohio, Steinem had a difficult childhood. Her father was an antique dealer and as a result traveled frequently, while her mother worked for a publisher. Her grandmother Pauline Steinem was a revered suffragette in her day. But in the early years of Gloria’s life, there was little evidence to suggest that she would uphold her grandmother’s legacy. Since her father had to relocate to new cities very frequently, the young Gloria Steinem could not be enrolled in a regular school. All her early education was provided by her mom at home. This delicate family equilibrium came to an abrupt end, when Gloria was only 8 years old her parents broke off their marriage. Not only was young Gloria deprived of a father figure, she was also thrust into a life of grinding poverty in the next few years. Complicating an already dire situation was her mother’s propensity to suffer mental depression. In the years following the divorce, Steinem’s mother fell into such an abysmal depression that the mother-daughter roles reversed for once and Gloria was left to take care of her ailing mother. When in her late teens, she went to live with her elder sister in Washington, D.C., where she enrolled for Smith College. Just as she was about to complete her degree, she got a break which were to prove very significant. In 1956, in the year of her graduation, she got selected for a two year scholarship program in India (Sondra, 1987).

The two years Steinem spent in India during her formative years were to prove profound for her understanding of women’s issues. The experience broadened and deepened her grasp of the status of women in the Third World and how socio-political realities impose severe restrictions for freedom of women. She realized that “the high standard of living most Americans take for granted was not available to all. She commented at the time that ‘America is an enormous frosted cupcake in the middle of millions of starving people’. She returned strongly motivated to fight social injustice and embarked on her career as a journalist”. (www.gale.cengage.com)

Emboldened by her experience in India, Steinem returned to America with the determination to empower her country’s women. In the first few years after return, she worked as a freelance writer. At this time, she also went through a personal crisis. Having gotten pregnant with her fiancées child, she resorted to abortion as her primary focus was still her career. Alongside her playboy bunny experience, her involvement with the company Independent Research Service became controversial, for the company had links with the Central Intelligence Agency. Her first challenging writing assignment came about when she was commissioned to make a two part report for the magazine Show on the lives of Playboy bunnies. In what would appear audacious for the time, Steinem applied for employment as a bunny and was hired. The next twenty days she spent in the Playboy mansion soliciting male clients, gave her an in-depth understanding of the economic and psychological aspects of the bunnies and their clientele. The articles and reports that emerged from this experience

“exposed the poor working conditions and meager wages of the women who worked long hours in the lavish clubs where rich men spent their leisure time. Years later, in 1970, she published a lengthy interview with Hugh Hefner, founder and editor of Playboy magazine. In that dialogue, Steinem debated Hefner on issues such as women’s rights, the ‘sexual revolution’, consumerism, and the ‘Playboy philosophy’.” (Sondra, 1987)

In the 1960s, the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement marched hand in hand. Inspired by the success of racial minorities in America, women’s organizations had also started to express their grievances vocally. Given her interest in these issues as well as her compassionate personality, Steinem actively participated in the movement. As a culmination of the women’s movement, several legislative concessions were made, a part of credit for which should certainly go to Gloria Steinem.

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