Biography

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Article abstract: A leading proponent of the twentieth century feminist movement, Steinem was also a founder of Ms. magazine. Her outspoken advocacy for women has made her a nationally known figure.

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Early Life

Gloria Steinem was born on March 25, 1934, to Ruth Nuneviller Steinem and Leo Steinem. Leo was a buyer and seller of antiques who traveled around the country with his family during the winter months. Their summers were spent at Ocean Beach Pier, an entertainment hall that Leo owned and managed at Clark Lake, Michigan. Before Gloria reached her teens, however, her parents separated and then divorced, and her older sister Sue went to college, leaving Gloria to take care of her mother, who was mentally ill with anxiety neurosis and agoraphobia. The two lived in the rundown little Toledo, Ohio, house in which Gloria’s mother had grown up.

Gloria spent her teen years in Toledo, trying to balance schoolwork, social life, dancing lessons, and taking care of her mother, who was kept reasonably calm but also disoriented by tranquilizing drugs. When Gloria was seventeen, with their house increasingly dilapidated and their furnace condemned, she was feeling desperate until the church next door offered to purchase the house. After a great deal of persuasion, her father agreed to care for Ruth for one year so that Gloria could finish high school in Washington, D.C., where her sister Sue was living.

The following year, 1952, she entered Smith College, while Sue cared for their mother. After being graduated as a Phi Beta Kappa majoring in government in 1956, she broke a college engagement and went to India on a year’s fellowship. Upon her return, unable to get a job as a writer, she spent two years working for the Independent Service for Information, a youth outreach organization that she later discovered was funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. Beginning in 1960, she worked in New York as a freelance writer and assistant for Help! magazine.

In 1964, she received national attention as a writer for the short-lived comedy television show That Was the Week That Was. She was still frustrated, however, because, although her interests were serious—politics, civil rights, the Vietnam War, world issues—she was limited because of her sex to writing about light topics such as fashion and celebrities. In 1968, however, she joined with Clay Felker in founding the magazine New York, becoming one of its writers and editors. Finally, she was able to write about political issues, and for that magazine she published articles about serious events in the country and the world.

Life’s Work

Gloria Steinem’s feminist consciousness began developing in 1969, when she realized that her concern with society’s disenfranchised groups stemmed from the fact that she too was part of an oppressed group: women. She began in that year to talk with women who had experienced abortions, as she had herself before her trip to India, and she became an advocate for legalized abortion, coining the phrase “reproductive freedom.”

In 1969, she won the Penney-Missouri Journalism Award for her article in New York entitled “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation,” one of the first serious journalistic reports on the new feminist movement. She marched in New York City’s Women’s Strike for Equality, a rally held in 1970 to celebrate fifty years of women’s right to vote. Her writing became more and more focused on feminist issues, and she began lecturing with Dorothy Pitman Hughes, a black feminist, about the new movement and its importance. She became part of the National Women’s Political Caucus, which had been founded in 1971 to try to involve women in politics and government.

In 1971, she became a cofounder, with Brenda Feigen, of the Women’s Action Alliance, an organization whose purpose was to develop educational programs geared toward women’s personal and...

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