The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem
by Carolyn G. Heilbrun
The Dial Press, 1995
451 pp., $24.95
The Rot Started at the Top
I cannot find it in my heart to condemn this woman's life, nor even this fawning biography and its misguided author, who seems like a nice lady. Gloria Steinem's life is a 1960s tale, the story of an erring human being whose mistakes allowed her to be wholly trapped by the cruel delusions of that dark era. There is real horror here, "the evil that does not know itself," as a Christopher Isherwood character remarked of Weimar Berlin. She should not bear more than a small part of the blame. Three or four decades ago, she sought to be an enlightened young woman. It was her misfortune that she did so in an era when enlightenment itself had become corrupt. The irony of her sad life is that she has lived the agenda, not of insurgent or oppressed peoples, or even of an ambitious revolutionary vanguard, but of the decadent cultural establishment of her young womanhood.
Now by this point in history, it must be reasonably clear that the feminism that came out of the 1960s has been a catastrophe. Feminism, in the sense of feminist theory, did not directly cause the breakup of a third of the nation's families, or the neglect of the nation's children, or the feminization of poverty. Its ethic of sexual libertarianism did not cause the epidemics of venereal diseases that began in the 1970s, of which AIDS is the most serious example so far. It did not even cause the brutalization of the liberal arts that is such a conspicuous feature of the late modern academy, though many observers might claim otherwise. Rather, feminism at every turn provided the theory for deconstructing the social mechanisms that in former times would have contained and corrected these trends. Feminism did provide the rationale for liberalizing the divorce laws, for turning privacy into a constitutional principle that made disease control impossible, for trashing the hard-won meritocracies on which civil society depends. (Affirmative action is simply a return to a particularly crude form of patronage society, which these meritocracies with their standardized tests and long apprenticeships struggled for decades to replace.) Beyond its effect on law and custom, of course, feminism has blighted the lives of women (and some men) with irrational fears and resentments. The "consciousness" it seeks to create is artificially cultivated with mind-control techniques familiar to students of religious cults. It is in no small measure responsible for the alienation that ordinary people feel from the nation's institutions, since the most dispiriting thing about America in the last third of the 20th century has been the tone of patronizing self-satisfaction with which these evils have been inflicted on a helpless and bewildered population.
Gloria Steinem has been a fixture of American culture since the late 1960s. During that time she has supported most liberal causes it was fashionable to support and been seen with most of the men whom it was fashionable to know. Her chief claim to fame, however, has been as a writer and publisher of "Ms." magazine. She made it her goal in life to disseminate ideas from which sane persons recoil at first hearing. Speaking before the League of Women Voters in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, for instance, she remarked that one of the duties of married women was part-time prostitution. As the commencement speaker to her alma mater in 1971, she advised her genteel listeners that house work is "shit work." She strained her relationship with her hero Caesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers' by insisting that the most pressing medical need of women farmworkers, people who often lack even the most rudimentary medical care, was contraceptives. She has not succeeded in persuading the world, perhaps, but she has materially contributed to coarsening it.
All of these ideas were supposed to flow from the overwhelming discoveries of women, discoveries comprehensible only by those who had achieved the sensitized mental state called "raised consciousness." In reality, feminist theory is no one's personal discovery, but a bunch of category mistakes. Essentially, it is a confusion of gender with the Marxist notion of class, as that idea had been reinterpreted by American leftists to explain the concept of racial caste. (The racialization of class was part of the never ending search of the American left for a revolutionary class to compensate for America's reactionary workers.) Thus, in this highly degenerate form of Marxism, the relationship between the sexes became that of one people colonizing another in a system known as "patriarchy." This last entity has many of the properties of the "lumeniferous ether" proposed by physicists before Einstein as the medium that carries light. Like the ether, patriarchy is ubiquitous in space and time, impervious to decay, yet withal curiously impossible to isolate. The best you can do is study its indirect effects, of which the world as we know it is the chief example.
None of this stands up to even the most cursory analysis, but the merit of these ideas has never been their persuasiveness. Indeed, those who accept them usually must first accept the premise that no ideas of any description can be true or false on their merits. Theory, from a feminist point of view, is simply a rhetorical expression of desire. In a feminist biography, therefore, ideas do not guide lives, but the other way around. Such a way of looking at people is misleading at best. Ideas do have consequences, and people usually seek to adhere to the truth as they know it. However, it is often the case that desires leave people prey to systems created by other people for reasons of their own. I dislike psychobiography in all its forms, but it seems clear that this is what happened to Gloria Steinem.
Born in East Toledo in 1934 to a once wealthy family that fell on hard times during the Depression, she had rocky childhood. Her parents divorced and her mother was in frail mental health. Young Gloria took care of her, supported by a dribble of rental income from the few assets remaining from the family's glory days. Her father, with whom she always remained on good terms, traveled about the country trading in gems and antiques. His side of the family was Jewish, but the chief religious influence on the girl was her paternal grandmother, a Theosophist. (Steinem's older sister was baptized a Theosophist; she herself was baptized in a Congregational church.) Still, with the help of some stingy financial aid, there was enough money to send Steinem and her older sister to Smith, the Ivy League women's college. Gloria Steinem graduated in 1955. She spent a year of post graduate study in India in 1957, supported by the Chester Bowles Fellowship and some freelance writing. She had some trouble finding serious employment in the United States on her return. For a while, she worked for something called the Independent Research Service, which distributed CIA money to American students so that they could attend Communist youth festivals in Europe and, presumably, persuade the other participants of the errors of their ways.
The early 1960s found her a struggling writer in Manhattan. She wrote for various magazines, notably "Esquire," "Glamour" and "New York." Her early work, predictably, dealt with "women's" topics, such as beauty regimens and celebrities. She wrote about serious topics whenever an editor would give the chance, however, and eventually "New York" magazine let her write about politics regularly, in time for the 1968 presidential race. Thereafter, partly under the influence of a radical New York City women's group called the "Redstockings," she more and more came to see the world through a feminist perspective. She dates her conversion to feminism to an abortion rights rally organized by this group in 1969. Indeed, she remembers this event as the turning point in her life. That was when she learned to "trust her own experience," a principle that has led to disaster in far less eccentric lives than hers.
Steinem quickly became an exponent of all the major left and liberal causes of the era, from the unionization of Chicano farmworkers to ending the war in Vietnam. While she was a tireless and useful worker for these causes, she nevertheless often rubbed her colleagues the wrong way. In the feminist movement itself, her increasing prominence gave her elders the understandable impression that she was stealing the show. The reason was not far to seek. At every stage of her life, Steinem has been a notably attractive woman, an attribute all the more conspicuous when she appeared in the company of such worthies as Betty Friedan and Bella Abzug. Adding one injury to another, in 1972 she helped found "Ms." magazine and remained its leading light until it was sold fifteen years later. "Ms." came closer that any feminist publication, indeed any leftist American magazine of any description, to achieving mass circulation status. It was not some grimy little radical periodical turned out on a mimeograph machine or a prim political journal supported by a financial angel; it was a real magazine, with full color ads and glossy pages and readable articles. Many persons, not all of them antifeminist conservatives, were not pleased.
By the middle of the 1970s, Steinem was widely vilified by various sides of the feminist movement. Friedan, who is credited with having started the whole business with her book "The Feminine Mystique" (1963), did not like the cultural radicalism of "Ms.", particularly its openness to what she called "the lavender menace" of lesbianism. Steinem's worst enemies, however, seem to have been on the left, particularly the very Redstockings who had done so much for her just a few years before. They resurrected the story of the CIA connection (which had never been much of a secret) and accused her of trying to hijack the feminist movement for the agency's purposes. To them, this explained why "Ms." stopped short of becoming an organ of pure revolution. However, while Steinem perhaps routinely overestimated the appeal of feminism in general, she did know that a magazine devoted wholly to the radical fringe would be both unreadable and unread.
In the end, of course, "Ms." proved to be unworkable as a mass circulation publication. Companies that sold products for women wanted the editorial content to complement their wares, something the fashion magazines regularly did but which "Ms." refused to do. Advertisers for cars and other general mass market products just were not much interested. Steinem may have spent more time traveling around cadging donations for the magazine than actually working on it. In its later stages, the magazine became a not-for- profit creature of the Ms. Foundation, eventually appearing once every two months, without ads. In any event, Steinem and the other founders sold their interests in the late 1980s.
Freed of "Ms." and more cautious of new radical commitments, she began to devote time to writing books, getting her life in order, and to therapy. The chief fruit of these endeavors so far has been psychological memoir, "Revolution from Within," which appeared in 1992. Unabashedly a self-help book, it deals with such matters as finding the inner child and heeding the inner voice. She evinced a keen interest in enhancing her self- esteem, a quality whose lack in her few people had previously remarked. Being old, we are told, is going to be wonderful, and she is going ahead to find out how to do it so she can tell the rest of us.
Short of multiple amputations or a spinal injury resulting in irreversible quadriplegia, it is almost always a mistake to say that some one incident in a person's life determined everything that came after. However, Steinem's life does seem to have been strongly influenced by the search for mechanisms to cope with the guilt she experienced from an abortion she underwent in 1956, the year after she graduated from Smith College. The incident was a sad end to a romantic story. Steinem had been courted in college by young man then serving in the air reserve, who used to do things like skywrite her name with his jet in order to get her attention. They became engaged. His family, however, disapproved of her, possibly because she was poor and insufficiently Jewish, and they pressured her fiancee to end the engagement. She herself seems to have grown ambivalent about the match; she took her year of study in India in part to make a definitive break. In any event, while she was in England preparing to travel to India she discovered she was pregnant. Almost penniless in a foreign country and with her plans for her life apparently about to collapse, she discovered almost by accident how much easier it was to obtain a legal abortion in England than in the United States. With the signatures of two doctors, she was able to obtain one on psychological grounds. Then she went on her Indian adventure, keeping the abortion a dark secret for many years.
You do not have to speculate about the importance of this incident for Steinem's later life; it was by her own account what made the Redstockings rally she attended in 1969 so important for her. It was the reason she became a feminist. Before her conversion, the abortion had been a shameful act, though one for which her hard circumstances went far to mitigate her blame. After her conversion, it was a brave, revolutionary act, a blow against patriarchy, even though at the time she was unaware of the existence of that evil. Unless this admiring biography is wholly misleading, she thereafter dedicated her life to transforming the world in such a way that her post-conversion assessment would be true for everybody.
Less straightforward are the more subtle effects this early trauma may have had on Steinem's later adult life. She never did marry or produce children. Rather, her private and public life tended to coalesce in what her biographer blandly calls "mini-marriages." Her partners in these liaisons were often colleagues, editors for whom she worked, important public officials, sports figures and one former president of the Ford Foundation. The full list of people mentioned as her former lovers in this friendly biography would be more comical than illuminating. Her reputation in some circles is perhaps well represented by the dispute she had with "Vanity Fair" about an interview with her that magazine published in January 1992. The interviewer had asked about Steinem's late '80s romance with Mortimer Zuckerman, the real estate and publishing magnate (this quote also well illustrates her biographer's solicitude in finding excuses for her subject):
"The nub of the dispute between Steinem and Bennetts [of 'Vanity Fair'] was over Steinem's negative response to Bennetts's query about whether Zuckerman had ever given any money to 'Ms.'....Zuckerman, understandably offended by reading that he had given nothing to the magazine, documented what loans he had cosigned, what charitable donations given, and threatened to sue 'Vanity Fair.' Brown and Bennetts blamed Steinem, rather than a lack of routine fact-checking to catch such mistakes."
Gloria Steinem never lacked for good qualities. In a profession notable for its dragon ladies, she was a pleasant woman who did not seek to win arguments by bluster or threat. She was that most valuable of journalists, a "good enough" writer who could turn in readable stories that were of the proper length and on the subject assigned. Although one is naturally suspicious of people who make a career of supporting good causes, still it is hard to believe that she spent so much of her life fund raising and propagandizing for mercenary motives. Seeing these things, it is all the more incomprehensible how her life became so deformed by the promotion of folly and malice. There are people with the strength of character and the originality to make of evil their own good, but she does not seem to be one of them. Rather, she was simply doing as she was told by a cultural milieu that had abandoned moral sanity.
Perhaps no article illuminates the early 1960s so well as Steinem's "A Bunny's Tale," which appeared in the May and June issues of "Show" magazine in 1963. This was a report on her experience as a "Bunny" hostess in one of the Playboy clubs, which were collateral enterprises of Hugh Hefner's magazine of the same name. The gist of the story was that being a Bunny was a god-awful job, something that happened to young women with no marketable skills beyond looking good in a skimpy rabbit costume. They were underpaid, overworked, and played about the same role in the scheme of things as meat in a butcher's window. For the rest of her career, it became an axiom for Steinem that all women are bunnies "in this culture."
If by "this culture" you mean the West in general and America in particular, the statement is clearly wrong. Before the 1960s, there was of course a long history of brothels and semi- clandestine clubs in which waitresses served much the same function as they did in the Playboy clubs. However, in "this culture" as it has been traditionally understood, such places were generally acknowledged to be deplorable. They might be tolerated, but even their habitues would have characterized them as places for the indulgence of vice. However, considered in light of the idea of sophistication during the Kennedy Administration, Steinem's assessment is true. In those days, traditional ideas of family, courtesy and chastity were increasingly being dismissed by progressive people as superstitions. It can never be repeated too often that Hugh Hefner and his Playboy enterprises were among the most influential liberal actors of the post-war period. Enlightened people in those days thought that conventional morality might still be appropriate for the lower middle class, but certainly they could not take such things seriously themselves. Steinem did the story not because the magazine wanted a picture of low life, but to examine what was then regarded as the last word in respectable sophistication. In some ways, feminism can be thought of as the adaptation for women of the Playboy philosophy, which in turn was part of its general democratization.
It is a mistake to look on this aspect of the 1960s in isolation. In every sphere of life and society, older conventional wisdom was being abandoned for new models. Often as not, as in the case of racial segregation in the southern states, the older conventional wisdom was more than ripe for reconsideration. However, the cultural resources necessary for creating something better to replace it simply was not there. (The Catholic Church is still suffering from the botched attempt to construct a new liturgy using the materials available at that time.) The paradigm for the era was nothing less than the Kennedy Administration itself. Young, brash, incompetent, its members hid a boundless cynicism behind a self- righteousness that served to blind them to the injury they caused then and thereafter.
Looking at some of Steinem's pet nostrums in context, one is reminded of nothing so much as the "strategy" that came out of Robert McNamara's Pentagon. Was the tactic of mandating new gender roles through perpetual litigation in the federal courts really any more likely to succeed than the endless search-and-destroy missions of Vietnam? Was the phantasm of "patriarchy" any more phantasmagoric than the Universal Domino Theory? Analogous follies can be found in many spheres in addition to government, of course. The 60s was the acme of the period in which America's industries were structured according to pure procedures, devised by an omniscient management to work without regard to product quality, worker morale, or even the market. This was the style of economic organization that collapsed so ingloriously before Japanese and German competition in the 1970s. Its philosophy reeks of the same attitude toward the treatment of human beings that stands behind the happily-defeated Equal Rights Amendment, which would have turned most of everday life over to the supervision of the federal courts in the interests of gender equity.
The lasting monument to the era, however, may be America's bloated system of higher education. The huge degree-granting factories that grew up in America in the 1960s had only a tenuous relationship to what higher education had traditionally meant either in the United States or Europe. It is perfectly true that today many of the denizens of the race- and-gender study departments are not scholars in any serious sense of the word. However, they cannot be blamed for the corruption of higher education. The best and the brightest of the American academy built the soulless monster campuses on which the comedy of the 1960s were enacted. Feminists are just one of the groups of squatters who have since occupied these barren spaces.
The 1960s, of course, merely created these things. It was the following decade that saw their spread in the media, in the law and in business. As many people have noted about the '60s, its leaders were rarely "the Kids," the teenagers and college students. More often, they were people like Steinem, who had reached their majority in the 1950s. The Kids themselves for the most were old enough to benefit from the traditional social disciplines that Steinem and her contemporaries had determined to destroy. The greatest victims have been the ones who came after, Generation X and its nameless successor, children as scarred and cynical as refugees of war. They grew up in the feminist era, and they are not happy.
Will they and the generations to follow them greatly blame Gloria Steinem? Probably not. She was, after all, really just a publicist, a "good enough" writer who told the story of her time. What damage she did will be repaired; good societies are resilient, America not the least. Her life, however, may serve the future as a cautionary tale, an example of guilt turning to self-deception and the will to deceive others. Who can say but that, as the cultural atmosphere clears, she may not awaken from the nightmare of the '60s, as have so many others. Then she may have a truly important tale to tell.
This article originally appeared in the March, 1996 issue of Culture Wars magazine.
Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly