How Gloria Steinem Embodied An Imperfect Feminism

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GloriaEmebdPhoto: BEImages/Henry Lamb.
What a day! Many venerable decades ago, both Aretha Franklin and Gloria Steinem were birthed into the world on this the 25th of March. Franklin is 72, and Steinem is 80. In celebration of that particularly notable milestone, it's the perfect time to look around you and see how many aspects of life as a woman in America have been affected by this legendary figure.

Steinem hasn't always been perfect. In fact, she's said a lot of things that will make you cringe — in part because she was using the language and knowledge of the time that now sounds dated; in part, because her beliefs have been known to be both nuanced and ever-evolving on certain issues in particular. She has been a controversial persona, sometimes with reason, sometimes not.

We don't need to tell you what Gloria Steinem has done to improve the lives of women — but, just to reiterate, she has advocated for women's voices in media, gone undercover as a Playboy Bunny to document the routine sexual harassment they experience, spoken out many times about childhood sexual abuse, and in many ways started the conversation about female genital mutilation in the United States. In a textbook sense, she's undoubtedly a figure of renown. Yet, in modern feminist circles, you'll find a fair amount of disdain or distaste for the woman who has also been sometimes seen as a slut-shamer, a sexual harassment apologist, and an out-of-touch proponent of a long-gone phase in feminist history (one that often seemed to cater exclusively to white women of upper- and middle-class backgrounds).

It's true that Steinem, with her particular brand of second-wave feminism and all the bra-burning, no-shaving associations that commonly come with it, will always be representative of a certain era to some. It's also true that she has done and said things that most modern feminists shudder to think of. Right alongside a vocal pronouncement that marriage should be available to people of all sexual orientations, she also made the suggestion that homosexuality would decrease in the future as boys became "less likely to be denied or reject their identity as males." While she has often spoken unequivocally against sexual harassment in any form, she's also been infamous in the past for what some perceived as excusing inappropriate behavior on behalf of President Clinton toward White House aide Kathleen Willey by saying that he "took no for an answer" and therefore wasn't guilty of harassment.

In a move that was decidedly better received in its time, Steinem has also railed against pornography in favor of erotica, claiming that any and all porn was rooted in a submissive/dominating template of relationships. What she said was true in many ways, but it can be jarring given the type of thoughtful, open narrative we've come to expect surrounding pornography and its relationship to feminism and female desire today.

Steinem doesn't sound like Stoya. But, that's not a reason for feminists of the third-wave and beyond to write her off. She has been an active and relevant figure in media, politics, and feminist discourse for over 50 years — and the world around her has changed immensely since then. Her viewpoint, in turn, has been a reflection of the changing conversation. Today, regular people (meaning citizens who aren't politicians, academics, or public figures) are living in an age of unprecedented access to the discourse that shapes social movement, thanks to the Internet, and it can be easy to take for granted how quickly things move these days. It can also be easy to overlook the fact that while feminism today is in many ways grounded in and uplifted by grassroots conversation, in the past, it was primarily on the shoulders of comparatively few public figures to fight for a controversial position.

As feminism continues to evolve around us, whether we agree with her or not, women can take a leaf out of Steinem's book as we seek to collaborate and converse with others. Though she clashed with Betty Friedan, among others, Steinem didn't let that get in the way of common goals. Though today, not all feminists may agree with, say, Beyoncé's take on the movement, we shouldn't need to push one down to make way for another. We also should remember that any opinion can (and probably should) change with the world around it. On her 80th birthday, Gloria Steinem should be seen for what she is: A living, breathing, constantly shifting embodiment of a movement that only gets better as it grows to include more experiences, more viewpoints, and more people at every level of power.