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One On 1: Gloria Steinem Writes Off Personal Conflict

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Activist and author Gloria Steinem has called New York home for 50 years, but her impact has been felt across the country. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

She is one of the leaders of the feminist movement. And yet, despite her many years in the limelight, not everyone knows Gloria Steinem.

"Sometimes people think I'm Gertrude Stein," says Steinem.

It's hard to believe, since the writer Gertrude Stein died in 1946, about 20 years before the feminist movement was born. It is occasionally suggested now in the media that we live in an age of post feminism. But don't tell that to Gloria Steinem.


"It's just a normal stage of resistance to say it's over. Stage one of resistance is to say it's not necessary. Stage two is to say it used to be necessary but it's not anymore," says Steinem.

At age 76, the one time leader of Ms. Magazine continues to travel and speak extensively, occasionally on behalf of the women's media center, which she co-founded in 2005 to serve as a clearing house for progressive women to appear in the media.

Steinem says there's a reason why the work shows no signs of slowing down.

"If you think about social justice movements, you understand that unless they last a century, they aren't fully absorbed into the culture," says Steinem.

When Steinem became a public figure in the early 1970s it was suggested that her physical appearance -- glamorous and fashionable -- made her an appealing public face for the feminist movement. But Steinem says any perception of appearance plays into a bias against women.

"A woman who's judged because she's so-called 'unattractive' and a woman who's judged because she's so-called 'attractive' have the same problem, which is they're being judged by their outsides, not by what's in their heads and in their hearts," says Steinem.

As a very public symbol of feminism, Steinem has faced more than her share of slings and arrows. One problem, she says, is that she's lousy at conflict.

Budd Mishkin: For someone who is not crazy about conflict, it's an interesting juxtaposition.

Gloria Steinem: I know. I'm in the wrong business. There's no doubt. But ya know, since I hate conflict, I am good at finding common ground.


Another difficult juxtaposition comes from all of Steinem's travels. For example, sleeping in a tent with poor women in North Dakota one night, at a New York high society gala the next, which she likens to a basement and sunshine.

"It is surrealistic, literally. The contrast is so huge from one place to the next," says Steinem. "If you're going to find somebody to help in the basement, you have to get somebody from the sunshine, probably. So you have to be the bridge between those two things."

Steinem's years on the road have provided her with plenty of stories and sayings, like a memorable observation from a cabbie in Boston.

"We had a very unusual taxi driver because she was an old, Irish woman," recalls Steinem. "And she turned around as soon as we got out and said to us, 'Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.'"

It's not easy being a national figure when you have difficulty remembering names.

"I'm at an age when remembering something right away is as good as an orgasm. You sort of remember," jokes Steinem.

But she says she is good at remembering narrative. Her own is memorable.

Gloria Steinem grew up in Toledo. Her parents split up when she was young. Her mother Ruth suffered from a depression so serious that she often had to be cared for by young Gloria. Only after her mother's death in 1981 was she able to write about it in the essay "Ruth's Song." And after writing the essay, she didn't read it for more than a decade.

"They say the longest journey is the journey from head to heart? Alright, I had known it and written it, but I couldn't really fully absorb how sad it was," says Steinem.

Budd Mishkin: Did your experience with your mom affect your decision not to have children?

Gloria Steinem: I think, intellectually, it did, because I do understand that I had the experience, very young, of being a caretaker, and being a small person taking care of a big person of course is very different from the other way around, but I think some part of me said, 'I don't wanna do this again.'"


Steinem left the turmoil of Toledo for Smith College in Massachusetts and then a two year fellowship in India. It was during this time that Steinem discovered she was pregnant and had an abortion.

"I was just desperate and there was no movement, there was no companionship, I didn't tell anyone ever," recalls Steinem. "It was only years later. It was only covering that abortion hearing for New York Magazine and hearing other women testify about their experiences that I knew I wasn't alone."

She came to New York in the late 1950s, and eventually established herself as a working freelance journalist. One article has garnered a lot of attention ever since its publication in 1963. Steinem went undercover, working at the Playboy Club in New York, to report on working conditions for Playboy bunnies. She initially regretted the article because it cost her more serious assignments.

"But then after feminism began to dawn on me I realized that it was a good thing to have written," says Steinem. "It did expose their working conditions, they did sue me, so it must have had some effect."

She worked at New York Magazine in its early days in the late 60s among writers like Jimmy Breslin and Dick Schaap. But then she wrote a column about abortion rights activists.

"Those guys, very nice guys, sort of said to me, one by one, 'Gloria, don't get involved with these crazy women. You've worked hard to be taken seriously, don't get involved with this,'" recalls Steinem. "And suddenly I realized they didn't know who I was, and how could they, because I had not been forthright."

Steinem became one of the leaders of the feminist movement. She faced scrutiny and not just from critics. Much was made of the internal debates among feminists.

"If two guys are discussing an issue, they're reported as disagreeing about this issue. Two women are perceived as not being able to get along with each other," says Steinem.

Amidst the battles, there were lighter moments. Like the time Steinem was working in France and got a phone call to be part of a public service campaign featuring political opposites coming together to promote peaceful use of the space program.

"Ms. Magazine called me, and said, 'Ronald Reagan' -- who was then the president -- 'is trying to reach you,' "I said, 'Oh, you can do better than that,'" recalls Steinem. "He was also super polite. He kept saying, 'I'm so sorry I disturbed you.' And I kept trying to make him laugh. Can you imagine? I couldn't make him laugh."

In the 90s, Ms. Magazine was sold and Steinem had what she calls "a very small experience" with breast cancer.

In 2000, at the age of 66, she married David Bale. He died only three years later.


Steinem says the experience brought her back to her childhood, when a lack of attention made her feel not as "real" as others.

"Somehow the intensity of the year that he was sick and in the hospital, I can't explain this, but it made me real to myself. The emotion was so intense and internal that it really made a difference," says Steinem.

Steinem is the author of several books, and has been a public speaker for 40 years. She says the thousands of meaningful moments she's had with people in airports, coffee shops, even the street repair guy are a huge gift.

"'Gloria, Gloria, look at that sign, it says people working, instead of men working," Took us - " I won't say the language he used (both laugh) "to get that sign, and my daughter's an electrician, and she had to wait in a sleeping bag to get an apprenticeship but she's an electrician, isn't that great?" And so it's like a kind of instant friendship."

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