Gloria Steinem may be the most enigmatic, hard-to-square feminist in America, at least by the usual standards. There’s the signature miniskirt, the aviator glasses, the hourglass figure that once prompted a fellow journalist to tag her with the sobriquet, “world’s most beautiful byline.” And, of course, she has been trashed by other women in the movement as a “fake feminist” so many times that the taunt has surely lost its sting. Sydney Ladensohn Stern’s new biography, Gloria Steinem: Her Passions, Politics, and Mystique (Carol, $24.95) takes Steinem’s familiar image and turns it inside out, giving us a freshly complicated view of the woman and her accomplishments.
The vitals: Steinem was born Toledo, Ohio in 1934. Her mother was a former society editor on a Toledo, Ohio, newspaper until she suffered a nervous breakdown; her father was a budding entrepreneur until the Depression washed out his business interests. Gloria’s parents divorced when she was 11, and Gloria and her mother moved into a dilapidated house in Toledo with no running water. They were always broke, and her mother became addicted to a medication affectionately called “Doc Howard’s Medicine.” Steinem went to Smith College on a scholarship and linked up after graduation with a liberal political group called the National Student Association, which was later revealed to be a CIA-front. Her first book, a frivolous resource guide titled The Beach Book, came out in 1963, the same year as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. But some of the more serious articles she did, including an essay about changes in sexual behavior brought about by “the pill” in Esquire, hinted at her evolving political thinking. The 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which she was covering as a reporter, proved to be a turning point, and afterwards her focus shifted to causes like the United Farm Workers and, of course, the women’s liberation movement, where she came to play a pivotal role in the National Organization for Women and founded Ms. magazine. Soon Steinem became America’s most visible symbol of feminist reform.
More than most biographies, Stern’s book gets to the heart of what makes its subject tick—from what she calls Steinem’s “class problem,” which has led her to hook up with a series of wealthy lovers, to her supposed insecurity about whether it was her beauty and not her brains that enabled her to become a successful writer. Stern makes much of Steinem’s habit of revising her personal history—and more than once lying in public about her past, particularly her childhood poverty. Although Steinem’s more serious books, among them Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983) and Revolution from Within (1992) have been widely praised, Stern contends that they also mythologize Steinem by glossing over any mention of her surgical nips and tucks and her ambivalence about celebrity.
A caveat: Word has it that Steinem—who agreed to limited interviews with Stern in exchange for the right to challenge various facts and quotes in the manuscript—is none too pleased with the outcome. When I spoke with Steinem in mid-July, she pointed out that the advance copy sent to critics and reviewers hadn’t passed her desk for combing and editorial comment. Publication date is still set for October, but, in her words, “what we’ve seen so far is just libelous about some of the people in it, not to say wildly inaccurate as to some of the facts about my life. There’s nothing one can do about someone else’s thesis, but I will say that along with other problems, [Stern] sort of accuses me of liking all women. I’m tempted to say, well, here’s a case where you’ve proven me wrong.”
Whatever the final version of this book may look like, it’s sure to bring us a fresh view of the woman behind the larger-than-life icon, whose personality and achievements have been shaped by a life of both poverty and luxury, political dedication and fashionable frivolity, public influence and private doubt.