Women’s History Month – Gloria Steinem – Trailblazer Extraordinaire

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Attributed to Gloria Steinem

In 1972, when I was a twenty-something single woman working in the book publishing industry, I became a charter subscriber to Ms., the groundbreaking magazine founded by Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. Not being a well-to-do suburban housewife I had not quite connected with Betty Friedan’s brand of female equality. But the young urban single career woman Gloria Steinem I got. She spoke my language. By the time Ms. debuted I had encountered some incidents of gender discrimination in the pre-feminist “mad men” workplace. Little did I know what lay ahead as the turbulent 1970s unfolded; the good news was that we were also in the Steinem Era, a major factor in guiding me through the decade. Those years turned out to be a most amazing time of growth for women as we discovered that we were not bound by restrictive conventions of the past. But the road was littered with minefields of sexism and misogyny, and at times it was mighty difficult to remain a lady and not throw a metaphorical punch or two.

To be fair, I worked for and with some wonderful men, although many practiced what has been referred to as “benevolent sexism,” a form of discrimination that was cloaked in what some — whether innocently or otherwise — considered “chivalry.” Unfortunately, many other men outright disrespected, mocked and blocked women in professional situations.

During a particularly rough patch in my career during this revolutionary time I faced a series of incidents as I rose from staff assistant to professional team member. I overcame them with inspiration from Gloria Steinem and her message of women’s self-worth and importance. “What would Gloria do?” I asked myself more than once as I fought for my dignity, self-respect, rights and happiness, as indicated by the following examples:

How to Get a Promotion and Raise – ’70s Style

After a few years of increasingly having my work credited to my boss, with no promotion or increase in salary commensurate with my contributions despite my having broached the subject more than once, I decided to take matters into my own trembling hands. Off to the Personnel Department I went with my portfolio of work and summary of my accomplishments. The Personnel rep couldn’t believe that someone at my level had produced such a volume of press releases, articles, drafts of speeches, proposals and had worked exhibitions at remote locations with the professional team. My promotion, title and increase followed swiftly after that meeting. This irritated my bosses, especially because my actions inspired and encouraged other women to attempt the same.

The Assault Heard Round the Firm

One of the first indications that I had rattled some cages occurred while I was in the copy room (which was crowded with secretaries and assistants waiting to make copies), had bent over to pick up a paper and felt a sudden and hard slap on my derrière. Shocked, breathless and with tears in my eyes I looked up to see that the person who had assaulted me was one of the company’s senior executives who had suddenly appeared in the no-man’s land of the copy room! Everyone froze and stared wide-eyed with jaws dropped. The powerful executive was laughing; no one else was.

With my fury finally under control, I marched down to the offender’s office. After being stonewalled for more than a week by his gatekeeper I finally obtained an appointment to see him. Although my knees were knocking together in fear it turned out that this top executive was much more nervous than I. As calmly as I could I explained how he had humiliated me in front of staff members and damaged my image and credibility, not to mention hurt me physically. He was humble and apologized profusely, asking what he could do to make it up to me. I asked him for a public apology. I didn’t get it; but he did apologize to me in front of my division head (which was disturbing to the latter because men generally didn’t apologize for, you know, being men!). Fortunately, as fast as the story of his assaulting me had soared through the company, so did the story of my confronting him and his subsequent apology travel at warp speed through the grapevine.

“The Next Time You Want to Grab a Little A…”

Once I was a professional member of the staff I was invited to the weekly planning meetings in the division head’s office. As only the second woman ever to achieve such status, I was made to feel special by having a part of my anatomy grabbed by the division head as everyone was filing out of his office. I guess he wanted to finish the job that was started in the copy room. I knew direct confrontation wouldn’t work as well this time. Inspiration hit one day when I was browsing in a curio shop in New York’s Chinatown and spotted a tiny figurine of a donkey. I purchased it, gift-wrapped and presented it to the boss at the end of the next meeting. As he unwrapped my offering, looking puzzled, I explained, “It’s just a little something to keep handy the next time you want to grab a little a_ _!” He roared with laughter, kept it on his shelf and told everyone who passed through his office the story. That joke eased some of the tension between us and improved our relationship somewhat; at least he kept his hands to himself from that time on. And even the men in the division showed more respect for me. It was all very odd, but sometimes battles are won in strange ways.

A Brief Shining Moment

I believed that my professional capital was rising when my boss and the division head approved my proposal for company participation in a major national annual event. To this point they had seen no value, but gave me the green light to plan and execute the project. Imagine my disappointment when I later learned through my intelligence sources that my bosses were gleefully sure I would fall on my face. However, as it turned out the reception and exhibit were deemed to be among the best at the entire convention and company executives who attended declared it a resounding success. For that brief shining moment I was the golden girl, much to my bosses’ confusion and dismay.

“More of the Same Old Bitching”

My next proposal was a “Women in Business” roundtable of selected women throughout the company who were either managers or had outperformed in their jobs in some way. Although women rising in business was a hot topic by the mid-’70s, my idea was met with resistance. I persisted and finally received a reluctant approval, with the provision that the roundtable would not consist of “more of the same old bitching.” The roundtable was a success on many levels, but the accompanying article I wrote for the company magazine was ripped apart by my bosses like Cinderella’s stepsisters ripped apart her dress for the ball. The article was in shreds, just like that famous dress; but I felt like I had been to the ball and danced with the prince, professionally speaking. The roundtable and even the tepid article that followed gave a boost to aspiring women in the company.

A Woman for All Seasons

It is doubtful that I would have had the courage to stand up to my bosses, overcome the obstacles they threw in my path or recover from the horrific abuses had I not had role models like Gloria Steinem and the glorious women’s movement of that decade. Looking back on the outrageous and seemingly overwhelming challenges that I and millions of other women faced in the workplace during the ’60s and ’70s it seems like a dream — or more aptly a nightmare. In many respects it was both a deeply challenging and exhilarating time for women, and at the center of it all was a woman named Gloria Steinem. In some ways, Gloria reminds me of Sir Thomas More, who was the main character in Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons. Her integrity, appeal from the start to a wider audience of women as well as to men and unwavering dedication to her feminist message throughout the decades and seasons of change have made her the archetype and stalwart on which women of all ages and backgrounds have been able to depend.

For these reasons I was dismayed over the reaction of many young women during the recent Presidential election season to Gloria’s reply to a question on Bill Maher’s show about the reasons young women are being drawn to the messages of Senator Bernie Sanders. She said: “When you’re young, you’re thinking: ‘Where are the boys? The boys are with Bernie.'” I did not believe that Gloria meant that every young woman who was supporting Bernie was motivated because she was boy crazy, but college life in particular often involves jumping on the bandwagon of popular trends because it’s important to seem to be on the generally accepted side. And although women continue to outnumber men on many campuses and even outperform them academically, it would appear that men rather than women still control the culture on campus. This is likely one of those truths that first will piss you off before setting you free.

Gloria Steinem’s honesty is one of the many things I admire about her. She has also been quoted as saying, “I hope that young women feel supported in expressing their talents and understanding that they have the right to have choices. I don’t want to make young women feel that there are no obstacles. That’s a lie; there are obstacles. It’s not so good when we say to kids you can be anything you want because it’s not true. Much better to say you should be able to become anything you want and overcoming these obstacles is going to be so satisfying and so much fun and you’re going to have so much company.”

A Historical Perspective

Gloria Steinem’s emergence as a writer and feminist began in the early ’60s when she famously went undercover for a free-lance writing assignment to expose career truths about Playboy Bunnies and wrote an article for Esquire about college women and birth control pills. From the late ’60s to early ’70s, Gloria co-founded New York Magazine and Ms. She also became an advocate for choice and a passionate and highly effective supporter and organizer of the budding women’s movement that ultimately swept the ’70s and echoed throughout the following decades.

One of those echoes was the outstanding feminist movement of the 1990s that was launched by the publication of Failing at Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls, by David Sadker and Myra Sadker and the Ms. Foundation’s “Take Our Daughters To Work Day.” Both events opened the door to a new generation of girls and women to the enlightenment of gender equality. My young daughter, Lyn, and I developed, created and executed seven highly successful professional-level events for the employees and their children at my Fortune 500 Wall Street company. I recruited women from across my sector to be hosts at the event and work with the girls within the various themes (career planning, job hunting, producing TV spots, preparing for Y2K, managing a stock portfolio, planning a marketing campaign and mastering business etiquette). The women enjoyed networking, bonding and learning as much as the girls did!

My hope is for a continuation of what was begun in the 1970s — and in the previous century that resulted in the 19th Amendment.

Modern Feminists and Trailblazers

While there has never been and will never be another like Gloria Steinem — just as there will never be another Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger and other towering figures of social reform, there will be those who will emerge to take up the mantle of equality for women, people of color, LGBT people, the disabled and others.

Sheryl Sandberg, Chelsea Clinton, Malala Yousafzai, Emma Watson, Tina Fey, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, Kirstin Gillibrand and other women across multiple industries and world cultures who are proud to call themselves feminists currently are just a few who are taking up the mantle for women’s equality — not in just some areas, but on every level. On behalf of those of us who started down the gender equality path decades ago, I believe that young women today understand what they have to do in the here and now and for the foreseeable future to get over the finish line. But against the backdrop of 21st century feminism, equality, fairness and determination Gloria Steinem demonstrated at the Women’s March on January 21 that she continues to march on with all of us, precisely because there is so much yet to be done.

Until next time,

Jeanne

 

Photo courtesy of the Office of Gloria Steinem, gloriasteinem.com/photos/

 

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