Steinem did not invent feminism, but rather, became one of the movement’s most prominent and influential advocates through nearly five decades of activism on behalf of gender equality. Despite the seriousness of her work, Steinem has kept an effervescent air and often injects humor into her writing.
Born on March 25, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio, the daughter of Ruth and Leo Steinem, she lived and traveled about in their trailer, from which her father carried out his trade as a traveling antiques dealer. Her upbringing was unusual: Steinem did not attend school on a regular basis until she was 11. Sometime before Steinem was born, her mother Ruth, then aged 34, had a “nervous breakdown” that left her an invalid, trapped in delusional fantasies that on occasion turned violent. Previously considered an energetic, fun-loving, intelligent woman, Ruth’s episode left her afraid to be alone and unable to hold onto reality long enough to keep a job. Ruth spent long periods in and out of sanatoriums for the mentally ill. Eventually, Steinem’s parents separated, in 1944, when she was 10 years old. Her father left for California in order to find work, while she and her mother continued to live together in Toledo.
Steinem spent six years living with her mother in a rundown home, struggling financially and caring for her mother. During her senior year of high school, she moved to Washington, D.C., to live with her older sister. After her high school graduation, she went on to attend Smith College, studying government and political affairs and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. In 1956, Steinem went on a scholarship to India where she participated in nonviolent protests against government policy.
Upon her return to the United States, Steinem settled in New York City, where she found work as a writer and journalist. Esquire magazine gave Steinem what she later referred to as her first “serious assignment,” focusing on contraception. However, the editor did not like her first draft and made her rewrite it. The resulting 1962 article about the way in which women are forced to choose between a career and marriage was incredibly influential and preceded Betty Friedan’s groundbreaking book, The Feminine Mystique, by one year. Steinem gained further attention with her article, I Was A Playboy Bunny, which recounted her experience as a scantily clad waitress at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club. The article featured a photo of Steinem in a Bunny uniform and detailed exploitative working conditions. Despite the success of the article, Steinem had trouble landing other assignments because, in her words, “I had now become a Bunny—and it didn’t matter why.”
Before she landed a job at the newly founded New York magazine in 1968, Steinem kept busy with a series of projects. She conducted an interview with John Lennon for Cosmopolitan magazine in 1964, and in 1965 she wrote for NBC-TV’s weekly satirical revue, That Was The Week That Was. Steinem’s work continued to become more overtly political, and her involvement in feminism was solidified when she covered an abortion speak-out for New York magazine. At the speak-out, she felt what she called a “big click,” later saying she didn’t begin her life “as an active feminist” until that day.
In 1972, she cofounded the feminist-themed magazine Ms. as a special edition of New York magazine. Its 300,000 copies sold out nationwide in eight days, thus cementing Steinem’s growing popularity and provided a forum for the growing interest in feminism. Within weeks, Ms. had received 26,000 subscription orders and over 20,000 reader letters. Though the magazine was sold to the Feminist Majority Foundation in 2001, Steinem remains on the masthead as one of six founding editors and serves on the advisory board.
From her early college days and throughout her career in journalism, she has been politically active in many areas. In 1959, Steinem led a group of activists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to organize the Independent Service for Information on the Vienna Festival, which was intended to advocate for American participation in the World Youth Festival, a Soviet-sponsored event. Steinem openly opposed the Vietnam War and signed the 1968 “War Tax Protest” pledge, vowing to refuse to make tax payments in protest. However, fighting for women’s equality is the cause for which Steinem will always be known. Her 1969 article, After Black Power, Women’s Liberation, skyrocketed her to national fame as a feminist leader. As such, she campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment, testifying in its favor before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1970. That same year, she published her essay for TIME magazine, What It Would Be Like If Women Win, in which she describes the benefits of utopian gender equality.
On July 10, 1971, Steinem was one of over 300 women, including such notables as Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm, who founded the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). As a co-convener of the caucus, she delivered the speech, “Address to the Women of America,” stating in part:
“This is no simple reform. It really is a revolution. Sex and race because they are easy and visible differences have been the primary ways of organizing human beings into superior and inferior groups and into the cheap labor on which this system still depends. We are talking about a society in which there will be no roles other than those chosen or those earned. We are really talking about humanism.”
Apart from her commitment to the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion rights, equal pay for women and ending domestic violence, Steinem spoke out against the 1991 Gulf War and the Iraq War launched in 2003.
Embodying the self-assured, independent lifestyle she’d always promoted for women, Steinem remained single throughout most of her life, with few exceptions, one being her four-year relationship with publisher Mortimer Zuckerman. Then, at the age of 66, Steinem married David Bale (father of actor Christian Bale). The wedding took place at the home of her good friend, Wilma Mankiller—the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. There was some public backlash considering Steinem had in the past said of marriage, “Marriage works better for men than women.” With her characteristic good humor, Steinem deflected the remarks, saying she “had always hoped women would choose to marry if and when it was the right choice for them.” Sadly, Bale died three years later of brain lymphoma at age 62.
Steinem’s vigilance has not faltered over time as she continues to be a global women’s advocate. In 2015, she released a book, My Life on the Road, calling herself a “wandering organizer.” She explains how a life of travel boosted her spirits, shaped her politics and made her a household name. Whether speaking on college campuses, working as a journalist or campaigning for political justice, Steinem followed her father’s example of a life in perpetual motion. Rather than selling trinkets, she chose a path of purpose. At 81-years-old, she remains a steadfast voice for social justice.