Silurians Honor Gloria Steinem
for a Lifetime of Distinguished Achievement
By Bill Diehl
Gloria Steinem received the Silurians Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala dinner at The Players on Dec. 4. President Myron Kandel presented her with a plaque inscribed, “In recognition of a lifetime of excellence as a writer, editor, feminist, and activist, whose advocacy for gender equality has placed her in the pantheon of civil libertarians everywhere.”
Past president Tony Guida introduced Steinem, noting that “Gloria has always defined feminism as a revolution, not a reform. And we all know that revolutions don’t succeed overnight. Sometimes they don’t succeed for years. Sometimes, I guess, they don’t succeed at all. And sadly sexism is still rampant in this culture.”
Guida also quoted a remark that Steinem made in 1962, referring to an article she had written for Esquire, “I’ve never heard a man ask for advice on how to manage a career and marriage.” Her comments were prescient, since a year later Betty Friedan published her groundbreaking manifesto, “The Feminine Mystique.”
Now, 50 years later, Gloria Steinem has not lost a step in fighting for the revolution. “This world of ours has always been ruled by men and what a mess we have made of it,” she told the audience, eliciting cries of “yes,” mostly from women attendees. “It isn’t that women are going to do a better job looking after this world, if we do it by ourselves. No, it’s because we understand now that if a group of men make a decision by themselves, they are more likely to choose the most aggressive solution, even if it’s wrong. And a group of women are more likely to choose the most conciliatory solution, even if it’s wrong. But if we have a group that really represents humanity as it exists, we are much more likely to have a full range of alternatives.”
Explaining that she was honored to receive the award, Steinem remarked playfully, “First of all it’s for a lifetime, which in my case is now 78, a reminder of age and immortality which I definitely need, because I have a deep conviction that I’m immortal. And this causes me to plan poorly. Actually I did have another reminder recently when I was campaigning [for Obama]. I was on television a lot and I was trending on twitter, and people thought I was dead, because why else would I be trending on twitter. Then I had one other reminder of mortality but then on top of that here’s this [Silurians] tradition that stretches from [honorees] Walter Cronkite to Ruth Gruber. Gruber is now a hundred and one. So she is my role model, and so I’m into it at least to a hundred.”
“What stirs me up,” Steinem continued, “is the memory of my Mother, who, when I was very little, began to show me how to take a piece of typing paper, fold it into threes, so it was in columns. You could hold it in your hand like a reporter’s notebook, because there were no such things manufactured at the time. And indeed when she tried to be a journalist her very first writing had to be under a man’s name, otherwise she couldn’t be published. So I suspect that like many women now I am living out the unlived life of my mother. And this is a huge step forward.
“We should be proud of this, but it’s also true that we need to move forward to a time when parents live out their own dreams. And children don’t feel that they have to carry on in order to make up for lost talents and lost lives. I think however that the reason I’m really moved by this [award] is the big one—how much my mother would have loved it. She wanted so much to come to New York, be a journalist here. She would have loved so much to be in your company.”
Citing David Letterman, Steinem then went on to talk about the “Top 10” reasons she loves journalism. Journalism, she began, is a portable profession, because you can do it almost everywhere. “I once interviewed circus people who told me that the sword swallower is the most revered person in the circus world because he, or she, doesn’t need a high wire or elephants or even a tent. The sword swallower can work wherever it’s possible to attract a crowd. And I think the same is true of us and even more so now that technology has made it possible for us to put words down in different places. We don’t need an elaborate arena. We are the sword swallowers of the professional world.”
As Steinem continued to enumerate her top 10 she said, “Writing allows you to say what you wished you’d said on the spot. For instance, the other day I spent three hours waiting on the tarmac in a plane and finally the pilot offered a movie to pacify us. And the young man next to me said ‘I don’t watch chick flicks.’ I don’t know if I could have challenged him on the spot but when I went home I thought, how about prick flicks! For all the movies that have glorified World War II as the last time we could be both violent and right, I now understand that we have spent more money making films and television series about World War II than we spent on World War II. And all these shoot-‘em-ups, with no dialogue to translate, and more interest in death than life, and [featuring] women, usually younger, and less clothed than men, is often more appealing. So if I am guided by chick flicks, why not guide fans toward prick flicks, don’t you think?”
Moving to another topic on her list, Steinem cited an editorial meeting she once had at Ms magazine, which she co-founded in 1972 with Letty Pogrebin. “We were looking,” she said “for all the women who had slept their way to wealth and power. . . and we found women who had slept their way — to a nice house and charge cards. But those who slept their way to real power were sons-in-law. And then we made a list of families that had the disaster of not having a son, so they had to find a son-in-law, and it was just fascinating how long this list was. Now we see that [wealthy] women are rebelling against [supporting their husbands] and instead giving millions to women’s groups.
Steinem is still active as a feminist and reformer. Several years ago she founded the Women’s Media Center with Robin Morgan and Jane Fonda to make women more visible and powerful in the media and to provide a level playing field for men and women journalists. “We are beginning to see that there’s no such thing as women’s issues and men’s issues,” she continued. “We have the power to change consciousness, change language. How great is that. So I hope that we stick together and provide a community for each other, supporting this kind of exploration and purpose. I’m very, very proud to be in this room and I hope that this is just the beginning of any subversive organizing cells.”
After a standing ovation, Steinem answered questions, pointing out that feminism is still a vital movement. Any great movement, she said, has to last a century to be fully absorbed by society. “Now we are striving for legal equality, getting out of labels and we’re only about 40 years into it, and I think when we expect a short span of a movement it’s unrealistic and we have to understand how long it takes.” Young women, she pointed out, are also part of the movement: “Teenage feminists are going after the media big time,” she said, pressuring magazines like Vogue to present women as they are instead of “photo-shopping” their images.
Does Steinem want to run for office? “No, no no!” she said emphatically. “I don’t want to think about sewers and highways. I love working in politics but I would not be a good candidate. Will we have a female president some day? I’m optimistic although it’s slower here than in other countries. Look, I’m a ‘hope-alcoholic.’ That’s what organizers do. As for President Obama, he can frame the atmosphere on reproductive freedom. He can do that from his bully pulpit. It’s a fundamental human right, like freedom of speech. And we haven’t done that yet.”