She’s lost the groovy glasses, but her vision, perception and focus beat the whee out of yours and mine. Plus she’s a tremendously hot 76.
“If you make any kind of jokes or comments about Take Your Daughter To Work Day,” said our daughter — who agreed to accompany us on an assignment that was ultimately more about the shirk than the work — “I will kill you.”
Back in our day, a child who threatened patricide would rate a thrashing with a stout switch back by the corn crib — but this is a different, if backsliding, era of hard-earned enlightenment, thanks in no small part to the tireless efforts and remarkable tenacity of the person we were on our way to see — Gloria Steinem.
Daughter — who tends to limit the minutes she spends with her dad — has always been amenable to tagging along when “work” involved the prospect of meeting a celeb like Alec Baldwin, Debbie Harry, triple Emmy winner Bryan Cranston or one of the stars of Scrubs. This time, however, meant something a little more to an 18 year old who, sadly contrary to many of her peers, has actually read and admired the work of this game-changing American original — an icon that her father probably first became aware of as a punchline on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
To far too many people these days, Gloria Steinem is a “historical” figure who’s closely identified with the late 1960s and 70s — an era in which she emerged as the premier public point-person for the Women’s Liberation Movement. On the evening of March the First, however, Steinem arrived at the Lincroft campus of Brookdale Community College as Spring Lecture Series superstar; as keynote signifier of Women’s History Month — and as an engaged, fiercely active and hypercurrent media master who had a roomful of local reporters so spellbound, they ignored the Dunkin Donuts display at the back table.
Dad, of course, had his own reasons for wanting an audience with the iconic author and commentator; none of it having to do with her founding and early advocacy of what was more properly called Take Our Daughters to Work Day. To us, Gloria Steinem is one of the living, breathing giants of what can really be considered a Golden Age of American magazines — an era that’s forever fascinated us, and an association that actually places her in the company of a frequent sparring partner like Hugh Hefner, as well as names like Helen Gurley Brown, Clay Felker, Jann Wenner, George Lois and, what the hey, Forrest J Ackerman.
Behind her trademark oversized-and-tinted aviator specs, Steinem viewed the seismic sea-changes in American society first as one of the daring young crop of New Journalism writers — her classic exposé “I Was a Playboy Bunny” for Show magazine was a personal and professional life-changer — then as a crucial component and contributing editor in the exciting early days of New York mag. As one of the co-founders of Ms. Magazine, she took her position as a leader on the frontlines; a vanguard supporter of reproductive and abortion rights — and, in the process, a fearless proponent of the nationwide media’s power to define and shape the story rather than merely “covering” it. It kind of goes without saying that she and her partners are a big part of how we began addressing women as “Ms.” in this country at all.
At the age of 76, Steinem has lost the groovy glasses but none of the third-generation activist’s passion and focus. Having expanded that focus in recent years to take on issues of social justice and inequality on a global scale — while reminding her audience that things have scarcely been “fixed” on the home front — the author has been taking her message back out on the road, making appearances at nonprofit functions and educational institutions while hard-won advances come under nightly broadcast blitzkriegs, and Wisconsin burns into so much sad but delicious melty cheese.
Addressing a polite volley of questions from an invited panel of (mostly middle-aged) newspaperpersons, Steinem fielded everything with customary grace and patience — lending a much-needed note of class and professionalism in a week that delivered a black eye to the Brookdale brand.
Taking on a number of “ripped screaming from the headlines” topics, Steinem commented upon the Wisconsin standoff with the observation that “economic crisis is used as an excuse for taking rights away…as long as I’ve been conscious, the ultra right wing has been willing to vote against its own financial interests to keep reproductive control.”
Of the sexual assault on TV journalist Lara Logan, the author characterized the initial coverage of the event as “factual,” while regretting that “the second round focused upon how she looked; what she had on…and whether we should we put women in the war zone.”
It wasn’t all hypercurrent events, of course — as Steinem weighed in on such ongoing issues as differences in professional advancement between men and women (“One of the problems in the workforce is that we don’t always ask for raises and promotions”), the eternal battleground of reproductive rights (“the most pressing issue…it has everything to do with how we’re able to participate in civic life; even how long we live”), and the perceived generation gap in activism (“Women tend to get more radical as we get older, where men get more conservative”).
Continuing along generational faultlines, the sensational septuagenarian professed that “my generation didn’t have rebellion in music…we had June, moon, honeymoon!” She then turned to the youngest person in the room — our daughter — for an affirmation that one’s musical tastes defined social identity and reflected personal degrees of awareness (and to think we turned her on to Diamanda Galás).
At this point, the editor of the Brookdale campus newspaper(!), The Stall(!!), offered that he whatever he writes “doesn’t slant left, doesn’t slant right,” but goes straight up the middle — and that his journalism is informed and inspired by the Ramones, The Clash, and Bad Religion. Steinem smiled politely, our daughter winced, and we were just glad that he said it, and we didn’t.
Summing up, the author of such volumes as the self-esteem bestseller Revolution from Within and the (recently updated ) Doing Sixty and Seventy noted that “the most fundamental thing is for a woman to have the support of other women…we feel hopeless, crazy, at fault if we’re by ourselves.”
“The reason you all know me is because we were like twelve crazy ladies back then,” Steinem concluded, before moving on to a presentation and talkback with the capacity audience at the Student Life Center. “The question isn’t just how do we organize, but how do we translate this to the polls…whatever it is you think needs to be done, just do it.”