Gloria Steinem & Women at Risk

| April 3, 2012 | 0 Comments

In 1969 I slipped out of a Caucus Room hearing in the U.S. Senate Russell Office Building and into a telephone booth. I dialed a number in New York City for Gloria Steinem, whom I had never met but wanted to know.

Ms. Steinem answered and I introduced myself, telling her I had worked for Bobby Kennedy and that I would like to meet her. She asked if I ever came to New York? I said yes and she said the next time you come let me know and I’ll be happy to see you.

That telephone call, one of the more significant ones I’ve made in my life, was 43-years ago.

All of that came rushing back March 18, when The New York Times ran a major front page article in Sunday Styles on Gloria Steinem. The article was entitled, “A Woman Like No Other.”

Subsequently, as press secretary to Senator Charles Goodell, Republican of New York, I was often in Manhattan and just as often saw Gloria for either lunch or dinner; usually in the company of Richard Reeves, chief political correspondent of The New York Time, and Lynn Sherr of the Associated Press (later with ABC’s 20-20).

But on one occasion it was just the two of us and we went to Toots Shor’s for dinner; the restaurant was among the most famous in New York. When we walked in all eyes turn to Gloria, and Mr. Shor immediately came over to welcome her. To be with Gloria was to be invisible, because she was Gloria Steinem – and she was, as she remains, magnetic.

After Senator Goodell lost to Jim Buckley in the ’70 campaign and I went to work for Senator Harold Hughes, Democrat of Iowa, I was seldom in Manhattan and saw Gloria less and less. But coming back to California and home to San Diego and starting The City Club, Gloria Steinem was one of our first guests – and would return several times thereafter. But there have been long intervals when she has been absent from my life. But a couple of years ago she came to Boston and spoke for me at The Great Fenway Park Writers Series I chair for the Red Sox.

When I told Larry Lucchino, the Sox president and CEO, Gloria would speak to The Writers Series, he pointedly asked, “What has Gloria Steinem to do with baseball?” I knew Gloria wasn’t a baseball fan, but I told Larry if you go to Google and type in Gloria Steinem’s name it comes up 2,630,000 times. Your name, Larry, “only comes up 188,000 times.”

To his credit, Lucchino came early to the luncheon and sat with Gloria and Red Sox Hall of Famer Dwight Evans. Larry is a restless soul but he stayed for the speech and through Q & A and then had his photo taken with Gloria and Dwight.

I had not heard Gloria speak in a long time, but there she was, in her 74th year, beautiful, elegant, and as persuasive as ever on behalf of fairness and justice for women. There is to her being and in her speeches a moral clarity no man can match.

No one who came that day to the State Street Pavilion at Fenway Park to hear Gloria speak about the women’s movement and the challenges women continue to face, 49-years after she and others began the fight for women’s equality, went away unimpressed, including Larry Lucchino.

Gloria Steinem

The Sunday of the Times article I posted a statement about Gloria on my Facebook page and provided a link to the story, written by Sarah Hepola. I then emailed Gloria a note. This was her response:

Thank you so much for your kind words, posting on your website – all of it, especially the moral clarity part.

“My problem and what I tried to say to the reporter was that there never was or should be one person representing a movement. Even in the early years, there was Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Pauli Murray, Eleanor Holmes Norton and more. It’s no accident that three out of even those four are black women.

“In the very first-ever big Harris poll of women’s opinions on women’s issues, black women were more than twice as likely as white women to support women’s liberation, the movement and its issues. But then the media focused on white women and kept saying the movement was ‘white middle class’, and some black women began to feel unwelcome. That’s the destructive thing – and focusing on yours truly doesn’t help.

“Even in the civil right movement, the emphasis on MLK alone didn’t work so well either. It rendered invisible the women who were the origin, backbone and majority of that movement – including the great Ella Baker, who was older than MLK, trained him; trained SNCC etc. People should know her as well as him.

“Anyway, it is what it is. I find it helps if I just never appear in an all-white photo or an all-white speaking group, or if older women always invite a young one along – and vice versa.

“Thank you for your good will – and my jacket!”

(We had presented her with a Red Sox jacket, which she wore through her speech at Fenway.)

Her response touched me. I understood the Times article had pained her, because to know Gloria Steinem is to know her profound humility. I was moved to write back:

“As it relates to you and the women’s movement: There are many reasons why you became the face of feminism; it’s not a mystery, given the nature of our society. You are beautiful, graceful, and intelligent. (Would Madame de Staël, who was not particularly attractive but no less intelligent, be as celebrated in today’s France as she was Napoleon’s time? In a word, no, as modern media would have conspired against her.) But that same media made you an iconic figure.

“I know you are uncomfortable with this, but, as you noted in your response, ‘It is what it is.’ You can protest, and have, but you can’t change it. The real test is not media having made you the ‘Superwoman of Women’s Liberation,’ that was not your doing, but how you responded. And, from my knowledge of you and the women’s movement, you responded superbly. Have you occasioned resentment and jealously among other women leaders? No doubt. Have they thought it unfair media celebrating you and ignoring them? Same answer, no doubt. But you cannot be blamed for that. Others may not understand this, but it is important you understand it – and stop holding yourself accountable for it, because, seriously, it’s ridiculous.

“As Machiavelli wrote in the 8th Institute:

For the great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, and are

more often influenced by the things that seem than those that are.

“And there is this: Your voice is needed now more than ever. The assault upon women poses new dangers. At its core is Christian fundamentalism. Coming out that background I understand it and I know it does not yield to modernity; it is a belief in a literal Bible and when scripture says women should be submissive to men (see Ephesians 5:22), it is accepted as a commandment from God. Our liberal friends don’t get it; media doesn’t understand it, but it is real and it is dangerous.

“When some future historian comes to write the story of our time, yours and mine, they will write you were a transformational figure in American history. And they will write it because it is true. And for that a great cloud of witnesses shall be eternally grateful, because you changed our world.

“You have my admiration and love.”

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He can be reached at,

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