By Hass, Nancy
Newsweek , Vol. 158, No. 07
Byline: Nancy Hass
She's spent decades on the front lines of the fight for women's rights. But America's leading feminist says this is no time to settle.
Mention the name Gloria Steinem to many women under 30, and if there is a flash of recognition at all, they put her in Florence Nightingale's league--an admirable figure from the history books. To them, feminism was a war won before they were born, the miniskirted 1970s revolution that freed their mothers and grandmothers from drudgery and discrimination, paving the way for their own generation's unfettered freedom.
But in the living room of the funky Upper East Side duplex where she has lived for more than 35 years, Steinem, 77, is still on the front lines of a fight she considers barely half finished. Every day, the news pours in--from the Middle East, Africa, India, and Washington, D.C.--jamming her inbox and filling up her speaking schedule. The media haven't paid her much attention in the past 15 years (so many Kardashians, so little time), but the woman who has been the enduring face of feminism for nearly half a century insists her hands are as full as ever.
"Obviously we've come a long way on many fronts, at least for some women in this country," says the activist and founder of Ms. magazine as she curls her bare feet beneath her on a green velvet sofa she's had for decades, sipping a lukewarm cup of coffee and leaning against a needlepoint pillow that reads "Being on the Bestseller List Is the Best Revenge." "But then you have Anders Breivik," the Norwegian man who massacred 77 people in late July. "He was clearly motivated by woman-hating and the cult of masculinity. His own manifesto made super-clear that he hated his mother and stepmother for being feminists and 'feminizing' him, that feminists made 'men not men anymore.' How far have we come if that part of it barely got any coverage?"
Don't get her started on Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF chief who has been accused of sexual abuse by an African-born chambermaid assigned to clean his New York hotel suite. Even though the case may never be prosecuted because it is muddled by inconsistencies in the woman's story and background, Steinem considers the skirmish a victory. "Anyone can see this is a pattern of behavior," she says in her measured Midwestern tones, pointing to other women who have claimed Strauss-Kahn harassed them. "And now that has been exposed. He's gone from the job, disgraced. No matter what happens, it's a net win for us."
As for Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, women who wouldn't be riling up the Tea Party faithful had Steinem not paved their way out of the kitchen, she sees them as inevitable, as was (ERA opponent) Phyllis Schlafly at an earlier time. "You know what you're saying is important when the power structure brings in people who look like you and think like them."
Steinem's relentless focus, tidy theology, and talent for staying "on message" are what has enabled her to run the long race. Her rival, Betty Friedan, the fiery theorist whose 1963 book The Feminine Mystique jump-started the movement, burned out long before she died in 2006 at 85, and Germaine Greer, the Australian Marxist, is largely a footnote beyond the confines of women's-studies departments. Steinem may not be the ubiquitous cultural touchstone she once was, but she still speaks at dozens of college campuses, seminars, and community groups around the world each year.
The iconic aviator glasses have lately given way to rimless frames, but her longstanding belief that equality is a global issue--it was one of the points of friction between her and Friedan, who mostly concerned herself with the oppression of America's white middle-class married women--has been writ large in recent years. Such issues as human trafficking and genital mutilation, which she first wrote about in 1979, once evoked little interest in the mainstream. Yet post-9/11, even Americans have come around to her belief that it is folly to ignore repression abroad. …