Sex and Feminism - the Bunny's Tale

Daily Mail (London), April 20, 1996 | Go to article overview

Sex and Feminism - the Bunny's Tale


Byline: Rosie Boycott

The Education Of A Woman: The Life And Times Of Gloria Steinem by Carolyn Heilbrun

(Virago, [pounds sterling]20)

GLORIA STEINEM, feminist, writer, star and founder of America's Ms magazine, gave most of her life and her powers to persuading women to believe in themselves.

For a generation of feminists she was a role model: clever, brave, provocative. She was the feminist both the establishment and the grass roots loved. Somehow, she was mainstream and radical. The magazine she founded was famed for its panache and professionalism, qualities the women's movement often sadly lacked.

Steinem's famous one-liners may not be quite up to Dorothy Parker's standards, but many of them have robustly stood the test of time. Remember `a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle'? Or `some of us are becoming the men we wanted to marry'?

She seemed, in true blockbuster style, a woman who had it all: brains, beauty, success and, most importantly, a sexy, high-profile mission.

Yet as much as she inspired adoration, she also inspired jealousy. Put simply, Steinem was too pretty and too glamorous for feminism's inherent dowdiness.

Betty Friedan, the `mother' of American feminism and author of The Feminine Mystique, the pioneering manual of the American women's movement, said bitterly that Steinem's looks `somehow paralysed me'. Hugh Hefner, who would have loved to have Gloria as a centrefold, once sent a memo in which he wrote: `These chicks (especially Steinem) are our natural enemies. I want a personal demolition job on the subject.'

In 1994 Steinem published Revolution From Within, a semi-autobiographical self-help manual, and overnight she removed herself from the pedestal. Now, Carolyn Heilbrun has written The Education Of A Woman, a fascinating biography which tells both Steinem's personal story and the larger story of American feminism in the past three decades.

If you believe that nurturing and childhood determine the adults we become, then Steinem's beginnings read like a textbook entitled How To Create A Feminist.

She was born in Toledo, Ohio, in 1934. When she was five, her mother Ruth, a successful newspaper reporter who wrote under a male pseudonym, had the first of a series of nervous breakdowns. At ten, her parents divorced.

Her adored (and obese) father left. Her older sister went away to college.

Gloria was left to care for her mother. They lived in a rat-infested basement. Ruth was diagnosed as suffering from anxiety neurosis and doped on chloral hydrate. Gloria fed her sandwiches, fought the rats and lied to the world that things were just fine. In later life, she was to blame herself fiercely for any real or imagined shortcomings.

But she was a terrific trier. And she grew into a beauty who thought marriage meant `doom' for women.

Feminism came to her relatively late. After Smith College and two years in India working with Gandhi's followers, Steinem became the hippest columnist on the hip New York magazine and a writer for Esquire. …

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