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Gloria Steinem: An Award for My Mother

Gloria Steinem: An Award for My Mother

At 80, Gloria Steinem is still the face of feminism, constantly on the move for women’s rights as she lives out her mother’s unfulfilled dreams.

File 4729At a benefit for the Silurians, an organization of veteran New York City journalists founded in 1924, Gloria Steinem was honored with the society’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award. Looking radiant and chic in black pants, a black jersey, and a gold-plated chain belt, Steinem thanked President Mike Kandel for the award and then remarked playfully, “first of all it’s for a lifetime and a reminder of age and immortality, which I definitely need, because I have a deep conviction that I’m immortal. And the Silurians have honored everyone from Walter Cronkite to [the photojournalist] Ruth Gruber. Gruber is now a hundred and one. So she is my role model, and I’m into it at least to a hundred!”  

Then she switched key, becoming serious as she explained emotionally: “What really stirs me up 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. Later I realized it was what she had done to take notes before there were reporter’s notebooks. 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’m really moved by this award because I realize how much my mother would have loved it. She wanted so much to come to New York, to be a journalist here. She would have loved so much to be in your company. 

“And I suspect that like many women here 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 was surprised to hear Steinem speak about her mother with such emotion, since I knew little about her early life (I thought she was hatched with long blonde hair and glasses). I soon learned that Gloria was born on March 25, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio, to Ruth and Leo Steinem. Leo was the son of German Jews; Ruth was the daughter of Scotch Presbyterians who disapproved of Ruth's marriage to a Jew. Despite this objection, Ruth married Leo twice—first in a private ceremony and than in a public ceremony. In her fifth year of marriage, Ruth bore a daughter, Susanne; nine years later Gloria was born. The family spent their summers in Michigan, where Leo owned a summer resort that he was trying to turn into a showcase for big bands; in the winters they lived in a house trailer and traveled around so that Leo could sell antiques (see photo next page of young Gloria and her mother). But Leo's show-biz ambitions foundered and he had a tough time providing for the family. Gloria didn't spend a full-year in school until she was twelve.

Leo’s mother, Pauline, in contrast, was resilient and an early feminist. After emigrating to Toledo from Germany in the early 1900’s, she became a prominent educator and woman’s rights activist; she also sent many relatives in Germany to Palestine during the early 1930’s at the hefty price of $500 per person. Mostly due to Pauline, Ruth taught her daughters to be proud of their Jewish heritage and she also made them aware of the horrors of the Holocaust. Even so, Pauline did not forge a strong friendship with Ruth or extend a helping hand when Ruth became ill.