Humanist Women in History: Gloria Steinem

Gloria Steinem (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

When Time magazine debuted its “100 Women of the Year” project for Women’s History Month, it came as a surprise to some that the magazine had only switched in 1999 to selecting and featuring a “Person of the Year” on its cover. Before that, since 1927, the venerable weekly news magazine had selected a “Man of the Year” to recognize the person who had most influenced events of the previous twelve months. Occasionally Time chose a group or a classification of people, e.g., “US Scientists” in 1960 and “American Women” in 1975, and between 1927 and 2019 eleven women have been featured.

Eighty-nine new Time covers complete the list of 100 Women of the Year. Among them are two Humanists of the Year: Margaret Sanger (1957) and Gloria Steinem (2012). Starting with AHA’s more recent honoree, the following is adapted from my introduction of Steinem eight years ago.

When I was asked to introduce Gloria Steinem at the 2012 conference in New Orleans and present her with the Humanist of the Year award, to say I was thrilled was the understatement of the year.

And then I started thinking that it made sense—she was a woman; I was a woman. She was the editor of a magazine—Ms; I was the editor of a magazine—the Humanist. She campaigned for Adlai Stevenson and George McGovern. She covered Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign. She did undercover investigative reporting on the Playboy Club. In 1972 Steinem coined the phrase “reproductive freedom” as a member of the National Women’s Political Caucus. In 2012 she’d been on the forefront of women’s issues for over forty years; she was considered the feminist icon of the modern era.

I… well, naturally I stopped the comparison right there. But seriously, when we think about influential women, there are the personal—for me, my mother, sister, former boss come to mind—and there are the political, so to speak. And when we think about public figures who have influenced women, Gloria Steinem is right up there at the top.

As I was boasting back in the spring of 2012 to anyone who would listen that I was going to meet Gloria Steinem, I noticed two things. First, everyone was impressed. And the women invariably said, “I love her!”

We do love her. We say this and we feel this because of who she is, what she’s done, and what she says. And, as such a positive force, we’re also compelled to claim her—as a feminist, as an icon, and yes, as a humanist because her message is one that challenges hierarchy, that challenges authoritarian oppression. To affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all humans—that’s the humanist message, right? That’s hers too. To focus on the fact that half the human population has never been afforded the same worth and dignity as the other seems like a pretty good place for any humanist to direct her energy. We’re lucky Steinem did, and still does.

In the book, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, Steinem relates some of the experiences she’s had as a public figure that were frightening or depressing, but also enlightening. In one, she recalls:

Going to give a speech in Texas and seeing dozens of people outside the amphitheater with signs: GLORIA STEINEM IS A HUMANIST. I thought, How nice, they must be friends. But as I got closer and saw the hatred in their faces, I realized they were right-wing picketers to whom humanist—or any word that means a belief in people instead of their authoritarian god—is the worst thing you can be.

It’s worthwhile to think about how we see ourselves as humanists vs. how our opponents perceive humanism. “Those humanists!” we imagine them screaming, “always thinking about how awful religion is, always obsessing over their nonexistent God!” But we know otherwise. We know it’s good to be a humanist. It’s irreverent, intellectually stimulating, and socially conscious. It’s empowering.

Same thing goes for being a feminist. It’s not all anger and fighting for fair treatment. Of course, it is that. But if women are often drawn to feminism out of rebellion, I think they stick around because of the positive experiences they have interacting with great women.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, Steinem got all kinds of women in all types of circumstances to start talking about their situations. She realized that despite the media’s focus on the so-called angry “women’s libbers” and bra-burners, “daily rebellions and dreams of equality,” as she put it, were cropping up everywhere. At the same time, she was keenly aware that the women’s movement had to acknowledge the link between sex and race discrimination, that “one cannot be successfully uprooted without taking on the other.” And so, in the early years of Ms. she toured the country with black feminists like Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Florynce Kennedy, and Margaret Sloan.

Steinem recalls realizing the need for a female-controlled magazine for women because there was a virtual absence of any women of color writing for newsstand magazines and because the culture was overwhelmingly sexist, confining female writers to personal, emotional articles rather than objective reporting.

So out of this need came Ms., which Steinem founded with five other women. The first issue in 1972 was meant as a trial run, which they thought would stay on the newsstand for three months. It sold out in eight days. In 2017 Ms. celebrated its 45th anniversary.

In 2005 Steinem cofounded the Women’s Media Center with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan to amplify the voices of women in the media, and in 2013 Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She campaigned for Hillary Clinton for president in 2016, and that same year she co-produced a series of eight documentaries on violence against women around the world. She was an honorary co-chair of the Women’s March in Washington, DC, on January 21,2007, and last year received the Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum.

“I always thought that ‘humanist’ was a good word long before I understood that anyone thought it was a bad word,” Steinem told me during the hour-long interview she afforded the Humanist at AHA’s annual conference in 2012.

It seems to me that it means you believe in the great potential and the best of human beings, so I didn’t have to overcome anything to accept this award; it seemed an unmitigated honor. And since the ultra-right wing has tried so hard to make it a bad word— “humanist” has been demonized in much the same way that the word “feminist” has—it seemed especially important to identify as humanist and support humanist groups.

Today, Steinem’s commentary continues to be sought on all manner of political and feminist issues.

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