Gloria Steinem laid the foundation for the second wave of feminism in the United States. Her work as a journalist, activist, film maker and lecturer reflects her commitment to women’s rights. An Ohio native, Steinem returned to her home state on Tuesday, Nov. 21, to further her cause as part of Ohio University’s Kennedy Lecture Series.
Steinem addressed a packed house of students, faculty, staff and community members of all ages on the positive aspects of feminism and the modern-day activism that is sparking change across the country. Her quick wit, sharp intellect and sense of humor shone through as she reminisced major political and social changes that have occurred since the heyday of her activism. Her critique of the current administration evoked laughter and applause from the rapt crowd in Templeton Blackburn Memorial Auditorium.
Steinem rose to prominence in the 1960s as a journalist, covering a wide range of women’s issues. Perhaps most notably was her article on the exploitative working conditions of Playboy Bunnies, for which she went undercover as a bunny herself. She landed a job at the newly-founded New York Magazine in 1968. Just five years later, she founded Ms. magazine with fellow feminist Dorothy Pitman Hughes.
Outside of journalism, Steinem helped to found the Women’s Action Alliance, the National Women’s Political Caucus and the Women’s Media Center. As a political activist, Steinem has been on the frontlines of protests against apartheid and the Gulf War, among others. Most recently, she spoke at the Women’s March on Washington, calling for unity in the face of adversity and political uncertainty.
Steinem spent the majority of her lecture addressing questions, some of which had been collected in advance through social media and some of which were posed live by audience members. A reoccurring theme of the questions revolved around the immense energy required of activists, to which Steinem deferred to her younger counterparts.
“One of the ways in which I think young activists now are smarter than we were, is that they talk about self-care more than we did,” said Steinem. “So, we just were flat out activists until we were absolutely exhausted, and then it took a long time to come back from that.”
In response to a comment about the exhaustion felt by Gen X-ers, Steinem stressed that her generation’s activism sought to provide opportunities for women to do what they love, not obligation to do everything.
“It’s important to do what you love, but as women we also need to understand that we can’t always do it all,” she explained.
One local high school student asked for advice in responding to disparaging labels, such as ‘feminazi.’ After debunking this particular term and discrediting those who have popularized its use, Steinem reflected on her own approach to criticism.
“I’ve only just recently learned what to say when people call me a bitch: Thank you,” she said with a smile.
Steinem closed the night on an optimistic note: “My hope is, for all of us who made it here tonight, that our lives will be a little better and more interesting the next day, and the next and the next because you were here.”
She encouraged audience members to take the first step in forging community connections by introducing themselves to at least three strangers in the room before departing the venue. Many attendees rose to Steinem’s challenge, following a standing ovation.
Reflecting on the days’ events, which included Steinem’s participation in her Feminist Theory class, Assistant Professor of Women and Gender Studies Patty Stokes contemplated the give and take between generations of women.
“As a teacher, feminist, and human being, I find hope in my students even when our world seems to be growing colder and crueler. So, I think the privilege runs in both directions,” Stokes said. “(Gloria) is now at a stage of life where it is natural to be taking stock of one’s legacy. Our wonderful students are certainly part of her legacy.”
Many students, like attendee Abbey Knupp, valued the historical context that Steinem provided, which is informing the next wave of activism.
“With the current political climate, I think women’s rights issue have taken a spot at the forefront, and I think is really important for the current generation to know the kind of things that past generations have done,” said Knupp, a senior studying journalism and women and gender studies.
Steinem was the second Kennedy lecturer to visit OHIO’s Athens campus this academic year. Earlier this semester, former White House photographer Pete Souza spoke about his time spent documenting the tenure of former President Barack Obama. The Kennedy Lecture Series was established with the supporting gift of Edwin L. and Ruth Kennedy in 1962. The aim of the series is to bring speakers to the OHIO and Athens community to discuss significant issues in American life.