Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Happy 80th, Gloria Steinem

By Kathleen McCartney
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Tue March 25, 2014
Writer and activist Gloria Steinem speaks in November during an Equality Now event in Los Angeles. Steinem helped usher in the women's liberation movement during the 1960s and 1970s, and she remains one of its most outspoken and visible symbols. Writer and activist Gloria Steinem speaks in November during an Equality Now event in Los Angeles. Steinem helped usher in the women's liberation movement during the 1960s and 1970s, and she remains one of its most outspoken and visible symbols.
HIDE CAPTION
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
Feminist icon Gloria Steinem
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kathleen McCartney: Gloria Steinem changed rules on what it mean to be a woman
  • In 70's Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine to upend sexist status quo. McCartney was hooked
  • Steinem helped her find voice to seek posts reserved for males, resist 'policed' gender roles
  • McCartney: Steinem's work still resonant, necessary; we don't live in post-gendered world

Editor's note: Kathleen McCartney is the president of Smith College.

(CNN) -- When I think of Gloria Steinem approaching 80, I think about the women of my generation, growing up at the end of the Baby Boom. We internalized a lot of stereotypes of what it meant to be a woman in those days. Until Gloria changed the rules.

My earliest memories of gender inequity involve "I Love Lucy." I was 7 years old when I asked my mother, "Why does Ricky act like Lucy's boss?" My mother laughed and said it was "just a joke." I didn't get it.

The unspoken rules were evident in grade school, when teachers signaled their high expectations for boys but not girls. And when I looked at the larger world, I found that men were the leaders of countries, companies, churches, schools -- although the teachers were mostly women.

Kathleen McCartney
Kathleen McCartney

I felt different, really different, but mostly I kept quiet about it until I was 17. In the summer of 1972 I bought the first issue of Ms. magazine, a vivid image of Wonder Woman bursting from its cover. Steinem, a founding editor, examined the myth that "Women Voters Can't Be Trusted." Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrote about the insidious ways that women compete with other women. A piece titled "Populist Mechanics" helped women demystify the workings of their car, complete with a detailed diagram of an auto engine. An etiquette column headlined "Manners for Humans" counseled, "Anyone can hold doors for anyone else. It is only decent to see that it doesn't slam behind you."

I used my babysitting money to subscribe. I was hooked.

Gloria's words rang in my head when I challenged the status quo for girls in high school. A faculty advisor for the National Honor Society announced that the boys could run for president and treasurer and the girls for vice-president and secretary. Like Gloria, I came from a working-class family where you didn't question authority. My heart pounded as I argued for gender equality. I found my voice through Gloria's.

Opinion: Feminism is no longer a dirty word

By the time I was in college, I was taking courses on sex roles and dressing like Gloria for Halloween: I streaked my straight blonde hair and topped off my outfit with aviator glasses.

After college, life got more real. And so did the pressures to conform. "Gender roles are policed," Gloria taught us. I went on to study psychology and learned the academic term for this policing: "coercion to the bio-social mean." Stray from the behavioral norms of your social group, and people -- men and women alike -- will conspire to push you back to the middle.

Gloria Steinem: Medal of Freedom honoree
Feminist icon on this election
Gloria Steinem's best advice

In the workplace, such policing is clear when it involves discrimination. Other times it is subtle, but it can be just as effective. Be good, but not too good; be strong, but not too strong; be competent, but not too competent. Cross those subtle lines and you'll be branded with the "B" word: "bossy." A recent article in the European Business Review put it this way: "Women must live up to collective expectations of what makes a leader, while at the same time remaining true to gender expectations."

A year ago I led an executive education workshop for school principals aspiring to become superintendents. I asked how many of them had been accused of being bossy. Nearly every woman raised her hand. I talked about society's gendered perceptions of leadership. Some participants welled with tears as they began to understand that sexism often masquerades as a hurtful personality attack.

5 reasons why we love Gloria Steinem

In a 1995 speech to graduating seniors at her alma mater, Smith College, Steinem analyzed this phenomenon with her typical anthropological incisiveness: "Some of us women have been successfully socialized to feel that women can't be leaders, and vice versa."

When we have children, people double down on the pressure for women to conform. Often this comes in the form of never-ending questions about balancing work and family. Wouldn't you rather be at home with your baby? Don't you worry about the effects of child care? Why are you working so hard?

Once again, Gloria had the answer. In 1984, she observed, "I have yet to hear a man ask for advice on how to combine marriage and a career."

Women pressure other women about work and family, a phenomenon that has continued well past the "mommy wars" of the 1980s. I am still troubled by Anne-Marie Slaughter's 2012 Atlantic Monthly essay, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All." In the most widely cited Atlantic piece of all time, Slaughter wrote about the challenges of balancing a demanding career and raising children. If Gloria had been her editor, we might have seen a different headline: "Why Parents Still Can't Have It All ... and How to Raise Everyone's Consciousness About It."

One of my favorite expressions of Gloria's is, "The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off." The truth is that we need to continue the work of identifying how gender biases operate in our everyday lives. We are not living in a post-gendered world or a post-feminist world. Leaders of countries, companies, churches and schools are still mostly men.

"A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men," Gloria taught us. The work of feminism goes on because Gloria's voice continues to resonate across the world. The woman whose words changed the trajectory of my life at 17 continues to speak to me and millions more. "Whatever the question," Gloria said recently, "women are part of the answer."

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kathleen McCartney.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT