Thursday, August 18, 2011

"What Does a Woman Want?"

Freud’s perplexity comes back in a bizarre juxtaposition between a GOP debate question about Michele Bachmann’s vow of wifely “submission” and a new HBO profile of Feminist icon Gloria Steinem, my colleague and friend half a century ago.

Bachmann fudges her religious stance into mutual respect, but it recalls those “Mad Men” days when wives kept house and shopped in the suburbs, while husbands coped with the “real world” of business and politics.

Now, with three women on the Supreme Court while others run for President, HBO is reintroducing Steinem to younger generations of a society that is backsliding into a parody of all that as Sarah Palin’s momma grizzlies grab for political power while denying the full personhood for both women and men that Steinem sought.

In the 1960s, Gloria was first known for going undercover to publish a two—part article, “I Was a Playboy Bunny.”

But she was no stereotype. Behind the long streaked hair, tinted aviator glasses and model’s face was a gifted writer with an active social conscience. After reading her post-Bunny work, I asked Gloria to become a contributing editor of McCalls. She agreed, stipulating that she could escape the contract if I were no longer editor.

During a period of testing the limits of substance for a mass magazine, Gloria developed ideas, recruited contributors and did some writing herself, including a profile of the ballerina Margot Fonteyn. We worked closely and became friends.

I never saw the Gloria Steinem of Beautiful People fame, described by Time as “one of the best dates to take to a New York party these days--or, failing such luck, one of the most arresting names to drop.” At the time she was in a monogamous relationship with a comedy writer, a handsome man who saved most of his wit and charm for his work.

At Gloria’s suggestion, my wife and I invited them to dinner. Between “Hello” and “Good night,” Gloria’s friend, later to become a mainstay of “Saturday Night Live,” emitted fewer than a dozen words while the three of us engaged in lively talk with occasional sidelong glances to make sure he was still there.

Back then, Gloria’s energies were directed at such issues as racial injustice and the war in Vietnam. She phoned in January, 1968.

“We’ve got to help McCarthy.”

I had met Senator Eugene McCarthy and disliked him, but he was the only candidate trying to stop the war in Vietnam. Gloria was recruiting magazine friends to produce an eight-page paid supplement for the Manchester Union—Leader, the conservative newspaper that blanketed New Hampshire, for the primary in March.

Half a dozen of us met in my office on a Saturday morning, settled on a format and then went to McCarthy’s hotel. He greeted us with undisguised boredom. Whatever we asked, his response was to turn to a campaign worker with a yawn and say, “Oh, there’s something in the files about that. Would you try to find it?“

We went back to the office, rewrote old material and polished it. When McCarthy almost upset LBJ in the New Hampshire primary, conventional wisdom credited college students ringing doorbells. No one mentioned our supplement, which reached far more voters.

Gloria went off to help Caesar Chavez and migrant workers in California, but in a piece for New York, “Trying to Love Eugene,” she described our meeting with McCarthy: “Somewhere there is a tape of this fiasco that could be sold as a comedy record.”

The feeling was mutual, I learned years later when I involuntarily had to go to lunch with McCarthy. “Gloria Steinem?“ he sniffed. “Oh, yes, she was the one with the short skirt and white boots up to her navel.”

In 1968 I made Gloria an offer she couldn’t refuse. But she did.

I was helping run the company as senior vice—president, and we needed a new editor for McCalls. I went to Gloria’s brownstone, and we spent hours talking. “You’re getting more involved in women’s issues,” I argued, “and here’s a chance to run the largest women’s magazine in the world without interference.”

She wanted to think about it overnight. The next day she called. “All my friends I say I should do it,” she said. “But I can’t.”

Gloria said she didn’t want to give up writing, but my impression was she was not ready to commit herself to women’s issues only. The next year she became a political columnist for New York.

Four years later, Gloria was starting Ms. Magazine, and we had a talk that would foreshadow both the success of the Feminist movement and its limitations. To reach large numbers of women, I argued, it would have to go beyond the political and deal with their personal lives.

It never did and, despite its influence, had a small circulation and no commercial success. Watching the HBO documentary, I could see a parallel in Gloria’s own life, which she has since devoted to the cause to the exclusion of all else but a brief late marriage that ended with her husband’s death.

It’s sad that generations of women, who benefited from her life work, now have to be introduced to her as an historical figure. But in the light of the caricatures of women now on the public stage, they should get acquainted with Gloria Steinem and realize how much they owe to a former Playboy bunny.

1 comment:

G Newman said...

Fascinating story, Mr. Stein. I wished I had known it when my grad school journalism class visited you at "McCall's" in May of 1976... Perspective is always a good thing.