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Design Matters: Gloria Steinem

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 Design Matters: Gloria Steinem

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Gloria Steinem talks about her legendary career as an award-winning journalist, New York Times best-selling author, co-founder of one of the most significant magazines of the 21st century, and an activist whose work has impacted the place women and girls now have in the world. For over sixty years, Gloria Steinem has been at the center of American culture and political life, where she has been instrumental in shaping our ideas about feminism, humanity, and equal rights for all people.

She joins to talk about her legendary career as an award-winning journalist, New York Times best-selling author, co-founder of one of the most significant magazines of the 21st century, and an activist whose work has impacted the place women and girls now have in the world. Debbie Millman: She’s an award-winning journalist, a New York Times bestselling author, several times over, a co-founder of one of the most significant magazines of the 20th century, and an activist whose work has impacted the place women and girls now have in the world.

She’s also co-founded the National Women’s Political Caucus, the Women’s Action Alliance, and the Women’s Media Center. For over 60 years, she has been in the thick of American cultural and political life, where she has been instrumental in shaping our ideas about feminism, humanity, and equal rights for all people. She is, of course, the legendary Gloria Steinem, and I have the great honor of interviewing her today in my studio at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

Gloria Steinem, welcome to Design Matters. Gloria Steinem: Thank you so much. And now listening to your introduction, I’m only worried about living up to it. Debbie Millman: Oh, you already have. That’s the great thing. You’ve already done these things. Gloria, I understand that your older sister, Susanne, was actually the person in your family who named you.

Is it true you were named after her favorite doll? Gloria Steinem: Yes, I think so. My parents had had another child, a boy, who was stillborn, between us. And that meant that my sister was almost a decade older than I. So she was another mother in a way, and I looked up to her and followed her around much to her alarm.

And yes, she did name me. Debbie Millman: I wonder what type of doll we could find now back in the fifties that is named Gloria. I think we’re going to have to do an eBay search to figure that out. Gloria Steinem: I think the dolls that I adored, and I did have a collection of dolls, were named after Sonja Henie, who was a great figure skater of the era.

I don’t know. They came with names, not mine, but I was in love with dolls. Debbie Millman: You were born in 1934 in Toledo, Ohio. Your father’s mother Pauline Perlmutter Steinem was a suffragist, and the first woman in the state of Ohio to be elected to the national board. This was before women had the right to vote nationally.

How did she manage such a victory? Gloria Steinem: First of all, I’m so impressed with your research. Thank you for that, because I think Pauline deserves notice and attention. She had come from either Russia or a country close to Russia. We’re not sure, when she was a teenager, then lived in Vienna, I think.

Not sure. And my grandfather went there to find a bride, in a very European traditional way. So she arrived in her late teens as a bride, and she did become a suffragist. Also, she founded the first vocational high school. Otherwise, they were all learning Latin and Greek, whether that was going to be useful in their lives or not in Toledo.

And she was greatly admired. I only remember her in a sensory way because I was too little. I remember her kitchen and food, but my mother was definitely in love with her mother-in-law law. Debbie Millman: Did her activism even subliminally influence you at all? Did you look back at what she was doing and feel like that was something you also wanted to do at that age? Gloria Steinem: I’m not sure.

I certainly admired the fact that she had made it possible for women to vote by organizing them to vote in a group. Otherwise, they were harassed and scared away from the voting places by gangs of men and boys who were hostile to women voting. I knew that. I knew about the vocational high school. I knew she was very admired, but I’m not sure.

Maybe it made me assume that I could go to college, which my older sister did too. That was possible in my family for women to be educated. But she seemed distant and so honorable, I couldn’t imagine imitating her. Debbie Millman: Your parents, Leo and Ruth Steinem, met at the University of Toledo in 1917 while they were working together on their college newspaper.

After they graduated, they got married. And you’ve written how your mother married your father because of his refusal to worry. And then as a result, was left to worry alone, on her own. Why didn’t your father worry at all? He seemed to be such a carefree, risk-taking experimenter. Gloria Steinem: I can only imagine it had something to do with his family, which was well to do.

And he was one of four boys, and he was a kind of devil may care kind of person. Whereas my mother came from a very working class family. Her father was a railroad engineer. So I think my father’s carefree attitude was charming to her, and his great argument for getting married was, “It’ll only take a minute.” Debbie Millman: I believe they were married twice.

Right? Didn’t they get married privately in a very quick civil ceremony and then have another marriage? Gloria Steinem: Yes. A private ceremony and then a public one, yes. Debbie Millman: Ultimately, I believe that because they were married twice, but only divorced once, I think your mother felt that they were still married for quite a long time. Gloria Steinem: Yes, because she felt divorce was a shame.

And so when pressed, she would say well really, they were still married. Debbie Millman: Your father was a man of many trades. He ran a dance pavilion and a summer resort. He was an antique salesman. He tried to write slogans for ad agencies. I loved some of the slogans that you’ve included in some of your writing.

He dreamed up a living chess game, with costume teenagers moving across the squares of a dance floor. Very ahead of his time. He was always looking for the next big deal, and he was often on the road. You were often with him, sometimes working alongside him as a little girl and still in single digits.

Can you talk about how you assisted him in his efforts as an antique salesman? Gloria Steinem: He used to go to country auctions to buy jewelry, antiques, small antiques, things he could carry around in his car. And then he would sell them to roadside dealers. So this was his winter way of life, when the summer dance pavilion was not going.

My job was to pack and unpack these little items of jewelry, or glassware, or China, or whatever, when he went into a roadside shop in order to try to sell them. So I was the packer and the unpacker, which I was in heaven about. I mean, kids love to be necessary, so I felt I was part of the grownup world. Debbie Millman: Didn’t he sometimes send you into some of the antique stores to work independently of him as a little girl? Gloria Steinem: Well, depending on how little I was, yes.

Right? I mean, there was a downside to it, because I always felt a little bit as if we were the gypsies of the highway and looked down upon by whoever it was who owned the shop as we drove up in our dusty car. Debbie Millman: When your family was on the road, you never started out with enough money to reach a particular destination.

Instead, your dad took a few boxes of China, silver, other small antiques he bought at country auctions, and then used them to sell, and buy, and barter your way through your travels. Did you know what he was doing? Did you feel okay about that? Did you ever feel insecure? Gloria Steinem: I knew that it worried my mother, who had grown up in a way less economically secure way, and therefore was more worried.

But my father’s slogan was kind of, “If you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, it could be wonderful.” And that’s seductive too. I’m sure I’ve absorbed a lot of that, because I too have never had a proper job. Debbie Millman: You’ve written how there were only a few months every year when your dad seemed content with a house dwelling life.

Do you know what the motivation was behind his desire to be constantly moving? Did you ever ask him about it? Gloria Steinem: No, we never talked about it in those terms. I just accepted who he was, even though it did also cause my parents to separate eventually, because my mother wanted to live in a more secure place.

And after my decade older sister was in college, it was possible for my mother and I to move into her old family house in Toledo. But my father was always present. He never had a bank account, because I think he feared the IRS would attach it. But he used to send me money orders every once in a while, Debbie Millman: $50 money orders, which is a lot of money at that time. Gloria Steinem: Yes, yes.

He did his best to be attentive, and he was certainly fun to be with. I don’t remember ever feeling that my parents were not doing their best, whatever it was, either my mother or my father. Debbie Millman: From what I understand and what I’ve read, you’ve described yourself as a child who wanted too much to fit in, and have written about how you longed for a home.

Much of the time, you were on the road before you were 10 years old. You weren’t going to school. Your sister enrolled in whatever high school was near whatever destination you were going to, but you were young enough to get away with your love of comic books, and horse stories, and Louisa May Alcott.

You were essentially teaching yourself. Did you feel that it would’ve been preferable at that time to have one stable place that you lived? Gloria Steinem: What I remember emotionally is that as we were driving to Florida or California, we would pass through neighborhoods with conventional houses, with front yards and porches.

And I would fantasize living there. I would think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live there and to go to school like the other kids?” But I was always well-treated. It isn’t as if I wanted to escape. I just had a case of envy for the life I saw in movies. Debbie Millman: Every summer, you and your family stayed in a small house your dad had built across the road from a lake in rural Michigan.

And there he ran a dance pavilion on a pier over the water. And though there was no ocean within hundreds of miles, he named it Ocean Beach Pier. I kind of love that about him. On weekends, he booked the big dance bands of the time, and people came from all over to dance to live music, Guy Lombardo, Duke Ellington, the Andrew Sisters.

And I understand that during this time, you also fell in love with dancing. And Ruby, the cigarette girl at the resort taught you how to tap dance. And is it true you could tap dance to the Minuet in G in a hoop skirt at six years old? Gloria Steinem: Actually, the Minuet was not tap dancing. I had a dance partner who was a girl a little taller than I dressed up as a boy, and we did an old-fashioned Minuet. Debbie Millman: Wow. Gloria Steinem: But we also tap danced, and I somehow thought I was going to tap dance my way into… I guess I wanted to be a Rockette.

I thought that would be the peak of success. And also, there were Hollywood movies that were full of dance scenes, so that was my impractical to put it mildly, imagination of my future life. Debbie Millman: Well, I believe you also took ballet lessons. Did you have fantasies about being a professional dancer beyond even a Rockette? Gloria Steinem: Well, I think I had sense enough to know that I had started ballet too late, and that I was not likely to be a real ballet dancer.

But whenever a ballet company stopped in Toledo, I went and fantasized about how I could do it, in spite of the fact that the toe shoes that I wore on each weak ankle were not going to get me there. But it was the only way I could imagine moving forward in life. My 10 years older sister had gone to college, so I guess I knew that was a possibility.

But the only way of not following the script of getting married, and having children, and living in the suburbs, if you’re lucky, was show business for me. Not very practical obviously. I felt like a writer, but I didn’t know you could make a living that way. Debbie Millman: So even then, you felt like you wanted to have sort of unconventional life? Gloria Steinem: Yes.

Both because my parents were somewhat unconventional and because I didn’t see happiness much in the conventional neighborhoods around me. The most attractive people in my childhood were the band members for whom my mother cooked, because there were no restaurants in that part of Michigan. So there were often all these band men sitting around the table.

And I was the only child, and they were very nice to me. Perhaps they were missing their own children. But everything that seemed attractive was not nine to five. It was some form of show business. Debbie Millman: One of my favorite stories about your dad was how he was unable to resist swearing, and your mother asked that he not swear around you and your sister.

So he named the family dog Damnit. Gloria Steinem: True. Debbie Millman: When my brother was a little boy, he was also forbidden to say… For whatever reason, that word was his favorite word to say, “Damn it.” And my parents were like, “You can’t say that.” So he decided to reorganize the way he said that word.

He said, Damo and navit. And I think that really tells you almost everything you need to know about him. Gloria Steinem: Yes. No, that’s very inventive and poetic. And my father also invented a very satisfying, long epithet that was gosh darn cholera [inaudible 00:15:45] the younger the age of the middle age.

I don’t know, it just went on and on, which he would rattle off at great speed. Debbie Millman: And he also, from what I understand, liked to say that that was dynamite? Gloria Steinem: Well, that was his business stationary actually, that showed you who he was. I have a letterhead that’s a big three-inch high red with dropped out, kind of exploding letters in my office framed.

It’s dynamite, because it definitely tells you who he was. Debbie Millman: I got the sense from everything that you’ve written about him, that he was a happy man. He was a kind man and a happy man. Was there a time where you felt that your parents loved each other? Gloria Steinem: Yes, I think so.

I mean, I could imagine why my devil may care father from a well-to-do Jewish family would appeal to my very, very hardworking, not quite penniless, but that grandfather worked on the railroad. So I think also, they shared a sense of humor. And I could understand why they appealed to each other, even though their interests were so distant. Debbie Millman: You’ve written how both your mother and your father paid a high price for lives that were out of balance, and how your father chose his own journey.

And how though he never realized his dreams, ultimately, your mother was unable to even pursue hers. And you wrote this about her in your book My Life on the Road. “Long before I was born, she had been a rare and pioneering woman reporter, work that she loved and had done so well, that she was promoted from social reporting to Sunday editor for a major Toledo newspaper.

She had stayed on this path for a decade after marrying my father and six years after giving birth to my sister. She was also supporting her husband’s impractical dreams and debts, suffering a miscarriage and then a stillbirth. She experienced so much self-blame and guilt, that she suffered what was then called a nervous breakdown.

Once out of the sanatorium, she gave up her job, her friends, and everything she loved, to follow my father.” And this is when you were born, Gloria. This was the only mother you knew as a little girl. How did you understand her at such a young age, prior to even becoming aware that she’d had this previous life? Gloria Steinem: There were always clues.

I mean, she loved Edna St. Vincent Millay, and she would share that poetry and various essays. She taught me how to fold a paper in thirds so that it was like a reporter’s notebook, since at that point, there weren’t proper reporter’s notebook, but you could hold it in one hand and make notes on it with the other.

So I realized the saddest words probably in the English language, what might’ve been, for her. Debbie Millman: Your mother suffered from depression, and addiction, and hallucinations, but you also describe her like your father, kind and loving with flashes of humor and talent, in everything from math to poetry.

She had been so ambitious and so capable. How did she lose her confidence? Was that something that women were just expected to give up? Gloria Steinem: I’m not sure, because much of it happened before I was born. Because as I was saying, my sister was a decade older. And she was trying to be a mother, a wife to an irresponsible, charming man, and also a journalist all at the same time.

Which I believe is why she, or the atmosphere anyway around her, when she had what was then called a nervous breakdown, which meant that she was too depressed to work, and she spent I’m not sure how long, at least a year in a sanitarium. When she emerged, she was also addicted to sodium pentothal, which was the tranquilizer of the era, and especially given to women because it was thought that women didn’t need to be that alert in order to function as homemakers. Debbie Millman: Really to keep them in line homemaking. Gloria Steinem: Yes.

I mean, that had happened before I was born. So I did recognize because of her reciting Omar Khayyam to me in the morning when I woke up, or because of her affection for short stories, I did recognize who she might have been. And I wonder how many of us, I hope many fewer of us now, women and some men too, are living out the unlived lives of their mothers.

But I realized that I was too. I mean, I would wanted to be a writer anyway. It wasn’t as if I was doing something that I didn’t want to do, but I did understand it was the unlived life of my mother. Debbie Millman: As I was reading about your childhood, and your origin stories, and the essays that you’ve written about your mother, to Ruth, which is a gorgeous essay included in one of your earlier books, as well as stories about your dad.

It struck me more than anyone I’ve ever read about or interviewed now over 18 years and 500 plus interviews, how the conditions of your origin story really did create the conditions for you to be the activist and the feminist that you are now, and have been for 50 years. It could have crushed someone the way you were grown up.

You could have followed in your mother’s footsteps very, very easily. What do you think it is about who you are that you were able to take the learnings of both your parents, the kindness, the lovingness that they were able to share and show you, to be able to break those patterns and become who you were and are? Gloria Steinem: Well, I think your phrase, the kindness and the lovingness is the key to it.

Because I did experience always kindness and respect for who I was as an individual, and I did always know that I was loved, which I’m not sure was as true for either of my parents. And yet, they somehow managed to create that for me. So that, plus I lived in books. I mean, I loved Louisa May Alcott.

I read everything she ever wrote, not only for young readers, but her much more depressed, older books for older readers. And my father used to sometimes buy a whole house library in order to get a couple of first editions, and then he would dump all the other books in the garage. So I would go out in the garage and end up reading some minute history of World War, I don’t know.

I mean, things I had no business reading. If I was hooked on a book, I would just stay up all night until I finished it. I just entered it. Debbie Millman: I used to read books over and over. I also believe that books helped save me. I used to sneak copies of The Godfather that my parents had in their library into my room under the covers, and was just titillated by that sex scene at the beginning.

I couldn’t believe that people did things like that. I know at one point, you asked one of your mother’s doctors if her spirit had been broken, and he told you that that was as good a diagnosis as any. And he said it’s hard to mend anything that’s been broken for 20 years. And it reminded me of the mother in Michael Cunningham’s, The Hours, the difference being that your mother stayed.

And I was also wondering if that was also part of what gave you the sense of meaning to keep going. Gloria Steinem: Yes, clearly. I mean, I loved my mother, and I admired her in many ways. But I definitely didn’t want to become her. That was maybe I’m not sure, part of the reason why I didn’t get married, even though I was engaged at least once to a wonderful guy I still know.

I mean- Debbie Millman: I want to ask you about that in a bit. Gloria Steinem: But I didn’t see in front of me besides my mother, many examples of women who had married, had children, and were happy, because there were not that many women in the paid labor force. It was mostly a time of very poor families or suburban families.

It must’ve been present somewhere, but I didn’t see it. Debbie Millman: Your parents divorced when you were 10. You and your mom then moved to Clark Lake in Amherst in order to be close to your sister who was attending Smith College. You said that that year was the most conventional life you would ever lead.

Was it everything you imagined it to be? Gloria Steinem: Yes. We rented a house. It was in Amherst, Massachusetts, which is very close to Smith College where my sister was going. And we rented an already furnished house, literally the only proper house that I’d ever lived in. And I went to what I guess I think was the sixth grade, and I kind of pretended to be normal. Debbie Millman: Oh, yeah, I know what that’s like.

Did people believe you? Gloria Steinem: I’m not sure. I should go back and find them and see. But I did love having a house that I could invite friends home to. Debbie Millman: When your sister began her last year of college, you and your mom moved back to Toledo and into the house where your mom had grown up.

There, you shared bunk beds and also lived with rats. I believe at one point you were bitten by a rat. Was that something that scared you, or was it just more adventure? Gloria Steinem: No, no, no. It definitely scared me, because I still remember it. And I was thinking, given the current rat crisis in New York City, I should write about it. Debbie Millman: Absolutely. Gloria Steinem: Because it was the summertime and I was sleeping… My hand must’ve been over the side of the bed.

And I woke up not because the rat bit me, but just I woke up, and there was a whole pool of blood there. And my mother, even though she was not well, managed to get the two of us to a local emergency room so I could have a tetanus shot. And memorably when I came back, the pool of blood on the floor had been licked up.

Later on, after I had been one of the many writers who started New York Magazine… And I knew that rats were a feature of New York life, especially for poor families. I used to try to get Clay Felker the editor, to let me write about rats, and he would never do it. It was not the image of the magazine he had in mind. Debbie Millman: That’s so interesting, Gloria.

Recently, New York Magazine won a national magazine award for their coverage of what’s happening right now with rats in Manhattan. Gloria Steinem: Really? I didn’t know that. Debbie Millman: Yeah, I was a judge for the cover design-That’s fascinating. And the cover design won. And I believe the article did as well, but definitely the cover did. Gloria Steinem: Well, you see.

If only they listened. Debbie Millman: Yep. Now, you had a number of different jobs as you were growing up. You worked as a sales girl in a women’s clothing store after school. And on Saturdays you read scripts. You played records at a local radio station. You worked as a magician’s assistant and also a lifeguard.

Have you always had a strong work ethic? Gloria Steinem: Well, I was just trying to make a little extra money. And I was looking for something. I was answering ads in the newspaper much of the time. For instance, the magician’s assistant. Debbie Millman: I sort of had this vision of you being on stage in a very sudden, Desperately Seeking Susan kind of environment. Gloria Steinem: Well, I did stand there while he threw knives at me.

I mean, I was standing against a cork board, and the knives were not that sharp, thankfully. But it was a way of making money basically. And I used to also dance at supermarket openings, and the- Debbie Millman: Lions Club, I believe- Gloria Steinem: Yes, the Lions Club. It was a way of making 10 or $20 for a show, and it was also a way out of everyday life. Debbie Millman: When you were 17, your mom sold your Toledo house, so you would have money to pay for college, so that the house money paid for your college education.

You went to live with your sister in Washington, DC where she was a jewelry buyer in a department store. And this gave you a carefree senior year of high school. You were elected vice president of the student council and the senior class. What was that experience like for you? Gloria Steinem: It was very bizarre for a lot of reasons.

One thing was I couldn’t understand for a bit why the student body walking around the halls of that high school looked different. And it took me a while to understand they were all white, that this in the District of Columbia was still a time of racial segregation in public schools. I was living with my sister because my mother was in a mental hospital.

And people would treat me with sympathy saying, “It must be so hard to be away from your parents.” And I would say, “Oh yes,” even though it was the most carefree time I had ever lived in my life, but I didn’t want to betray them, I guess. So it was a time of happiness, but pretense. Debbie Millman: As you did visit your mom on the weekend, she started to get better.

You slowly began to meet someone you described in your writing as someone you’d never known, and you’ve written that you discovered that you were alike in many ways, something you either hadn’t seen or couldn’t admit out of fear that you would share her fate. What similarities did you see? Gloria Steinem: A sense of humor, a love of reading and writing.

Some character that was… I mean, it is true that I had some of my father’s adventurousness, but I’m not sure he ever sat down and read a book in his life. So that entire part of my mother’s life I really related to. And it made me sad, because I realized what she had missed. Debbie Millman: At the time, you had no inkling that you had become one of the great liberators of our time and how- Gloria Steinem: I’m still not so sure about that. Debbie Millman: You don’t have to be.

Plenty of us are sure. Gloria Steinem: But there came to be a women’s movement, which helped us all. Debbie Millman: Yeah, of course. But you were a big part in helping women all over the world take a stand for their own lives. Do you think that your grief over your mother’s inability to have a life she wanted to, impacted you to do that? I mean, I don’t even know that you realized it at the time, but do you think that ultimately, that fueled what you were doing? Gloria Steinem: Well, it was clear to me that I didn’t want to live what was still a conventional life.

In the ’50s. Most of my classmates got engaged and or married in college or soon after college. I realized I didn’t want to do that, but I didn’t quite know what else I could do. So I ended up fleeing to India, because there was a one shot atypical fellowship available. And I ended up living in India for two years, which made a huge difference, because that was close to the independence movement.

Obviously Gandhi was a huge force. I was trying to write about Gandhi, so I was going around and interviewing people who had worked with him. And I remember finally getting to a great woman leader named Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, who listened to me as she rocked on her porch and finally said, “Well, my dear, we taught him everything he knew.” It turned out that it had been the women’s movement that organized the March to the sea to get salt without taxes, and Gandhi had come from living in South Africa and became the external symbol for this internal movement that was mostly women. Debbie Millman: I want to talk about your time in India in a moment.

I just want to talk about a few things that happened before you went to India. You graduated from high school in 1952. You attended Smith College like your sister. I understand you also applied to Cornell and Stanford, neither of which accepted you, and I hope that they regret that greatly now. But at the time, did you feel rejected? Did you wish that you had been accepted to either of those schools? Would you have gone? Gloria Steinem: I don’t know.

I wasn’t surprised that I wasn’t accepted, because my background was not typical, and the high school I went to in Toledo, I may have been one of two or three people who went to college from my graduating class. Most everybody, the women got married. The men went to work in the factories. So I can understand why they were not so willing to take a chance, whereas Smith viewed me as a legacy because my sister had gone there. Debbie Millman: At Smith, you majored in government.

What were you imagining you would do professionally at that point? Gloria Steinem: I’m not sure what kind of job I thought I could get, but it was an era in which Senator McCarthy was wrongly accusing people of being a communist. So I had some sense of how important government was and how unjust it could be.

I don’t know that I imagined exactly the kind of job I wanted to have, but I thought it was the world I wanted to be active in. Debbie Millman: You also took courses at the University of Geneva and earned a scholarship to study at Oxford University in England for a summer. Did you have a sense at that point that you were beginning to take after your father by traveling so much? Gloria Steinem: That’s a good question.

I don’t know. I mean, mainly I had been in Geneva at the university there. And in the summer, I just didn’t want to go home. So I managed to get to Oxford and take a summer course there. Debbie Millman: You returned to Smith College for your senior year, where you met Blair Chotzinoff, who you already mentioned.

Was it love at first sight? Gloria Steinem: I think so. I mean, he was the friend of a man who was the fiance of a friend of mine in the same dormitory at Smith. And we went to the same country house for a weekend. There was a big storm and a flood, which meant that we couldn’t get out, so we ended up staying there. Debbie Millman: How Biblical. Gloria Steinem: Right, right.

And he was very handsome, and funny, and unconventional. He looked sort of like a Kashmiri prince. He had a little bit dark skin and green eyes. And so, I mean, he was only Jewish, but he looked kind of amazing. He, of course, had never gone to college, and he was working as a so-called leg man for a Broadway columnist at the time. Debbie Millman: Oh, wow. Gloria Steinem: So he was welcome in all the nightclubs, and restaurants, and so on. Debbie Millman: I understand he took you for rides and he had a little plane.

He would take you- Gloria Steinem: Yes. He loved to fly. And so when he came to visit me at Smith College, he would fly from New York, from a New York airport, to a tiny airport near North Hampton. Debbie Millman: Is it true that he once wrote your name Gloria in the Sky? Gloria Steinem: He may have.

I don’t remember seeing it. Maybe he was trying to do that. I don’t know. Debbie Millman: I was trying to find a picture of that. Gloria Steinem: But I just remember that my house mother at that era at Smith… If you lived in a dormitory, there was a woman who was looking after you. And my house mother was kind of in love with him too. Debbie Millman: Sounds like he was pretty gorgeous. Gloria Steinem: Right. Debbie Millman: So he proposed.

He proposed marriage. Initially, you said yes. Did you want to marry him? Gloria Steinem: I didn’t and I didn’t. I couldn’t imagine not being with him. I was trying to get a job as a researcher. Women were then only hired as researchers with Time, or Newsweek, or the New York Times. I wanted to continue working, but I was not sure I could support myself.

All my friends were getting married. It just seemed a kind of stop gap measure to get engaged, and he had given me the engagement ring that belonged to his mother. Debbie Millman: How hard was it to break off the engagement, and what made you decide to do that? Gloria Steinem: I felt if I got married, it was the last choice I would have.

Life would be over, because I didn’t see people, women around me who were continuing to change after acquiring an identity through their husbands. Maybe that was wrong, but I just didn’t see it. So it felt more like an end than a beginning. And since I had the opportunity to go to India on a very slender scholarship, I did that.

And I did it in a not very kind way. I mean, I just left and left him a note. Debbie Millman: Just a don’t hate me. Gloria Steinem: Just trying to explain. Right. Debbie Millman: What gave you the courage to do something so unconventional in 1956, to go to India by yourself? Gloria Steinem: Well, I’m not sure it was courage.

I mean, it was desperation in the sense of not wanting to get married when I viewed marriage as not my first choice, but my last choice in leading someone else’s life. I knew about India and cared about India, because both my mother and her mother-in-law, even though they came from very different families, had been theosophists.

Which is literally God knowledge, but a form of philosophy that I think was very popular in those years, and leaned heavily towards the east. And was mostly populated by women, perhaps women who were striving to find some religion that was not as patriarchal, as the churches and temples around them. Debbie Millman: En route to India, you stopped in the UK and at the time discovered that you were pregnant.

What was your reaction? Gloria Steinem: Well, I had feared that I was pregnant, and hoped that I was not, and had all kinds of fantasies about riding horses in the park- Debbie Millman: You write about that. Gloria Steinem: Throwing myself downstairs and all the about that, all the impractical things.

In the local phone directory, I had found a doctor who was near where I was staying with a college classmate and her husband in London. So he confirmed that I was pregnant, and said that he would send me to a woman gynecologist who would do an abortion. At that point, I think legally, you had to have the signatures of two physicians in order to have a legal abortion. And he said, “I will do this, but you must promise me two things.

One, you will never tell anyone my name. And two, you’ll do what you want to do with your life.” And later on, I dedicated a book to him, because that was so pivotal and so important. Debbie Millman: You didn’t tell anyone for many, many years. Not the person that you were living with, not the man who you had been with, until the women’s movement came along and women began to tell the truth about our lives.

Did you feel ashamed or guilty? Gloria Steinem: I didn’t feel guilty. It wasn’t a decision I would ever have changed. But it was not a subject that was talked about in public. And it wasn’t until we started New York Magazine, and I had a column there, that I went to cover an early women’s liberation meeting in a church someplace downtown in the village, I think.

And there, I heard women standing up and talking about the dangers of illegal abortion in public. I had never seen women telling the truth in public before. So I went home and wrote a column about it, and began to talk about it for the first time. Debbie Millman: I am 61 years old, and have had a lot of experiences in my life that I feel very ashamed of, and it’s taken me years to talk about them.

One of the biggest being the sexual abuse that I was affected by as a child. And yet, I’ve been able to talk about that more easily than my abortion. In fact, I’ve never talked about it on the air ever. And I really thought about it a lot over the last couple of days reading about your experiences.

Why is there so much shame, especially when people are admitting it on Twitter or on social media, just to be able to really communicate how prevalent this is and how necessary it is? And my life would never have been the same. Never, never, never, never, never had been the same, had I had a child when I was pregnant, yet I still feel guilt, and I still feel shame, which is why I was asking you about how you felt. Gloria Steinem: Well, do you think… I mean, you’re much younger than I am, but still, you may be in a generation that was still wrongly shamed for that, whereas younger women are not. Debbie Millman: Yeah, that’s very possible.

I was 11 years old when the US Supreme Court gave women the right to reproductive freedom. And because I was an avid reader of the newspaper as I was growing up, that was one of the things that saved me, that suddenly allowed me to consider that if anything happened while I was being sexually abused by my stepfather, that I might not have to kill myself.

That somehow, I might be able to get help. Gloria Steinem: But that so, to be in the same household with someone who is sexually abusing you, and to feel you’re not credible, you can’t be rescued. I mean, that’s way beyond anything I ever experienced, and that you survived and triumphed is huge. Debbie Millman: Well, thank you.

I mean, that’s why I think I’m so fascinated by people’s origin stories. I look at what you went through, and somebody like Oprah Winfrey, what she’s gone through. And how women like you, like Oprah, have been able to change so much for so many. Gloria Steinem: And you. Debbie Millman: Well I mean, I’m not going to go there but- Gloria Steinem: No, but really, because it feels to me as if you went through something that was more of a trial than I did. Debbie Millman: Well, thank you, Gloria.

That means a lot to me. What do you make of the makeup of the Supreme Court at the moment, and what are your thoughts on what we need to do to win back our reproductive freedom? I mean, what’s happening now is terrifying. It’s just terrifying. And it’s especially terrifying when I think about young girls in my situation that I was in at 10, 11 years old, actually were thinking at one point that I might’ve been pregnant, and thinking I had no choice but to kill myself.

What do we do for these young girls whose lives are at such risk? Gloria Steinem: Well, we have a pretty strong, not strong enough, but a pretty strong multiracial women’s movement. It is possible to get an abortion that’s legal and safe in many states. The problem is getting people from unfriendly states into supportive ones.

So I think the dialogue has changed. Not enough, of course, but quite a lot. There are still religions that are wrongly shaming women for making this choice, and families, and cultures. So it’s helpful to do what you just did, which is to talk about it. Debbie Millman: Yeah. Yeah. You’ve written about how you didn’t begin your life as an active feminist until you went to an abortion speak out in a church basement in the village in 1969.

You were already in your mid-thirties, and you were there covering in. And you were sitting on the windowsill on the side, still being a reporter. What activated your activism? Gloria Steinem: Well, I heard women standing up and telling the truth about their experience of needing and having an abortion.

And I suddenly thought, “Okay, if so many millions of us have had this experience, why are we still silent about it?” And that’s when I went back and wrote a column. And also, because the women’s movement was beginning and I was getting invitations to speak, which was very scary to me… I mean, I became a writer so I didn’t have to talk in public.

And I asked first Dorothy Pitman Hughes, and then Flo Kennedy, and friends to travel and lecture with me. So it was clear to me that we needed to break the silence, and that I needed to help do that. Debbie Millman: Working as a freelance writer required learning to live with a lot of financial insecurity.

And you said you don’t know that you would’ve had the courage to become a freelance writer with no guaranteed source of income, if you hadn’t been brought up that way. Do you view it the same way now? Gloria Steinem: Yes. It’s hard to think what if. But if I had grown up in a family with a father working for a salary, I might not have had the same… Not exactly courage, but sense that you could live another way.

No, I feel lucky. Debbie Millman: As you were beginning to start writing with activism in mind, you found yourself wanting to report on a view of the world as if, in your words, everyone mattered. And this was still the 1960s, and even your most open-minded editor told you that if you published an article saying women were equal, he would have to publish one next to it saying women were not, in order to be objective.

And I just find this astonishing, astonishing that this was the way people were thinking. Gloria Steinem: I don’t know how to express it, but it was. I mean, I think even when The Feminine Mystique and Betty Friedan’s work was first published, that there was a feeling that there needed to be an opposite view about how happy women were as housewives, which of course many were.

But the whole point is diverse choice for everybody. Debbie Millman: In 1968, Clay Felker hired you to be a political columnist and features writer for the newly launched New York Magazine. Clay gave you a platform to write about equality, civil rights, women’s rights. What was that like for you at that time? Gloria Steinem: Well, it was wonderful to be in a group of… I mean, Milton Glaser and Clay Felker, who were inventing a city magazine, which didn’t exist, I don’t think any place in the rest of the country before that. So it was great fun to be part of it.

There weren’t equal numbers of women by any means, but they were open to other ideas. Jimmy Breslin is a great writer about the city of New York, which he deeply loved. Editorial meetings were great fun. No, it was the first time that I remember being excited about working in a group. Debbie Millman: What was it like to work with Milton Glaser? Gloria Steinem: Oh, gosh, how can I describe it? He was kind of a paterfamilias.

He had a kind of gravitas, which I guess came from the fact that he listened and only suggested something that he had considered. I worried about his wife, Shirley, because she was a great artist. And I can’t speak for her, but I don’t know if she felt that her career was as important as Milton’s. Debbie Millman: Well, certainly not in the way Lee Krasner’s career became almost as important as Jackson Pollock’s.

They did write a few books together, children’s books. But no, she never reached the level of notoriety, and fame, and respect that he did, although she’s been wonderfully generous in helping to create the Milton Glaser archives and the various exhibits that have occurred since he died. Gloria Steinem: I remember going to some event, some all day benefit in a church basement or something.

I don’t know what it was. And Shirley and I were standing in line for a fortune teller. And he said whatever he did to her after looking at her palm. And when I came up, he said, “You must help the woman who just came before you. She’s a great artist and she doesn’t know it.” Debbie Millman: Oh, wow. Gloria Steinem: It was very touching. Debbie Millman: I’m going to have to speak to Steven Heller about this, because Steven Heller and Beth Kleber, the archivist here at SVA who’s managing Milton’s archives, we need to investigate this.

Thank you for telling me that. Who came up with the idea for creating a magazine for women that wasn’t about beauty, and clothes, and makeup, and marriage, but it was about politics, and societal issues, and questioning norms and rules and laws? Gloria Steinem: Well, there were a number of us women writers who had worked for the existing women’s magazines.

Glamour, the Ladies’ Home Journal, Mademoiselle. And within those pages, there would be one essay that was not about clothes, and makeup, and traditional subjects. So there was a little bit of a place, but we did realize that there was not an entire magazine. Clay allowed us to introduce a section that was women’s magazine to come, Ms.

Magazine. And I had no idea. I mean, Jane O’Reilly was part of it. Lots of other writers were part of it. And then he sent me off to do publicity for it, just traveling all the way to California doing free radio shows and whatever. And when I got to California, someone called into the radio show, a woman, and said, “I can’t find it.” So I called Clay in a panic and said, “It never got here.

It never got here.” And we discovered that it had sold out in just a week. Debbie Millman: Yeah. The magazine, you founded it in 1971. It was originally included as a special section of New York Magazine. The issue came out at the very end of 1971, but you cover dated it Spring 1972, because you were afraid it was not going to sell and become an embarrassment to the movement. Gloria Steinem: Yes.

We feared that it would lie like a lox, as we said. Debbie Millman: It sold out in less than a week. Gloria Steinem: Yes, yes. Debbie Millman: Before you settled on the name Ms. for the magazine, you considered the name Sojourner after Sojourner Truth. But in your research, you discovered people thought it was a travel magazine.

Sisters was another, but then people thought it was about Catholic nuns, a definite need for a magazine. At the time, the word Ms., M-S., was only used in secretarial handbooks from the 1950s, where it was recommended as a way of dealing with the unfortunate situation in which you didn’t know the marital status of the woman you were writing to.

How did you determine Ms. was the name to go with? Gloria Steinem: It was a mix really, of just what you said, because it was a way of saying that someone was a female without saying marital status. And it was used that way in some situations in England. And also, it was short, and a magazine logo is helpful if short, because then you have more space on the cover.

So we called it Ms., much to the confusion of a lot of people who called it M-S or- Debbie Millman: Yeah. I read that the New York Times took 15 years, 15 years to get the term Ms. Accepted in the newspaper. You wrote letters, you petitioned, demonstrated. They changed Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali.

They changed all the pronouns of transsexual. They changed everything before they changed Ms. They even referred to you as Ms. Steinem of Ms. Magazine for 15 years. What got them to finally change it? Gloria Steinem: I guess, I mean we picketed the newspaper, and we wrote to the editors, and we did everything we could.

But actually the most frustrating thing was that after they finally changed and began to use Ms., we took roses to Abe Rosenthal, who actually had been a corresponded in India when I was in India. So I knew him, which nobody could believe because he didn’t seem conducive to- Debbie Millman: Right. Gloria Steinem: Right.

So we took roses to him, and he said the most annoying thing, which was, Well if I’d known it mattered so much to you, I would’ve done it earlier.” You just wanted to kill him. Debbie Millman: Wow. Gloria, I wanted to share with you a story from my childhood. My mother was a seamstress growing up.

She had her own business. She advertised in the Penny Saver to get seamstress business. She mostly made clothes for people that couldn’t find conventional clothes to fit them in department stores. And the name of her company as I was growing up was The Artistic Tailor, because she was an artist, but also a seamstress.

So she was The Artistic Tailor. After Ms. Magazine came out, she changed the name of her business to Ms. Artistic Tailor. Gloria Steinem: Oh, that’s so touching. Debbie Millman: I wanted you to know that. Gloria Steinem: That’s great. Debbie Millman: Ms. just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

It’s still a vibrant magazine. It’s still a paper magazine, in addition to a website, has a robust social media presence. How has the magazine been able to survive on the shoestring it’s had all this time? All this time. Gloria Steinem: Well, at a certain point in our life, even before, while we were still in our conventional form, we realized that we could not raise money as we needed to unless we were a foundation.

So we did become a 501(c)(3). Debbie Millman: The Ms. Foundation for Women? Gloria Steinem: Yeah, instead of a for-profit incorporation. And therefore, we could run full page ads saying, “Buy a subscription for a friend you don’t know.” Especially women in prison, for instance. I mean, the reading materials in prisons are often very slender, to put it mildly.

And we wanted to be able to send the magazine into women in prison, and so asked for contributions for that. Debbie Millman: You’ve written about how there are events that divide our lives into before and after. And despite all you’ve accomplished at this point point in your life, you described that moment back then as an event most people may never have heard of, the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston.

What happened there to create this line before and after for you? Gloria Steinem: First of all, that conference was the first and I guess last big National Women’s Conference that was financed… I mean in a slender way, but anyway, by federal funds that had come from a congressional resolution that was put forth by Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Patsy Mink, who were all members of Congress then.

And that was purposefully representative. We did our best in each state to see that it represented from a racial and economic point of view who lived there. It didn’t always work, but it mostly worked, so that it became in this huge hall in Houston, the single most representative meeting for women that has ever existed.

And after that meeting, its chapters state by state, especially in Minnesota, and a lot, continued to represent that. But by now, there are all kinds of women’s groups gathered around different issues. But then, it made a huge difference to have a dedicated group city by city, state by state. Debbie Millman: You’ve stated that this is when you learn the difference between protesting other people’s rules and making one’s zone, between asking and doing.

How did you learn that? Gloria Steinem: Well, we were kind of in charge of ourselves there in this massive meeting. And preparing for it, carrying it on, and so on. So trying to be as representative as we could. And there were caucuses. There was a Black women’s caucus, a Latina women’s… There were lots of different caucuses, and I was the messenger going from caucus to caucus, asking them what changes they wanted in the overall statement. So it was just an incredibly moving experience.

And I remember after it was over thousands of people in this massive hall, and there was empty chairs and empty amphitheater. And I was standing there thinking, “Who will remember this meeting, who will?” And three Native American women came up to me and gave me a red shawl, a Native American prayer shawl, and said, “Wear this when you need support and need help.” And somehow they, Native Americans have gone through more deprivation, and injustice, and theft of their land, perhaps than any other group here, that they had that kind of kindness, and confidence, and sense of history.

Gave me a sense of comfort in history. Debbie Millman: Didn’t they also give you a necklace that you wore until it fell apart? Gloria Steinem: Yes, absolutely. I still have the beads in a bowl somewhere. Debbie Millman: Yes. Gloria Steinem: It is, right. Debbie Millman: I want to talk to you a little bit about anger.

In all of your activism, you discovered an endemic among women, an inability to show anger. And you discovered that anger is supposed to be unfeminine, so we suppress it until it overflows, and you now feel that harnessing anger for change is a good thing. And though it took you a long time to know what to say when people called you a bitch, you learned to simply say thank you.

How did you get to that place? Gloria Steinem: Well, that’s not so hard to say thank you. It took me a while. But I don’t know. Anger, I think overflows in a way, and it heads into our fear of lack of control. The other thing is that I think for many women, that lack of control means that when we get angry, we cry. And I remember talking to a woman who was an executive in a big office and had decision-making power over people, both men and women.

And she said to me, she said, “I know that I cry when I get angry, so I just get angry and cry, and say to the group I’m angry with or talking to, ‘You may think I am sad because I am crying. No, I’m crying because I’m angry.'” I thought that’s genius. Debbie Millman: Genius, genius.

I’ve gotten to a point now… Because I think that anger is really just a cover for sadness and grief. That if you allow yourself to cry, you actually are able to metabolize the feeling, and then use it for good. Gloria Steinem: No, I agree. We shouldn’t be shamed, and we shouldn’t shame ourselves, which we were often doing, I think.

Because crying when we’re angry, maybe some men experience this too, but I think not as much. Debbie Millman: Yeah. I find it’s much easier to calibrate my emotions if I allow myself to cry, as opposed to flip out and get angry. How can we best harness our anger right now? Between the backtracking of so many of our rights, reproductive freedom, freedom of speech, the rampant book banning, how do we best face the future? Gloria Steinem: Well, I don’t think there’s any one way, but I do think that anger is an energy cell that we can use.

Because righteous anger, anger at injustice, unfairness, pain, cruelty, is an energy cell. And if we look at it that way, this is a gift. This is energy I can use. Then we can, I hope, begin to feel less at fault or less disempowered by being angry. Debbie Millman: What do you see in this generation of women that you haven’t seen in generations past? Gloria Steinem: Well, so much.

I mean, obviously it depends where and who. But I think first of all, there’s just an assumption that marriage is supposed to be equal, that men can take care of babies as women take care of babies, that it’s not a punishment for men. On the contrary, that it’s a big reward. That if you are arriving at a place of work, whether it’s in a factory, or an office, or the government, or whatever it is, if the people there don’t look something like the country, there’s probably something undemocratic going on.

So the burden of proof of caring has shifted in a big way, from what’s wrong with me, to what’s wrong with society, and how can I help to fix it? Debbie Millman: Is it possible to feel optimism looking at what we’re facing? Gloria Steinem: Yes, no, absolutely. Because optimism is a form of planning.

So if we don’t imagine something positive that is possible, it’s way less likely to happen. It may be difficult when looking at Trump in the White House, something I never thought could possibly happen. But he’s no longer there and- Debbie Millman: Let’s hope he stays out Gloria Steinem: I think just remembering that we have to imagine change in order to have an idea of what we want and be able to plan is very, very helpful. Debbie Millman: Gloria, the last thing I want to talk to you about is age.

You’ve been very open about your age. I remember back when you turned 40, a reporter said, “Wow, you look great for 40.” And you said, “This is what 40 looks like.” And you said it again when you turned 80. Gloria Steinem: And I think I also said, “We’ve been lying so long. Who would know?” Debbie Millman: Exactly. Gloria Steinem: Right, right. Debbie Millman: You were very open again about it when you turned 80.

Next year, you’re going to be 90. You’ve said that you seriously love aging, and have recently discovered yourself thinking things like, “I don’t want anything I don’t have.” Gloria Steinem: That’s true. Debbie Millman: That’s a pretty remarkable thing. Gloria Steinem: That’s true, except that I haven’t written enough.

That’s the one thing that I regret and hope to still remedy, even if I have to… I researched to find the oldest woman in the world, and I found a woman in the Himalayas who’s 130. Debbie Millman: So there’s plenty of time. Gloria Steinem: Plenty of time. No, I know that’s not overwhelmingly practical. Debbie Millman: Well, I know you plan to live past 100.

You’ve said that many times. What do you want most for this next decade? Gloria Steinem: Well, speaking for myself, I hope that I write more, because writers will do lots of things in order not to write. And I had so much activist temptation, that I’m afraid I overdid it. So I would like to do that.

I’m content where I’m living in a house where I’ve been forever, or an apartment in a house. I am not so good at saying no. I could use a course in saying no, because I need to at least mark off days and say, “Okay. I’m saying no on this day.” I’m saying this now in the hope that I actually do it.

But am surrounded by chosen family who are my friends, and I’m healthy enough. So I feel very, very lucky to have lived through what I have, and to see a possible future, which is a luxury in this world. Debbie Millman: Gloria, my last question is this one. I’ve read that when you turn 100, you want to have a diner, and you’ve described it like this.

“A little diner with blue gingham curtains by the side of the road, because diners are the most democratic places. Everyone goes, truck drivers go, people from the neighborhood, people in their tuxes after parties go. and they’re cheerful and cozy, and you get just the kind of reward food that you want.

They’re truly populist places. And in the back room, we could have a little revolutionary meeting from time to time, and you would serve brand muffins.” So I have a two part question. Is this still an ambition? Is the first part. Gloria Steinem: First of all, I love you for knowing that. I don’t know where you found that, but it’s quite true that I’ve always loved diners as the kind of ultimate democracy.

But I recognize that it’s impractical for me to be running a diner. I still have a great feeling about them, but I think I’m content to be in my apartment with a guest room, where friends can stay, with a living room where we can have talking circles. I think I’m content to be there. Debbie Millman: Well, the second part of my question was if indeed you do ever do that, can I become a server there? But we’ll wait and see if it happens, and we’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it. Gloria Steinem: Okay.

You and I can be serving bran muffins there- Debbie Millman: Let’s call it Steinamites. Gloria Steinem, thank you. Thank you for joining me today on Design Matters. Thank you for being one of the people in the world that have made a difference in how we live in the world. It has been an honor and a thrill to have an opportunity to talk with you today. Gloria Steinem: And thank you for your incredible generosity and spending the time that you have to know everything.

When I’m losing my memory, I’m calling you up. Debbie Millman: Absolutely, anytime. Anytime. For more information about Gloria Steinem, all her work, her books, her writing, and her activism, you can go to her website at This is the 18th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we could make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

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