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Gloria Steinem and The Art of Being Yourself

steinemWe all have our icons. Gloria Steinem was never one of mine.

Feminism as a school of thought -- as a movement with its standard-bearers, factions, and political priorities -- was something I didn't encounter until college. Perhaps because I also had an interest in religion, the feminist thinkers who interested me were women such as the radical feminist Mary Daly and theologian Katherine Wheeler. It began to seem as if you couldn't be a real feminist unless you were also a lesbian, which presented a problem for me personally. I was only vaguely aware of Gloria Steinem.

Then I met her. And Steinem ended up being the feminist who probably had the biggest impact on my thinking. And my life.

One of my first jobs after college was working as an assistant to a commercial photographer. As we were setting up for a magazine shoot, my boss sent me to Dean & DeLuca's with $100 and instructions to "get stuff" so our subjects would have something to nosh on. I hadn't even known it was possible to spend $100 at Dean & DeLuca. I was living in a lousy apartment in Jersey City and eating a lot of lentils.

It turned out we were photographing the staff of Ms. magazine, including the founder, Gloria Steinem. Back then, I didn't realize that she'd been a founder of New York magazine or of Take Our Daughters to Work Day. I certainly didn't know that she'd been publicly chided for being too glamorous to be a real feminist. (In retrospect, the mind reels: Who are these people to tell someone else how they can look?)

As the editors arrived, they perched uncomfortably on the studio couches, trying not to look at the food. We didn't have a stylist for the shoot, but no one even glanced at the mirrors.

I didn't understand why everyone was so timid until the doorbell rang and my boss answered instead of motioning for me to do so. It's true that Steinem doesn't stand up straight, but she certainly makes an entrance. Everyone snapped to attention. Then she strode over to the buffet, piled her plate high, chowed down, and started working on her hair and makeup while cracking jokes. It was impossible not to like her. She was so obviously -- herself. She was completely unself-conscious. If I had an image of what a feminist was 'supposed' to look and act like, she certainly didn't fit it.

Years later, I was working as an editor at BusinessWeek when a colleague of mine invited me to a fundraiser for Choice USA, a nonprofit that supports pro-choice leadership among young women. My colleague was on the board, Gloria Steinem was the founder, and it didn't cost much to go. So I did.

Steinem's husband, David Bale, had recently died, and no one was certain if she'd attend. She did, and a number of people thanked her, publicly, for her many contributions. Eventually, I told her the story of how she'd appeared to me that day in the studio. I told her that as silly as it sounded, her conduct had had a big effect on me. She'd helped me see that feminists could be 'normal' people. That you could be a feminist and have a sense of humor. That you could be a feminist and care about your appearance. Most importantly, that you could just be yourself.

"Oh," she said. "I thought you were going to say that you could be a feminist and be late." Everyone laughed.

That was about 10 years ago. I am still a feminist, and if you think feminism is the "F" word -- or that all feminists wear Birkenstocks, exclusively, or dislike men or have hairy legs, I'm happy to chat with you.

But you know what? I had to do a video interview last week, and the subject was women and entrepreneurship. (I'll post a link when it's live.) My host asked me if I wanted stage make-up. My instinct was to say no, partly because I like to think of myself as low-maintenance and partly because stage make-up is impossible to remove. Then I looked at the bright lights in the studio, realized they would wash me out entirely, and decided, otherwise. Thanks, Gloria. -- Kimberly Weisul

(2/21/2013)

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