What Gloria Steinem has learnt from the memorable men in her life

Date

Robyn Doreian

Gloria Steinem, writer and feminist activist, 82

Gloria Steinem.

Gloria Steinem. Photo: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/Contour by Getty Images

Every summer, my father, Leo, ran a dance pavilion near our house in rural Michigan. When the season ended, we'd travel. He'd fund trips to Florida or California by selling small antiques he'd bought from county auctions to dealers. He was a dreamer, and was constantly in debt.

My father weighed 300 pounds [136 kilograms] and loved to eat. He took me for ice-cream - he knew every ice-cream place within hundreds of miles. Like him, I am addicted to sugar. I am not overweight, but I am always struggling.

I wasn't being taken seriously because I was female. If I was interviewing someone, they assumed I wasn't too bright. 

Before I was born, my mother, Ruth, had been a pioneering reporter. She rose to Sunday editor [for a major Toledo newspaper], which must have been very rare. She'd also fallen in love with a man at the newspaper, perhaps someone she should have married instead of my father. She loved her work and wanted to pursue it in New York, but [by that time] she'd already had my older sister, Susanne.

By the time I arrived, she'd had a nervous breakdown, as she couldn't keep it all going. She never left my father then, she said, because if she had, I would never have been born. I never had the nerve to answer, "But if you had, then you would have been born."

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My parents separated when I was 10. Susanne left for a job and I had to look after my mother. In retrospect, it was quite frightening. But at the time, you assume it was normal.

After graduating from college, followed by two years in India, I moved to New York. Like my father, I didn't have a [conventional] job. He enabled me to live with insecurity, which a freelance writer especially has to do.

I went undercover as a Playboy Bunny and wrote a story for Show magazine. While the club advertised itself as a place of great sophistication, the men who inhabited it had paunches; their socks were falling down. They were not sophisticated playboys, but desperate old businessmen.

For a prospective article, I followed Bobby Kennedy's Senate campaign in New York [in 1964]. I was sitting in a cab with [male writers] Saul Bellow and Gay Talese, when the latter leaned across me, and said, "You know how every year there's a pretty girl who comes to New York and pretends to be a writer? Well, Gloria is this year's pretty girl."

I wasn't being taken seriously because I was female. In some cases, if I was interviewing someone, they assumed I wasn't too bright. But I realised that was an advantage, because they would say things that they might not otherwise say.

Because of my father, I've always been attracted to kind, funny men. I met my late husband, David Bale [an entrepreneur and environmental activist], in 1999. He was the most living-in-the-present person I've ever met. He forced me to live like that, which was a big gift.

He needed a green card [he was born in South Africa], so we married in a Cherokee ceremony. I was 66.

David had a difficult childhood. The most consistent presence was the dog he had for 14 years, so he was very bonded with animals. If he saw an animal by the road, he'd always stop and, if it was still alive, take it to the vet. He was obsessed with animals. That's a wonderful trait.

I am stepmother to his son, Christian. He is a very good person, a great lover of animals and an immensely talented actor. He's married with two children and lives in California. I don't see him that often, but we're in touch from time to time.

I was with David constantly up until his death in 2003 from brain lymphoma. I felt I'd done all I could. It was much more difficult when my father died [following a car accident], as I wasn't at the hospital when it happened. I'll never stop wishing I'd been with him.

Barack Obama presented me with the Medal of Freedom in 2013. He is a feminist, as he believes in the full social, economic and political equality of men and women. When he was elected, Ms. [the magazine Steinem co-founded in 1971] put him on the cover, with the line: "This is what a feminist looks like."

I dedicate my memoir, My Life on the Road, to Dr John Sharpe, as when I was 22 and in London, he referred me to a female surgeon who performed my abortion. Although it was legal in the UK, the only grounds were medical necessity. Dr Sharpe authorised this at great risk.

I felt nothing but relief and gratitude afterwards. If I'd had to give birth to a child I didn't want, with a man who was very nice but we were completely wrong for each other, I would not have been able to give birth to myself.

Some men can understand women by thinking to themselves, "Suppose I am the exact same person I am, and had been born female. What would my life be like?" But then some can't empathise. They are so addicted to the idea of masculinity that they can't imagine being anything other than a superior person, or a person trying to be that.

What men and women have in common is way more than anything that separates us. 

Gloria Steinem will appear at the Sydney Writers' Festival on May 21 at Sydney Town Hall. For more information, see swf.org.au.