Gloria Steinem: (No Longer) The Face of the Women’s Movement

Guest commentary

Laura Hurst

She settled down onto the couch of the Flora Stone Mather Center for Women with comfortable ease, removing a pair of characteristic round sunglasses. She wore all black, accented with metallic accessories. Gloria Steinem’s presence was compelling but calming. She orchestrated the small discussion group gathered around her with an encouraging energy.

The people surrounding Steinem were part of an intimate Q&A group before her lecture to almost 2,000 people later that evening in Severance Hall.

The group was about thirty people. I was struck, though maybe not surprised, by its imbalance. Graduate students overwhelmed the small handful of about five undergraduates. Women dominated the audience save the four men present (one being the hired photographer). While I sat in the Women’s Center, then later in Severance Hall, one recurring phrase encircled my thoughts: preaching to the choir.

Gloria Steinem indisputably has left her mark on American history. She debuted as one of the crusaders of second wave feminism and continues to fight against patriarchy, inequality and ignorance at the age of 80.

To me, the name Gloria Steinem has long been synonymous with the terms women’s movement or feminism, but that’s because I’m part of the “choir.” When I told most of my peers that I saw Steinem, I received the reply of “Who’s that?” more often than I would have guessed, although I should have taken the sparse undergraduate presence at the pre-lecture event to be an indicator.

I was disappointed by the lack of students who were in attendance. I’d like to attribute the lack of numbers to the steep $65 ticket price and lack of opportunities to obtain free tickets only until the day of the event (some tickets were given out in certain classes the afternoon before her lecture). Regardless, both audiences seemed to already be advocates of the women’s movement familiar with dissecting issues like white privilege and heteronormativity. This audience was the “choir” I am talking about—the choir might not benefit from Steinem’s lecture as much as those who have never pondered such issues. Those people were unaware she was visiting campus or quite easily unaware of who she is.

Steinem is a true revolutionary unrecognized by many students of our generation. The reactions from my parents when I told them about her visit were far more enthusiastic than those of my peers. Perhaps it is simply because she has passed the torch on to younger activists. If I asked a student to name a famous feminist today, I have a feeling Beyoncé would be a resounding answer. And for legitimate reason; however, her work is far different, far less politically significant (although not less necessary) than that of Gloria Steinem’s, or perhaps Malala Yousafzai, the younger and more recent Palestinian activist.

I am left wondering: is this a generational rift or simple ignorance when it comes to being familiar with activist culture? Is it true that we become complacent and unaware? I am determined not to think so. Our role is foremost as students. And while our studies are important, we should also see ourselves as students of this world, engaged, interested and motivated to act.

Laura Hurst is a senior student studying Environmental Studies and International Studies.