Gloria Steinem turned 80 last week — still strong and smart and beautiful and changing the world. I first heard her speak 40 years ago, when my sister graduated from Simmons College, but it was seven years later, in 1980, that she gave me a gift and taught me a lesson about feminism that I have tried to follow ever since.
It may seem hard to believe now, but reproductive freedom, now so widely accepted within the Democratic Party, was very controversial. Then-President Jimmy Carter reacted to the U.S. Supreme Court decision denying federal funding for medically necessary abortions for poor women by saying that “life’s not fair.” My candidate Ted Kennedy “supported Roe v. Wade as the law of the land.” But neither candidate was promoting the issue, much less pushing for it to be included in the Democratic platform. A small group of prominent feminists was proposing language, and while neither campaign was formally “whipping” the issue, we on the Kennedy team were quietly helping.
I was in charge of the platform fights for the Kennedy campaign. Of course, I was also very young, and it was my first convention, my first big campaign. The women who were putting together the language and organizing the fight were all, Gloria included, older and far more experienced.
Frankly, they weren’t about to deal with me. They would call the boiler room and demand to speak to one of the guys, someone senior. I understood. They wanted to be taken seriously. Who was I?
“Give me Harold,” I remember then Rep. Bella Abzug, D-N.Y., almost yelling at me, and then she and Harold yelled at each other for a while. “I’m not dealing with you,” another famous feminist told me when we were still at the committee stage, angry that my boss, the senator, had suggested she talk to me.
I got it. They wanted power and recognition. I was in charge, but not really: a sign of progress or an inexperienced token. Take your choice.
There were two exceptions. One was Phyllis Segal, then the head of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, who said she was perfectly happy to deal with me. But I knew Phyllis and her husband, Eli. She was being nice to me, I figured, and I appreciated it.
The other was Gloria Steinem. The famous, brilliant and beautiful Gloria Steinem, whom I had never met, unless you count listening in the rear of a graduation audience as a meeting. I didn’t know her. She had no reason to be “nice.” Actually, she wasn’t being nice. She was being a world-class feminist.
She wasn’t just willing to talk to me. She insisted on it. “Gloria Steinem wants to talk to you,” one of the guys would say, looking almost as amazed as I was. There were details to be worked out, first about the language we would be proposing and then about all of the procedures involved in getting the minority report to the floor, organizing the roll call, figuring out where our votes were.
“Are you sure you want to talk to me,” I asked her. Harold is here, and Paul and Carl. Nope. Let’s meet, she would say. Let’s review language and strategy. And then America’s most famous feminist and I were caucusing in the corner to review our plan.
She made me feel very powerful.
No, that’s not right.
She made me powerful. She was a powerful woman, and she used that power not to get to the top guy, but to empower a young woman starting her career.
It was a gift, pure and simple, a gift she has given to tens of thousands of women over the years, a gift for which I will always be grateful. There are, I know, so many stories like mine. She probably would not even remember. But I do.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.