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What Feminism Looks Like By: Anthony Gancarski
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, June 03, 2004

NARAL Pro-Choice America‘s "March for Women's Lives", the first large-scale demonstration for abortion rights since 1992, was held in DC on April 25, drawing a quarter million people even by conservative estimates. This march, organized by Planned Parenthood Federation of America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and others, was Gloria Steinem’s legacy.

Most speakers at the rally took it for granted, and didn’t acknowledge their debt to the feminist icon. But actress and activist Ashley Judd did. The Hollywood superstar, clad in a peasant skirt and a t-shirt with THIS IS WHAT FEMINISM LOOKS LIKE in iron-on letters, introduced a few speakers on that gloomy Sunday in DC. But none mattered to her as much as the woman she described as her “personal hero.”  

Upon taking the mike, Judd applauded Steinem for being a “women’s studies” major. “Now we have women’s studies… gay and lesbian studies -- what a victory! They should be called ‘remedial studies,’ don’t you think?” And of course the crowd did think so -- en masse. Then the feminist lifer assured the boys in the crowd: “your presence here will keep you safe in the upcoming feminist revolution!” That was said, of course, to a rousing cheer.


But Steinem wasn’t there just to repeat such shopworn, crowd-pleasing slogans, but to lend her endorsement to new ones, especially salient in the context of this parlous election year of 2004. Unsurprisingly, Steinem asserted the US is the Biggest Terrorist in the world, the chief opponent of “reproductive freedom” worldwide, and must be stopped by the “pro-environment, pro-education” pro-choice movement.


Chanting along with Steinem’s “we have the power” incantation [with which she closed her speech], the men in the audience certainly qualify as a part of her feminist and anti-American legacy. Feminized by indolence and intellectual slackness, these eunuchs with dyed hair, lip piercings, goatees, and shifty eyes repudiate all traditional values and, like their women, uphold Steinem’s agitprop like it’s Gospel.


This is not a harsh assessment of these men either. They cheer Steinem’s propaganda and take seriously her belief that this brand of feminism actually empowers men. But in reality, Steinem’s feminism cancels men’s place in culture. Steinem sees single parenthood as preferable for children than two-parent families; men are vestigial, to be tolerated only if they play along with her ideological games.


Consider Steinem’s own life. Her grandmother, Pauline, was a suffragette and the first woman ever elected to public office in Toledo. Yet the reality of Steinem’s upbringing trumps this heartwarming historical fact. When her parents divorced in 1945, the eleven-year old Gloria, on the cusp of womanhood, was charged with looking after her mother, whose clinical depression and tendency to nervous breakdowns stemmed allegedly from having to give up her journalism career after she married.


Steinem forged her own personal mythology and political agenda upon this foundation. In watching her own mother’s talents squandered, she resolved that she would fight for all women. Yet the events of Steinem’s life suggest that she was programmed towards such a position by the specter of her insufficient mother, absent father, and the institutions who succored the hyper-intelligent lass in the vacuum left by her parents.


Here’s how Steinem described her mother in 1984: “She was just a fact of life when I was growing up; someone to be worried about and cared for; an invalid who lay in bed with eyes closed and lips moving in occasional response to voices only she could hear."


Perhaps Steinem’s ability to paint herself as a victim of her mother’s incapacity and her father’s absence was what made it possible for her to run in fast circles, beginning with her matriculation at Smith College in 1952 [where she joined her sister]. She studied abroad in Geneva as a college junior on her way to graduating Magna Cum Laude in political science in 1956. Then she parlayed these resume points into traveling to India on scholarship, breaking a wedding engagement and traveling to England to abort her baby— on the tab of the academic fellowship.


The privileging of career over biology is a hallmark of Steinem’s career and describes, for Steinem, the contemporary American woman’s lot in life. One should note that she was working for the CIA at the time. Affiliated with the Independent Research Service, she filed reports when necessary on both foreign nationals and Americans and brokered relationships between “idealistic” youth and the Central Intelligence Agency.


Steinem was not naive regarding the implications of such work. As she blithely told the New York Times in 1967, “I was happy to find some liberals in government in those days, who were far-sighted and cared enough” to reach out to “Americans of all political views.” The Independent Research Service sent hundreds of Americans to “World Youth Festivals” in Europe in both 1959 and 1962 and, as Steinem maintained in the same 1967 article, few of the “leftists” who received aid from her organization were aware of the funding’s ties to Langley. Miss Steinem was a full-time employee of the service until after the Helsinki festival in 1962, which hosted 130 youths who had made contact with the foundation.


Her experience as a “gatekeeper” paved the way for Steinem’s audacious run in magazine journalism in the 1960s. Highlighted by a 1963 “expose” of the Playboy Club that brought her notoriety, she was soon to quip that “a woman reading Playboy feels like a Jew reading a Nazi manual” and to muse soon thereafter that “writing about Playboy put me on a track -- but it was the wrong track.” “Being a Playboy Bunny was rather like being hung on a meat hook," she said, "barely clothed… poorly paid and subject to being fired on a moment's notice, for appearance flaws or anything else. ... The Bunnies were exchangeable moving parts of a machine."


For the last four decades, Steinem has raged against the dehumanization wrought by Playboy and the consumer culture that allowed Hugh Hefner’s enterprise to flourish. Yet she herself has courted that same culture and turned her brand-name feminism into a money making machine.


In 1969, Steinem was drawn to the movement to legalize abortion. A fascination with the identity politics of  “women’s concerns” drove her political work against Nixon in the early 1970s, reaching its earliest peak when the journalist founded MS Magazine in 1972 with the help of people like the Washington Post matriarch, Katherine Graham [who donated $20k in seed money for the nascent publication].


The MS Magazine Foundation recognized that if the personal is political, then that theorem should be used to sell product. So it went with such projects as the Foundation’s children’s record Free To Be You And Me in the early 1970s, with fashionable talents of the time like NFL player Rosey Grier, the vocal group the New Seekers, and Alan Alda lending their voices to tunes like “It’s All Right To Cry” and “Girl Land.”


For her part, Steinem’s contribution to the liner notes mused that the Foundation’s “only regret” was that the record “and the change it reflects wasn’t part of our own childhoods.” It’s hard to see how a children’s record would’ve been much solace during Steinem’s youth though.


It’s appropriate that even after a decade as a successful, mainstream journalist, at her biological prime, Steinem would still long for a childhood that never happened to her satisfaction. She described herself as “a working-class, fat brunette from the wrong side of the tracks in Toledo, Ohio, with a mentally incapacitated mother” even as she got a media push that would be the envy of any of her political colleagues.


Such longings undoubtedly led her to having affairs with prominent people like comedian Mort Sahl, NFL legend Jim Brown, and media magnate Mort Zuckerman. Despite such a rich and varied dance card, Steinem played to her constituency by saying things like “house work is shit work” and “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”. 


Steinem’s own life speaks to the hollowness of such a life plan, however. After a lifetime of what some sympathetic observers call “mini-marriages,” the lifelong crusader for women’s rights married at the age of 66, the father of B-List actor Christian Bale. “It was something neither of us thought we’d do,” she said at the time, as if she and her spouse were simply trying an exotic variety of Sushi.


And perhaps that’s all her “marriage” meant to her. But it is difficult to reconcile her marriage with her continuing cynicism regarding the prospect of a shared love between men and women. In 1992, Steinem wrote, “Romance itself serves a larger political purpose by offering at least a temporary reward for gender roles and threatening rebels with loneliness and rejection.” In this context, marriage is a way of stupefying the middle class and keeping them happy and distracted:


“The Roman 'bread and circuses' way of keeping the masses happy - and the French saying that 'marriage is the only adventure open to the middle class' - might now be updated. The circus of romance distracts us with what is, from society's point of view, a safe adventure,” she opines.


A safe adventure? Steinem surely realizes that her own parents wouldn’t have described marriage so blithely. There is nothing safe about coupling, about bringing children into the world, about understanding that temporal sacrifices must be made for the larger good of one’s child. Steinem’s own words suggest that she sees marriage, like anything else, as an experiment. But she must know -- even though she has yet to satisfactorily address the issue – that the consequences are utterly dire when the “experiment” goes awry.


But as was evident that day at the NARAL rally, we are living in a culture that has been shaped by Steinem and her hatred of American values. True, few of the speakers that Sunday in April gave props to Steinem. They didn’t have to. They were walking embodiments of Steinem’s legacy and life’s work, the sort of people who push The Vagina Monologues as serious art and then wonder why kids are so into video games and rap music. These women who see men as vestigial, who see the bottom line and a media-conferred “liberation” as a satisfactory substitute for traditional understandings of love and sex -- these are Steinem’s children. Hear them roar.

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