15 Trailblazing Facts About Gloria Steinem
After more than half a century advocating for women’s rights and other civil liberties, Gloria Steinem has become one of the most famous feminists of all time. While you might know her best as the face of the women’s liberation movement or the founder of Ms. magazine, the Ohio-born activist has quite a few other accomplishments to her name. From going undercover as a Playboy Bunny to being Christian Bale’s stepmother, here are 15 incredible pieces of Steinem’s past (and present).
1. Gloria Steinem had an unconventional upbringing.
Gloria Marie Steinem, born March 25, 1934, in Toledo, Ohio, didn’t see the inside of a classroom very consistently until middle school. She and her parents spent the summers in Clarklake, Michigan, where touring bands came to perform at her father’s dance pavilion. Each year when the weather got colder, the Steinems would pack their belongings into a trailer and head south to Florida or California, dealing antiques along the way to fund their journey until the following summer. After Steinem’s parents divorced when she was 10 years old, she moved back to Toledo with her mother and eventually enrolled in school full-time.
2. Reading Little Women changed Gloria Steinem’s life.
Though Steinem’s unofficial home-schooling skipped over certain key subjects—“I'm not sure I've ever learned to do basic math, to be frank,” she confessed on NPR’s Fresh Air—she remembers learning to read from “ketchup bottles and labels and billboards along the highway,” as well as the many books her parents kept around. Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women made an especially significant impression on her as a kid, she told The Guardian, “because it was the first time I realized women could be a whole human world.”
3. Gloria Steinem’s mother was also a writer.
Before Steinem was born, her mother, Ruth, had been a newspaper reporter and editor, sometimes even using a male pseudonym so that her work would be published. The nomadic, penniless lifestyle that her husband had chosen for the family didn’t suit Ruth, and she struggled with her decision to divorce him. Afterwards, she suffered from depression and developed a dependence on tranquilizers, and a young Gloria became her de facto caretaker—a responsibility that left her disinclined to start a family of her own. “I’d already been the very small parent of a very big child,” she later told People. “I didn’t want to end up taking care of someone else.”
4. Gloria Steinem's early activism was inspired by her time living in India.
After graduating from Smith College in 1956, Steinem was awarded the Chester Bowles Fellowship and spent two years in India, partaking in non-violent protests, contributing to Indian publications, and learning about Gandhian activism. The experience opened her eyes to the issues created by such a stark divide between a society’s richest and poorest members, and she returned to the U.S. with a newfound passion for civil rights.
5. Gloria Steinem went undercover as a Playboy Bunny.
While freelancing for high-profile outlets like Esquire and Vogue in the early 1960s, Steinem took on an unforgettable assignment: an exposé for Show magazine on the life of a waitress, or “Bunny,” at the Playboy Club in Midtown Manhattan. To write it, the 28-year-old journalist came up with a fictional identity—a 24-year-old named Marie Catherine Ochs [PDF]—and worked undercover as a Bunny for an entire month. Her two-part story, titled “A Bunny’s Tale” and published in spring 1963, revealed the abysmally low pay and rampant sexual harassment that Hugh Hefner’s Bunnies endured at the club. “To this day when people don’t like me they introduce me as a former Bunny, as a put-down,” she told The New York Times in 2016. “On the other hand, I did improve the working conditions for those women.”
6. Gloria Steinem used to write for a sketch comedy television show.
Steinem took a short break from print journalism in 1964 to become a regular contributor for That Was the Week That Was, NBC’s short-lived version of the BBC sketch comedy program of the same name. The 30-minute live episodes, hosted by David Frost, comprised satirical sketches about each week’s political news and featured celebrities like Henry Fonda, Gene Hackman, and Alan Alda. It was, in Steinem’s words, “the parent of Saturday Night Live.”
7. Gloria Steinem once caused controversy by collaborating with the CIA.
As a leader of the Independent Research Service, an organization founded in 1958 to promote political involvement among young Americans abroad, Steinem accompanied a delegation of students to two World Youth Festivals: one in Vienna in 1959, and another in Helsinki in 1962. Then, in 1967, she told the press that the organization had been funded largely by the CIA. Because the World Youth Festivals were widely known as an outlet for the Soviet Union to disseminate communist propaganda on an international stage during the Cold War, some people interpreted the CIA’s involvement in sending Americans to the events as a political maneuver—a way for the U.S. government to gather intel and also combat the spread of radical Soviet ideology by presenting a nice, democratic alternative. Steinem insisted that the CIA’s financial support had no strings attached, and she was never asked to report back about the festivals, but that didn’t stop people from labeling her a CIA agent or operative after the fact.
8. Gloria Steinem helped found two prominent magazines.
In 1968, Steinem helped launch New York magazine, where she wrote a political column and the occasional long-form story. For the December 1971 issue of the magazine, she spearheaded the development of an insert titled Ms., which featured women-centric articles on subjects like abortion, “de-sexing” the English language, and the housewife’s experience. What began as a one-time insert quickly snowballed into its own magazine, and the first issue of Ms., with Steinem at the helm, hit newsstands in July 1972. She continued to work as an editor for the publication for 15 years, and is still considered a consulting editor today.
9. Gloria Steinem also helped found a slew of civil rights, media, and charity organizations.
Steinem self-identifies first and foremost as a writer, but she also happens to be the founder or co-founder of countless organizations in a variety of other spheres. To name just a few, there’s the National Women’s Political Caucus, which supports women running for political office; the Women’s Media Center, launched with Jane Fonda and Robin Morgan in 2005 to provide resources and opportunities for women working in media; and Direct Impact Africa, which provides small communities across Africa with the resources and education needed to achieve economic self-sufficiency.
10. Gloria Steinem enlisted Stephen Sondheim to write crossword puzzles for New York.
In the early days of New York, the founders were on the hunt for wordsmiths to create crossword puzzles for their fledgling publication. So Steinem asked Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim, whom she happened to know had a special passion for British-style crosswords. Though Sondheim hardly needed the work—his credits at that point already included West Side Story (1957), Gypsy (1959), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), and more—he accepted, and devised a puzzle for every third issue of the magazine for its first year.
11. Gloria Steinem’s dream casting for a biopic includes Natalie Wood and Meryl Streep.
When asked who would play her in a biopic in 2017, Steinem didn’t limit her imagination to living actors. She chose Natalie Wood to portray her as a child, and suggested Audrey Hepburn and Cicely Tyson to tackle various stages of her adulthood. She also threw out Marisa Tomei and Meryl Streep, adding, “Of course, Streep could play anything, human or animal.”
A biopic is on its way to the silver screen right now, and although it doesn’t include any of Steinem’s dream cast, it does feature plenty of A-listers: Julia Taymor’s The Glorias, scheduled for a fall 2020 release, stars Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson, and Ryan Keira Armstrong as Steinem at different ages.
12. Gloria Steinem has lived in the same building for more than half a century.
In 1966, Steinem started renting an apartment between Park and Lexington Avenues on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and she’s been living there ever since. She finally bought the apartment in the 1990s, and purchased another one soon after. In 2017, she bought the third of five apartments in the brownstone building, with tentative plans to use it as a meeting place for traveling feminists. After more than 50 years in the city, the native Midwesterner is every bit a true New Yorker as those who were born there—she’s never even learned to drive. “I couldn’t live anywhere else,” she told The New York Times.
13. Gloria Steinem doesn’t dwell on her status as one of the world’s most famous feminists.
Throughout Steinem’s storied, varied career, the through line has always been her commitment to women’s issues. She’s worked tirelessly to legalize abortion, secure congressional votes in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, create outlets for women in politics and media, and so much more. But she doesn’t necessarily think of herself as the feminist icon that so many see her as.
“You know, I get up every morning and try to remember to do what I’m supposed to do and get my dry cleaning, and so I don’t see myself that way,” she said in an interview with Feminist.com. “I just do the best I can, and try to make some balance between what needs doing and what I can uniquely do.”
14. Gloria Steinem is Christian Bale’s stepmother.
Steinem has never been shy about rejecting the idea of settling down and starting a family, so her decision to get married in 2000, at age 66, came as quite a surprise to many people. Not only did she become the wife of British businessman and animal rights activist David Bale, but she also became a stepmother to his son, Oscar-winning actor (and former Batman) Christian Bale.
Steinem’s marriage was tragically cut short when David Bale passed away from brain cancer in 2003. “He had the greatest heart of anyone I’ve ever known,” she said in a statement.
15. Gloria Steinem has no plans to retire.
Steinem’s relentless work ethic hasn’t slowed at all with age. She’s continued to give talks, champion new organizations, and publish works well into her eighties (her most recent book, The Truth Will Set You Free, But First It Will Piss You Off!, was released in October 2019), and she probably won’t ever retire. “The idea of retiring is as foreign to me as the idea of hunting,” she told Ms. magazine in 2018.