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The M Dash

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Gloria Steinem Is “A Body with a Thousand People in It”

May 09, 2014 | Filed in: Woman of the Week

Photo by Tom Marks

Yesterday, a few members of the MM.LaFleur team had the privilege of attending the New York Women’s Foundation’s annual breakfast, which kicked off at 7am. On my way in, I overheard a woman saying she had woken up at 4:30am to get here—a testament to the lengths women will go to in order to support the causes they believe in. Needless to say, it was an inspiring morning, with a number of local entrepreneurs and activists being recognized.

But of course, the woman of the hour was Gloria Steinem, who received NYWF’s Century Award for her tireless work on behalf of social justice and gender equality. At 80, she is the coolest person I have ever encountered, and she spoke about issues ranging from equal pay to the need for a national system of childcare.

But before Gloria even took the stage, I was already enamored with her based on the introduction given by her friend, filmmaker Abby Disney. Here on the M Dash, we thrive on nuance and the fact that women can be both this and that. We embrace our contradictions and revel in our complexity. And we resist those who would try to pinpoint us with a simplistic label. Disney’s words about Steinem articulated this sentiment perfectly.

“For over half a century, our nuance-challenged media has been positioning our friend Gloria as the Abraham Lincoln of Women’s Rights, the fearless skipper of the good ship feminism. And their intentions have not always been kind. Sometimes she was a goddess and sometimes she was a punching bag. Gloria took heat from left, right, and center… 

Gloria never auditioned for the role of feminist spokesperson. In fact, for years she refused to take the podium without at least one other activist by her side. But the media simply couldn’t comprehend a movement without a leader, a movement that was more a collection of movements than a single idea, a movement that could not easily be boiled down into a handful of sound bites.

It is strange to me that, to this day, if you look at all the articles written in the last couple months, they still emphasize Gloria’s looks. You would think by now they would have figured out that her looks, as stunning as they are, are the least amazing thing about her. What Gloria is often associated with is only a fraction of what makes her important.

So who is she really?

I find the best way to think of her is as a body with a thousand people in it. So here are some of them: Groucho Marx is in there. Every so often, when she gives you a punch line that is so punchy, you half expect her to wag a cigar and lift her eyebrows at you… Will Rogers is in there, because she has a blackbelt in the folksy but brilliant aphorism. She’s also got some Ginger Rogers in there. She’s a tap dancer… Saint Francis is in there for her deep, positive love of animals, but also for the shirt-off-her-back generosity. Joan of Arc is in there for fortitude. Nelson Mandela for leadership. Diana Nyad for endurance. Ghandi for moral courage… Florence Nightingale for her sincere desire to care for each and every person who needs her help. And the Buddha, for her utter lack of interest in material things.

Photo by Nubar Alexanian

More than any of this, Gloria is a reluctant icon. And when you’re an icon, everyone you meet already thinks they’ve got you figured out. Everyone you meet has a plan for you. Everyone you meet is looking at you through a gauze of preconception.

Imagine playing that reluctant role with unflappable grace, with kindness and wit, with goodness and generosity of spirit, every single solitary day of your life. Gloria is, quite simply, an extraordinary person.”

An extraordinary person, and an Ampersand Woman of the highest order.

– Tory Hoen

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