In the second of four excerpts from Phyllis Chesler’s ‘A Politically Incorrect Feminist,’ a little girl lost joins the party
By Phyllis Chesler
August 9, 2018
When did I first meet Gloria Steinem? That’s lost in the mists of time. I was impressed by her 1964 exposé in Show magazine of a bunny’s life at the Playboy Club. However, that excellent piece sparked no movement, nor did it free Gloria from what I perceived as the tyranny of having to maintain a perfected female appearance.
Gloria has a “little girl lost” appeal about her that gets people to want to help and take care of her. It affected me that way too. She would sometimes look up at me with a trusting, even slightly helpless look, and it worked like a charm. The effect is somewhat unnerving as well as flattering. Neither of us was a lesbian, although it was a subject we sometimes discussed. We were both told, over and over again, that lesbianism was either a more perfect form of feminism or a form of excessive man-hating.
The first time I was attracted to a woman (not that it led anywhere) I told Gloria about it immediately, as if it were some kind of breakthrough.
She sighed and asked, “Do you think it will ever happen to me?” Gloria wasn’t part of the downtown Manhattan feminist scene.
Her activism was preceded by the revolutionary speak-outs on abortion and on rape; the consciousness-raising groups; the sit-ins, marches, and demonstrations; the founding of NOW; and the enormous proliferation of feminist articles, books, and ideas. So did the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and hundreds of amazing feminist articles and books, including Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, Shulie Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, and Juliet Mitchell’s Woman’s Estate.
Gloria came to the party a bit late, but when she did she desperately wanted to be part of it.
Bella Abzug pulled Gloria into the National Women’s Political Caucus. Bella was a civil rights lawyer and an antiwar-antinuclear activist in Women Strike for Peace. She didn’t start out as a feminist, but she was a quick learner. The woman, the politician—the champion—in her saw an opening in women’s fight for equal rights. In 1970 she won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Bella was teaching Gloria everything; she took Gloria everywhere, introduced her to everyone—a canny move because Gloria drew the cameras and the laughter. Bella was a heavyweight; Gloria was her arm candy. Bella bellowed; Gloria charmed.
Bella was a colorful New York character, a little bit Damon Runyon, a little bit Mollie Goldberg, maybe even a little bit Mae West. Bella had a pretty face, Jewish lungs, and New York chutzpah. Despite her bulk, she always cut a fashionable and colorful figure in her signature hats.
Gloria began speaking publicly, usually with African-American women. Dorothy Pitman Hughes, Flo Kennedy, and Margaret Sloan-Hunter were among her speaking partners.
Gloria’s partnering with African-American women was a principled act, even if it was only a symbolic one, a way to minimize the fact the too few African-American and minority women joined CR groups, marched, and made common cause with white women—at least, at that time. In my view, psychologically, I’m guessing that perhaps Gloria felt she wasn’t as tough, savvy, or street-smart as African-American women have to be to survive. I think that she felt she needed that kind of backup.
Gloria invited me to a meeting at Brenda Feigen’s Tudor City apartment. Years later, Feigen wrote that she had been treated badly as a student at Harvard Law School in the mid-1960s, an experience that turned her into a “feminist by default.” At Harvard at that time, sports facilities and eating clubs were off-limits to women. After she graduated, law firms refused to interview her because “they were not hiring women.” Brenda went on to direct the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and advised NOW about abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment. Brenda was also a founding member of the National Women’s Political Caucus.