A better world for movement Steinem, others led

Apr. 19, 2014 @ 05:56 PM

At 80, Gloria Steinem is still a powerful voice for equal rights and opportunities for women, causes for which she has championed since being one of the founders of the feminism movement in the 1960s.

The arc of her career – of that movement – has encompassed my adult life. And while I didn’t make it to Duke Chapel Tuesday night to hear Steinem, she has been for four decades one of my heroes.

The movement she came to personify – for reasons, which I’ll touch on later, were partly because of the very culture against which she and others were revolting – changed the United States dramatically.

As she reminded the audience Tuesday, the change is far from finished. But her appearance here prompted me to reflect on what a different world we inhabited when she helped to found Ms. magazine, which both chronicled and exhorted the revolution’s early days.

I find younger colleagues – politically astute, socially liberal, impacted by the movement – surprised when we talk of gender roles in the late 1960s.

When I entered Duke University as a freshman in 1966, women still were cocooned on East Campus. Unlike men, who could come and go from West Campus dorms as they pleased, women faced curfews. They faced unchallenged expectations for how they dressed outside their dorms.

Under the umbrella of “protecting” women, a culture defined mostly by males had in many ways virtually imprisoned them. Not long after a female colleague and I joined The Raleigh Times fresh out of Duke in 1970, the editor all but ordered her not to remain in the newsroom alone late in the afternoon. She deftly ignored him and continued working.

Abigail Pogrebin captured the times perfectly in a 2011 article in New York magazine (in which a preview of Ms. had appeared in December 1971:

“In the years leading up to the birth of Ms., women had trouble getting a credit card without a man’s signature, had few legal rights when it came to divorce or reproduction, and were expected to aspire solely to marriage and motherhood. Job listings were segregated (“Help wanted, male”). There was no Title IX (banning sex discrimination in federally funded athletic programs); no battered-women’s shelters, rape-crisis centers, and no terms such as sexual harassment and domestic violence.”

A few years later, in an act simultaneously of convenience and principle, my wife, Pat, signed up for a credit card specifically because the issuer was one of the first not to require a male co-applicant.

We struggle today with pay disparity between men and women, but it was barely questioned until the feminist movement refused to accept its inequities. It was not uncommon for male executives to rationalize lower pay for women because their husbands would be their primary providers.

Double standards were pervasive. An oft-recalled Steinem quote is that “A liberated woman is one who has sex before marriage and a job after.”  The power of that line was not just in its pithiness -- though it had that -- but in how surgically it sliced through the hypocrisy of men who believed both were their right, and neither were women’s.

The maleness of business -- especially the media business -- ironically helped cement Steinem as one of the movement’s most familiar faces -- she was young, white and attractive, the perfect poster person for a chauvinistic society.

We still are that, in too many ways. But it’s worth reflecting on how much less so we are -- and how all of us, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, are better for the profound changes wrought in my lifetime.

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6678 or bashley@heraldsun.com.