Gloria Steinem shares her story of feminism

She and a panel of feminists recount diverse experiences to an audience at Eckerd College.

By Stephanie Garry, Times Staff Writer
Published March 6, 2008

The night after Hillary Rodham Clinton pulled a comeback victory in the fight for the presidency, about 1,200 people - mostly women - stood to applaud Gloria Steinem as the feminist icon took the stage at Eckerd College.

They clapped again when Steinem and panelist Dorothy Pitman Hughes raised their arms in the power salute made emblematic in a photo from the era.

Before a packed gymnasium of enthusiastic admirers, Steinem spoke Wednesday night. The discussion felt more like a heart-to-heart talk as she and the three other women on the panel told stories from rose-colored couches.

Wearing black and her trademark shaded glasses, the 73-year-old Steinem said that for the first time in her life, an election has offered Democratic candidates that are all strong supporters of women and civil rights.

"When asked an either/or, my tendency is to say both," Steinem said when the moderator asked whom she supported for president. "We could have Hillary Clinton for eight years, and we could have Barack Obama for eight years."

Steinem, one of the most recognizable faces of the women's movement of the 1970s, has been vocal in this election, endorsing Clinton in a New York Times op-ed in which she wrote, "Gender is probably the most restricting force in American life."

This weekend at an event in Austin, Texas, she caused a stir when she questioned whether Sen. John McCain's experience as a prisoner of war qualifies him to be president.

At a news conference before Wednesday's event, she said she worries about militarism being viewed as a requirement to be president, from George Washington to John F. Kennedy - especially when the experience is limited to men.

"The idea that you have to learn to kill people in order to be president needs to be put to rest."

But the program, sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times Fund Inc., and part of Eckerd's Women's History Month, mostly focused on the personal experiences that joined the four feminist panelists across generations and race to fight for women's rights.

Four feminists - Steinem, Hughes, Amy Richards, and Jennifer Baumgardner - traced the history of the movement, from the second-wave feminists of Steinem's day to the third-wave activists represented by Richards and Baumgardner.

They told of their starts as feminists:

Steinem said she attended a basement gathering of women who described their abortions before legislators liberalized abortion laws. It was the first time she had heard an exclusively female issue taken seriously.

"I had never heard women speak the truth in public before," she said, adding she had kept secret her own abortion at 22. "That was the moment of epiphany for me."

Hughes recalled afternoons on her Georgia porch, where the neighborhood women gathered.

Baumgardner, a bisexual, learned the word lesbian from Ms. magazine, which Steinem helped found. When she was 8 years old, a family friend gave her a button with a coat hanger and a line through it.

Richards said she thinks she became a feminist in the womb, because her mother left her father when she was seven months pregnant in 1969.

The women reflected on how the times have changed. "We live in a different world now - a woman president, or a black president?" Hughes said. "The team we've been dreaming about."

Stephanie Garry can be reached at 727 892-2374 or sgarry@sptimes.com.