Sunday, 11 December 2011

Gloria Steinem: Feminism in a bunny suit

The New York Times today published the following piece. Maybe it's time to revisit whether Gloria Steinem made a difference in the lives of women.

The very last story I wrote for the Ottawa Journal, before jumping ship to become an entertainment writer for the Ottawa Citizen, was about the first female to become an Ottawa police constable.

My assignment was to ride along for an afternoon with this young woman and her burly male partner. The chief cop writer, Dave McKay, was thrilled that he’d been able to land this plum assignment for me; it was rare that ride alongs were permitted and so I was, quite obviously, one privileged little girl scout – and Dave was quick to remind me of that.

I was ungrateful. I wanted to write about news, not sexual politics.

Even at the tender age of 22, I had written many column inches on “the first woman to”. There was the first female to become a rowing coach in St. Catharines. The first woman to become a bank manager. The first woman to drive a forklift.

Newspaper editors in the late 1970s were absolutely mad for this kind of story. You could see the light twinkling in their eyes when they handed over the assignment. Like they were handing me a story that would win me a National Newspaper Award.

“Why can’t Strobel do it?” I asked Gord Eastwood, the Journal city editor, who looked more like a river boat gambler than a seasoned newspaper editor. “Why do I always have to do these stories?”

Eastwood gave me a shrug and his characteristic giggle. The answer was obvious. I was a girl and only girls covered these stories.

So I dutifully went on the ride along. It wasn’t bad. I got to watch the cops bust through a guy’s window after his mom reported him missing, only to discover the guy had just gone out. In the meantime, the cops found themselves a treasure trove of joints and hash pipes. They left him a note: “Please call Ottawa police” and boarded up his window with one of the guy’s paintings. Poor bastard.

Anyway, the lady cop who was about as interesting as a speed bump gave me a few uninspired quotes, wrote out a few tickets and mostly just sat there while her buddy did all the heavy lifting. I managed to milk the story into a section front, then promptly quit my job and went off to review bar bands and interview Irish flute players.

I tell this story because I watched an HBO documentary yesterday about the life and times of Gloria Steinem, the gorgeous female wunderkind who turned feminism on its ear back in the day.

The documentary reminded me of my early struggle for acceptance in the newspaper business.

Gloria, In Her Own Words, traces Gloria’s roots as a beautiful young reporter who tries to be taken seriously back in the 60s only to find herself on the front pages doing an expose on being a Playboy bunny. (Barbara Walters got the same taxing assignment.) Steinem spent years doing these kind of silly puff pieces when she really wanted to become a serious political journalist.

Her career took a different trajectory than mine did. I got out of the business altogether; she started her own magazine.

And then all she talked about was girly stuff. Sure, it was serious girly stuff — employment equity, wage parity, abortion, lesbian rights — but it was girl town stuff all the same.

Mostly, people weren’t interested in her politics.

They were interested in her hairstyles and designer dresses. People wanted to know whether she was having sex with Henry Kissinger.

How much of a difference did Gloria Steinem make in the overall scheme of things? She founded Ms. Magazine, hung out with Bella Abzug, spoke at rallies, wore fabulous clothes and dated a lot of homely yet powerful men. Her biggest accomplishment, as seen in this documentary was to get bar owners to let women in on the men only side of the tavern. (I fought that fight myself in St. Catharines and won the right to drink beer with smelly alcoholics with dripping prostates.)

Growing up, I was aware of women’s issues — and perhaps that was the main contribution made by Steinem and her lot — but mostly, I learned about these issues watching Phil Donahue, who, let’s face it, ladies, was the ultimate feminist.

Would the world have been different if I, or other female journalists, had not written stories about “the first woman who”?

Did Ms. Magazine change our sensibilities?

I sincerely doubt it.

For my part, I was more influenced by Mad Magazine.

Most of the women who advanced the cause did so quietly.

There were lots of women who were “firsts” before the media grabbed on to feminism. Women doctors, women lawyers, women academics, women pilots, women farm owners and women journalists.

So here’s the question: have women been able to better themselves because of the women’s movement or in spite of it?

I’m not sure.

Women still work most of the ghetto jobs. They still are the ones who raise the children — in poverty — when the men leave. They still hit the glass ceiling in most sectors; the only difference is that women now languish in middle management instead of the secretarial pool.

My life didn’t get better because of feminism. My consciousness was raised in my twenties, ripped apart by divorce and single motherhood in my thirties and hasn’t been seen since. Really, I don’t want to think about what I haven’t accomplished.

All feminism did was raise my expectations, which were inevitably dashed on the rocks of real life.

As for Gloria, she did alright by feminism while still being able to rock the aviators.

Good for her.

I don’t think she made a difference one way or the other.

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