It was by complete chance that I found this book.
Among my many trades, I work at a bookshop, a very old bookshop, in a sleepy town in rural America. Since I’ve moved to the city this spring, I’m only spending a few days here and there working at the shop, and so my time lingering among the stacks is precious to me— I often dally a while after hours to skim the books I’ve missed. This Sunday past, I was shelving some used books upstairs when I glanced over to the little section tagged “women’s issues.” These two shelves include mostly dated books about reproductive health, remaindered copies of once-bestselling memoirs, and a handful of timeless gems, like Second Spring and The Feminine Mystique. At random I pulled a title, Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions, and after turning it over, I recognized the author, Gloria Steinem.
Isn’t she famous? A famous feminist?
I open the book to this line: “Who were you before this wave of feminism began?”
Who was I? I was an angry teenager, trembling on the brink of self, uncomfortable in my own body and exceedingly frustrated with my place in the world. I was beginning to recognize the secondary status of women. I didn’t want to inherit this Earth.
This question, simple and sharp, shook me profoundly. Throughout my young adulthood, and particularly since the creation of Boshemia, I have taken for granted my feminism. It is such a part of me that it is difficult to remember a time when it wasn’t so deeply attached to my identity. The ideologies have lived in me my whole life — it is only in recent years that I have found the right words for it. Before knowing the current wave of feminism, I was not aware of my own power, my rights to move through this world. And before this movement, I internalized my beliefs, keeping my desires for change to myself.
I continued to read:
“Now, we are becoming the men we wanted to marry.”
I marveled at this sentence. Steinem, in all of her liberation-movement-groovy-glory, wrote something so boldly unapologetic about the phenomena of women leaving “the home” for the predominantly male work force. This sentence still rings true in 2016. We are still creating this world for ourselves, one in which we can follow our dreams instead of marrying them.
I took the book back with me to D.C. and have spent the week devouring it.
Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions (1983) is a collection of essays from Steinem’s vastly influential career in feminist activism and journalism. During the ‘60s-‘70s Steinem toured the United States, giving lectures and organizing the second wave of feminism, and as such made herself a household name that endures today. Steinem is also famously remembered for starting Ms. Magazine, described as a “landmark institution” in women’s rights and American journalism.
In her introduction to Outrageous Acts, Steinem discusses the birth of Ms., divulging that she had previously worked as a consultant for famous literary publications targeted at women readers. As it happened, these magazines were not written by women at all. Not a single one. Read this particular anecdote that Steinem shares, undoubtedly an event that sparked the creation of her own magazine:
“At The Ladies Home Journal where I was an occasional consultant and writer, one of its two top editors (both men, of course) was so convinced that I was nothing like its readers (whom he described as ‘mental defectives with curlers in their hair’) that he used to hand me a manuscript and say, ‘Pretend you’re a woman and read this.’”
And thus Ms. was created to disrupt a history of men telling women’s stories in the media.
To create a magazine written by women, for women, within an industry subject to the authority of men— during a time when the word “feminism” induced a shudder across the room, when the American landscape for women meant living within the lingering cult of domesticity— Steinem combatted these obstacles and worked to build her community of women writing for each other. In so doing, Steinem has become an icon for global feminism and human rights campaigns through the legacy of her writing.
And what she wrote is still pretty damn revolutionary.
In our current wave of feminism, our vernacular and the definition itself is constantly evolving to becoming more intersectional and inclusive. It is fascinating to look back to Steinem’s time, when the definition of the women’s liberation movement was being forged, when the objectives of our cause were still being shaped after suffrage in 1920 and the post-war suburban life took root in the 1950s.
During Steinem’s most active years, what was still being defined was the language of our cause. She writes about how the mood of the late ’60s helped create democratic substitutes for inherently patriarchal language, like “reproductive freedom” instead of “population control” or “fertility control.” The sexual revolution itself shifted attitudes towards women’s sexual practices, and with this the feminist spirit began to reclaim pejorative words for their cause, coining cunt art to celebrate female imagery.
Steinem’s commitment to using feminist positive language so early on in the moment is evident in her writing. From her essay “Words and Change” (1979):
“Finding a language that will allow people to act together while cherishing each other’s individuality is probably the most feminist and therefore truly revolutionary function of writers.”
What a utopia. Her visions for a better world through language really get me.
In Outrageous Acts, Steinem has provided a look into the world of 1970s feminism, when the movement was still so raw and new, and still mocked as a strictly white middle class movement of bored housewives. Steinem writes that the second-wave was chided as “white well-educated suburban homemakers who were standing by their kitchen sinks wondering justifiably if there weren’t ‘more to life than this.’” She notes the little public understanding of the movement at the time, defining feminism as the movement working towards the equality and full humanity of women and men, and even nodding towards the intersectionality of our cause.
While we are caught up in our own battles as fourth wave feminists, we must recognize that the trail has been blazed for us by women like Gloria Steinem, when our movement was still called the “liberation movement,” when “reproductive health” didn’t have a place in the global vernacular, when achievements like Ms. Magazine were the first of their kind. Her creation of Ms. makes me think of everything that came before Boshemia, what drove us to write what we write, to gather closer together. We too are coming into ourselves, something so new and bold, but entirely impossible without the strife of our rebellious grandmothers before us.
Together we are rallying towards paradise. And there is a lot of work to be done.
Steinem’s latest book, My Life on the Road, was published last year. Gloria recently turned 82, and she’s still a badass bitch.