EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s just not a fair fight: Florence King takes on America’s Prima Feminista via this wonderful review of Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s 1995 book The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem. You’ll enjoy the carnage (which first appeared in the January 29, 1996 issue of NR).
You’ll also enjoy the majestic collection of Miss King’s NR column–”The Misanthrope’s Corner”–which we have republished in their entirety in STET, Damnit, The Misanthrope’s Corner, 1991 to 2002. We are certain that you will want to have the one book that will make the Summer of ‘04 a memorable (and gust-busting) one. STET, Damnit is available only from NR, and may/must be ordered (securely!) here.
THE MUD TURTLES PROGRESS
by Carolyn G. Heilbrun (Dial, 451 pp., $24.95)
The parable of the mud turtle comes at the end of this hagiographic book, but it so perfectly illustrates the feminist blind spot of both biographer and subject that I shall start with it.
Here is how Gloria Steinem claims she learned to respect the right to self-determination:
During a science field trip in college, she found a turtle beside a road. Afraid that it would get run over, she picked it up and carried it back into the woods where it would be safe–only to be told by her professor that it had probably taken the turtle weeks to reach the muddy shoulder where she wanted to lay her eggs, but now, thanks to Miss Steinem’s help, she would have to start all over again.
“It was a lesson Steinem never forgot,” writes Carolyn G. Heilbrun.
Really? Coulda fooled me. Miss Steinem has made a career of meddling in women’s egg-laying habits and taking them where she thinks they ought to be. Now, in what is tactfully known as post-feminism, they are faced with the task of starting all over again.
Writing a biography of a still-living subject whose friends, enemies, and lovers are still alive is a delicate operation, but Carolyn G. Heilbrun is eminently qualified to jump in with both feet. The author of Writing a Woman’s Life, she is widely regarded as the leading expert on female biography. She is also a salted-in-the-shell feminist who used to teach at Columbia until the “boys’ treehouse gang,” as she calls male English professors, drove her away. “Women who speak out,” she reminds us, “usually end up punished or dead.” Note that “usually.” Both Miss Heilbrun and Miss Steinem have flourished like the green bay tree.
Gloria Steinem was born in 1934 into a solid middle-class Toledo family, but her father’s wild financial schemes and her mother’s nervous breakdowns landed them in not-so-genteel poverty. After her parents divorced, she lived with her increasingly delusional mother in a ratty apartment and attended a working-class high school, earning extra money tap dancing at the Lion’s Club. These gritty experiences shaped her politics. Years later, watching Chicago police beat up protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention, she said, “Those cops are the boys I went to high school with.”
Life improved in 1951 when her older sister institutionalized their mother and took Miss Steinem to live with her in Washington, where she entered the city’s elite public school, Western High in Georgetown. No more tap dancing for Babbitts; secure in her improved social status, she became a swimming instructor at the segregated city’s Negro pool. Lady Bountiful on the half shell.
To pay her tuition at Smith, the family sold a piece of property they had managed to hang onto. She graduated in 1956 and won a Chester Bowles fellowship to study in India, spending half of the $1,000 stipend en route on an abortion in London. Avoiding all Westerners, she sought out “the real India,” her solo trek through remote regions facilitated by railroad cars reserved for women only. She went completely native; dyed her hair black, wore saris–and had a karma reading. It said she had “lived in Bengal in a previous incarnation, and that she had done something disastrous to have been born in the United States.”
When she returned to New York, the guilt she had felt in India at being pulled in a tonga (rickshaw) by another human being made her resolve to ride in the front seat of cabs, but she soon gave it up for reasons not hard to imagine.
She conquered male-dominated publishing like a Marxist Scarlett O’Hara. Her best early writing had a Nellie Bly flair, especially her 1963 exposé of Playboy Clubs, “A Bunny’s Tale,” but even the worshipful Miss Heilbrun admits that The Beach Book was “clearly not a book any serious publisher in his right mind would have agreed to.” But Viking’s Tom Guinzberg was not in his right mind, he was in Miss Steinem’s bed. We aren’t sure where John Kenneth Galbraith was, but he wrote the introduction to her sandy anthology, explaining that he did so because “I like the girl who put it together.” Sold with a sun screen inside the cover, The Beach Book contained suggested fantasies: “You have just dealt a crushing defeat in public debate to (choose one: William Buckley Jr., Hugh Hefner, David Susskind, Ayn Rand), who is being laughed off the stage.”
But she was never frivolous for long. Given some stock in New York magazine, she used it as collateral to bail women out of prison to get abortions when the prison hospital refused to perform them. Even more earnestly, she told a new bride: “You married that man? I would have stopped you; he’s another conservative central European.”
When she founded Ms. she vowed to run “a communal, cooperative, nonhierarchical, democratic” magazine patterned on the “strict structurelessness” of early radical feminism. Nobody had a title and there was no masthead, just an alphabetical list of “workers” with the now-famous Miss Steinem buried under S. This egalitarian code was broken when a worker’s mother said, “I saw your boss on television.”
Private offices with doors were verboten; everyone worked in a communal room which also served as the nursery for single mothers on the staff. Editorial duties were assigned by lot; all the workers read all the copy and everyone got to express an opinion, including the receptionist. When a reviewer panned Kate Millett’s book some workers didn’t want to run the review because it might hurt Miss Millett’s feelings; another warned, “Kate might have a nervous breakdown” unless they cut the mean parts.
By 1979 Ms. had lost so much money that Miss Steinem had to file for non-profit status. This enabled her to get a $300,000 grant from the Ford Foundation. Whether it helped that she had had an affair with Ford Foundation president Franklin Thomas is not known.
Her last important lover was real-estate tycoon Mortimer Zuckerman, whose limo made her feel so guilty that she asked him to replace it with a van. Normally she would not have slept with a man who believed in trade with countries whose embassies she picketed, but he knew how to break down her resistance: he told her he had had an emotionally deprived childhood. It worked. She decided to “help” him, telling herself, “Once happy, he would give all his money to the poor.” He didn’t–nor did he get rid of the limo.
The only enjoyable parts of this book are the quoted passages by other writers. Miss Heilbrun herself is maddening. Three examples will suffice.
Miss Steinem’s gullibility in business matters: “Those who despise all group hatreds, all racial and sexual stereotypes, are more easily duped.”
Miss Steinem takes up feminism: “Like Paul after his vision on the road to Damascus, but like him in no other way, she decided to go forth and speak, to spread the message.”
Miss Steinem today: “She has, furthermore, shocked many people in frankly stating that her sexual drive has diminished.”
What is so shocking about a woman of 61 saying that? It’s the only sensible thing she’s ever said.