When Gloria Steinem came to town this weekend, the renowned feminist icon reunited with a local rabbi she credits with helping to inspire her at a trying time.
The way she tells it, Steinem met Rabbi Arthur Waskow at the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, where human rights activists, feminists and anti-war demonstrators had converged, eventually clashing with the police.
She was handing out literature about California farm workers and he was a delegate. Gloria recalled feeling dispirited and on the verge of giving up when Waskow urged her to persevere.
“I remembered his encouragement at a crucial point” amid the chaos of the convention, she recalled in a phone interview. “He spoke strengthening words to me at a moment I needed strengthening words.”
Those words apparently stuck with her for decades. In an interview last year with Oprah Winfrey, she mentioned that encounter with Waskow as one of the seminal moments in her long career as a writer, activist and pioneer in the feminist movement.
So it didn’t take much encouragement, she said, when she was invited to Philadelphia to take part in this weekend’s “This Is What 80 Looks Like,” a celebration of Waskow’s 80th birthday and fundraiser for the Shalom Center. The Mount Airy-based center, founded by Waskow in 1983, describes itself as bringing “Jewish and other spiritual thought and practice to bear on peace, justice and environmental issues.” Steinem is also about to turn 80 herself.
After the Oprah show aired, Waskow reached out to Steinem. They’ve only seen each other once since that show, she said, when Waskow and his wife, Rabbi Phyllis Berman, met her for lunch.
Steinem’s father was Jewish but her mother and both grandmothers were theosophists, adherents of a religious philosophy that teaches about God and the world based on mostly Eastern mystical insight.
She went to theosophical meetings, she said, but never to a synagogue or church.
However, she said, her mother always made very clear that her father and his family were Jewish. She said her mother adored her mother-in-law and often quoted the biblical Ruth, who is considered the first convert to Judaism, because she followed her mother-in-law, Naomi, after her husband’s death.
The co-founder of Ms. Magazine, Steinem discovered years into her own feminist activism that she was following the legacy of her paternal grandmother, Pauline Perlmutter Steinem, who had been a suffragist in Toledo, Ohio.
Steinem wrote a profile of her grandmother for Jewish Women’s Archive, in which she recounts the research of feminist historians that her grandmother was the first woman elected to the Toledo board of education, even before women got the vote. She won, Steinem said, on a coalition ticket with socialists and anarchists, having organized women to vote in groups.
Steinem said her only consistent connection to Jewish tradition has been her participation in the annual women’s seder in New York. Started in the 1970s by the late Jewish feminist and renowned author Esther Broner, the seder for decades has been a gathering point for prominent Jewish feminists and has spawned similar rituals around the country.
Asked why she thought so many pioneers of the feminist movement, like Betty Friedan and Letty Cottin Pogrebin, were Jewish, she pointed to Judaism’s emphasis on “creating justice in this world.” That tradition made the movement more “accessible, even imperative” for Jews, she said.
After nearly 50 years of activism, Steinem says the feminist revolution is far from over. It “has just begun,” she said. “We’re not even halfway to where we should be.
“We’ve convinced a majority of the country that women can do what men can do but until we can convince the majority of the country that men can do what women do,” it won’t be enough.
She cited issues such as equal pay, child care and violence against women, including sex trafficking, as part of the unfinished agenda.
“The idea that we are anywhere near finished” is an idea that emanates from the opposition, not the movement, she said. “Post-racism, post-feminism was invented by the adversaries.”
She said she is not discouraged when she hears girls and young women say they are not feminists.
“More women call themselves feminists than before, but it is still greater among older women. You have to experience what’s wrong to know what’s wrong.”
Such experience, she said, comes from being in the labor force for some years and experiencing discrimination or having children and seeing that men are not sharing the responsibilities equally. “Things happen to you to turn you into an activist,” she said.
Steinem said she has no plans to slow down any time soon. She spends a lot of time on campuses and is encouraged by the awareness she sees. “In the Vietnam era, it was just about the draft. But the activism wasn’t as broad and diverse as it is now,” on a range of issues from environmentalism to human rights.
The future of feminism is “wherever each woman is going,” she said, adding, “I’m not giving up my torch; only if everybody has a torch will there be enough light.”
Steinem will reach her milestone of 80 in March.
By then she will have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom to add to her lifetime accomplishments. She plans to celebrate her big day by riding elephants in Botswana.