Steinem: A prototype for feminism
Maybe you have to be as mad as a March bunny to change the world. 2011’s Arab Spring pruned four anti-democratic governments from the Middle East, and significant reforms took root in countries like Morocco and Jordan. But while 2011 promised revolution, 2012 offers devolution as women of the United States endure assault after assault on their dignity and reproductive freedom. Rush Limbaugh, a native of Missouri, maligned Sandra Fluke, calling her a “prostitute” and “slut,” because of her support of mandated insurance coverage for contraceptives—Limbaugh, by the way, will be inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians at the end of May’s legislative session. Roy Blunt, Missouri’s junior senator, sought to shear reproductive freedom with a bill that excused employers from honoring insurances “contrary to the religious beliefs or moral convictions of the sponsor.” A margin of three votes defeated the bill. In light of these events, we greet the news that Washington University will confer an honorary degree on Gloria Steinem with pride (and even a hint of relief).
Steinem’s name corresponds with second-wave feminism as Rosa Parks’ is associated with the Civil Rights Movement. Her career began with journalism like “I Was a Playboy Bunny,” which chronicled the abject working conditions of the Playboy Club’s female employees. Though the Club promised “the top job in the country for a young girl,” Steinem’s investigation revealed instead a patriarchy enforcing humiliation with Big Brother’s severity; the Club assumed women were idiots and exploited them as such. Steinem remained dedicated to her vocation of improving conditions for women. In 1972, she founded Ms., a magazine written by women for women. Still in print, the publication has reported on issues like domestic abuse and abortion testimonies. Steinem entered the political arena as the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), struggled for ratification. The ERA expired in part because of the influence of Phyllis Schlafly, an anti-feminist and graduate of the Washington University School of Law, upon whom the University bestowed an honorary degree in 2008.
Though Steinem herself isn’t responsible for bringing about the reforms for women, her influence in the national dialogue about women’s rights engendered their realization. Her arguments depict feminism as approachable, responding to situations recognizable to all women in accessible language, rather than the abstruse academese of some of her colleagues. In the Playboy article, for example, she details a required medical examination by a gynecologist. Though Playboy described a Bunny’s job as similar to a waitress position and claimed to refuse to “engage, aid, or abet traffic in prostitution,” the club forced Steinem to visit a patronizing doctor who tested her, without due explanation, for venereal diseases. The reader immediately empathizes with Steinem, sharing her bewilderment and indignity.
The pundits dub the rising abuse of women’s rights this spring as a “war on women.” This is probably turgid rhetoric, like the war on Christmas, but the trend portends further rights violations. When Steinem donned the Bunny outfit, no battered women’s shelters existed. Title IX was nine years away. Marital rape was legal in all states. The progress today is substantial, but hurdles remain. CNN reported on April 14 that the military diagnosed several enlisted women with personality disorders and discharged them after they accused superiors of rape; their testimony was subsequently ignored. Hopefully, by recognizing and lauding Steinem’s contributions, the University will inspire us to remain dedicated to fighting for women’s rights.