Gloria Steinem turns 80

Tuesday is feminist icon Gloria Steinem's 80th birthday. Founder of Ms. Magazine, the seemingly ageless Steinem is headed out of the country to celebrate her latest decade.

"Do not bother to call. She’s planning to celebrate in Botswana," the New York Times wrote in a recent interview with her. “I thought: ‘What do I really want to do on my birthday?’" she said in the interview. "First, get out of Dodge. Second, ride elephants.”

On the eve of the last presidential election, Gloria Steinem sat down with Creative Loafing after speaking at a rally to strike down an anti-choice amendment on the ballot. 

We talked about women's rights, the importance of voting, and her definition of feminism (you can read the complete interview here.)

"Just send them to the dictionary," she replied when I asked her about those who shy away from "feminism." (I'm calling you out Katy Perry, for shame!). "It means what it has always meant, which is a person, man or woman, who believes in the full social, economical, and political equality of women and men. I empathize with those women because they've been subject to 20 years of Rush Limbaugh saying femi-nazi and demonizing the word. First of all, more women and men self-identify with feminism than ever before in history, even with the misunderstanding of what it really means. When you define it, more than 60 percent of women identify. So it's being demonized for a reason, it's part of the backlash. It just means we believe in our community."

But the most compelling part of our conversation came after the recorder had been turned off, inside a small room on the second floor of Jannus Landing. There were a few other people in the room, including the late St. Petersburg activist Paula Witthaus. 

After snapping photos with a line of giddy lady activists, Steinem asked me about my career, where I'd like to go with writing. I believe it was Paula who chimed in to mention just how much she loved A Bunny's Story, the exposé Steinem wrote about the life of a Playboy Bunny. 

"It changed my life," Witthaus said to her. "You were so brave." 

The article came out in 1963, Steinem was 29 years old and undercover in Chicago's Playboy Club, working as a Bunny. Her exposé in Show magazine prompted improvements to Playboy Club working conditions, including ending a requirement for Bunnies to submit to a venereal disease screening to qualify for employment.

"By wearing borrowed shoes three sizes too large, wrapping my ribs in gauze inside the costume, and coaxing busboys to help me carry heavy trays, I managed to get through the night," she wrote. 

The article led to a $1 million lawsuit against Steinem and her newspaper that settled out of court and worse implications that never went away.

"For me, it was the end of my career as a reporter," Steinem said in a that-sucks-but-who-gives-a-shit way. "I never got another serious assignment after that. My editors just didn't take me seriously anymore because I had been a Bunny."

She paused for a moment, lifted her slender finger to her chin and said, "In fact, that's what led me to start Ms. Magazine."

The first Ms. Magazine came out in 1972, after appearing as an insert in a 1971 issue of New York Magazine. Losing what she thought would be her career path as a serious journalist led her to start a gutsy feminist magazine that continues publication today, over 40 years later. 

Steinem didn't fret about the rejection; she was thankful for itl. Nothing motivates the curious nature than being told "no."

"The idea was and is to trust your own uniqueness and own wisdom," Steinem advised me then. "Know what you love to do so much that you forget what time it is while you're doing it. What you can uniquely do that no one else can do? I think our first challenge is to unlearn, not to learn."

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