Already on Fire: Gloria Steinem’s Black Power Roots

By Jean Li Spencer

Within American feminism, white women have been seen as both the oppressed and the oppressors–two identities which, tense and inextricably linked, have historically blocked a critical examination of the cross-racial histories between white women and their sisters of color in achieving gender equality. It is an ignorant but common misconception within the mainstream narrative that white women singularly pioneered the women’s movement and activism, without deeper attribution towards the impact that the civil rights and Black Power movements had on the trajectory of feminism. Feminism in the twentieth century was already on fire long before women like Gloria Steinem fashioned it into something sexy and glamorous for a national audience– and prior to the publication of Betty Friedan’s seminal classic, The Feminine Mystique (1963), which is often bookmarked as the start date of Second Wave feminism.

Gloria Steinem has been the iconic face of American feminism for five decades– the branded logo, in some sense– and she has been vocal about the reality that black women shaped who she is. She was quoted on Black Enterprise saying: “I thought they [black women] invented the feminist movement. I’ve learned feminism disproportionately from black women, I realize that things being what they are, the White middle-class part of the movement got reported more, but if you look at the numbers and the very first poll of women responding to feminist issues, African American women were twice as likely to support feminism and feminist issues than White women.” Quite frankly, Gloria wouldn’t be Gloria Steinem without black women’s mentorship, friendship and support. So why don’t we hear about it more? This left out history should be common knowledge.

In an era when the United States is questioning its basic liberties, right to equality and justice, and what it means to be a proactive member of society, Steinem’s words from her 1969 essay titled “After Black Power, Women’s Liberation” in New York magazine truly reverberate across the ages: “Liberation isn’t exposure to the American values of Mom-and-apple-pie anymore (not even if Mom is allowed to work in an office and vote once in a while); it’s the escape from them.” We are once again transcending former notions of liberty for their more necessary redefinitions.

Although it is widely accepted that feminism of the current era must be intersectional, American feminism has had a long and storied past– and that past, which is often obscured, must be emphasized because history has a dangerous tendency to erase women of color in favor of their lighter sisters. One telling example from the first wave of feminism that has been wholly blanketed is from the Seneca Falls convention of 1848 in Upstate New York, which was a women’s rights meeting organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton– two women that are featured in many school-age classrooms nationwide. We hear about these two powerful abolitionist leaders frequently. However, what is less spoken about is the imperative role that women of color such as Maria Stewart, Frances E.W. Harper and Sojourner Truth (and allied men like Frederick Douglass, who also spoke at the Seneca Falls convention,) had in fueling the momentum that brought about that infamous moment in early feminism.

In revisiting Gloria Steinem’s life and work, we’ll remember black women’s legacies in shaping her. Steinem graduated from Smith College in 1956 and received a fellowship to study in India before she moved to New York City and kickstarted a career in magazine writing. During this time, she went undercover for a famous exposé in 1963 on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Club for Show magazine and co-created New York magazine. As a rising star in journalism, she gained a firebrand reputation as a vocal fighter for women’s issues. Many of Steinem’s most important lessons and sources of strength came from black women. Steinem was the National Treasurer of the 1970’s “Free Angela Davis” campaign and had close relationships with black activists Florynce Kennedy and Dorothy Pitman Hughes, whom she made public appearances with frequently.

A naturally shyer person, her style of public speaking took a cue from these powerful, resonant public speakers. Steinem co-founded Ms. Magazine and the Women’s Action Alliance with child-welfare advocate, author and small business owner Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Hughes also established the first shelter for battered women in New York City). Steinem also worked hard to bridge the racial gap within her diverse base of supporters to showcase rising black women stars. For example, she published some of Alice Walker’s first works and made her one of the first black editors at Ms. Magazine; she also placed Pat Grier, the first African American cover star, on the front of the magazine in 1975 and helped make Foxy Brown a feminist icon.

Other black feminists Gloria Steinem has given due credit include Pauli Murray, who was the first African American to receive a Doctor of Juridical Science from Yale Law School and wrote the 1950 book States’ Laws on Race and Color, which reached almost Biblical influence as a legal handbook for the civil rights movement. Murray worked with President Kennedy on his Presidential Commission on the Status of Women and the Committee on Civil and Political Rights. She went on to become co-founder of the National Organization for Women. Other notable influences included Aileen Hernandez, Fannie Lou Hammer and Shirley Chisholm, who worked to get more black women involved in politics, law and local government (Google these women and you will find that their accomplishments fill pages). The list could go on and on. What it shows is that Steinem needed Black Power and women of color marching with her arm in arm to chip away at the berlin wall of misogyny and sexism that she is credited with destabilizing.

We are in the midst of another feminist blaze. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Steinem was chosen as a marketable face for the women’s movement because she was white, young, beautiful and had a curbing mainstream appeal. Little about this year has felt moralizing or uplifting; one hopeful word to describe the wild rendezvous of gender and race is “inaugural.” Nowadays, Steinem is a launching pad for more profound conversations about feminism and its future– and if you ask her, she’s very comfortable with that role.

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