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An Open Letter To Gloria Steinem, Who I Admire, And Who Should Have Known Better

Elizabeth Mehren: "Come on, Gloria. As feminists, we are useless if we have not learned to mature." Pictured: Gloria Steinem at her home in New York in October 2015.  (Seth Wenig/AP)
Elizabeth Mehren: "Come on, Gloria. As feminists, we are useless if we have not learned to mature." Pictured: Gloria Steinem at her home in New York in October 2015. (Seth Wenig/AP)
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Dear Gloria Steinem,

Thank you for wearing those bunny ears. Thank you for invading the Playboy Club all those years ago and telling us what went on when men had nothing better to do than to watch women serve them drinks wearing tiny bunny tails. Thank you for being brunette then, and blonde now, with those familiar platinum stripes around your face. Thank you for never changing your eyeglass frames.

Thank you for telling me that sisterhood was powerful. Thank you for your courage in fighting, unceasingly, for choice.

Thank you for telling me that sisterhood was powerful. Thank you for your courage in fighting, unceasingly, for choice. Thank you for taking no prisoners when slimy male politicians hurled wicked invectives in your direction. Thank you for smiling and offering the elegant, yet withering riposte that left those same males sputtering and clutching a certain portion of their anatomy.

Thank you for breaking the Smith College “Mrs.” mold of Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush. Thank you for waiting to marry until you found real love, in your 60s, and realized that health insurance was as good a reason as any to tie the knot in the only industrialized nation that has not followed through on national health care. Thank you for daring to remain childless in a society where, for women, “how many children do you have?” is maybe the second question after “what’s your name?”

Thank you for traveling all over the world and reminding women that cultural taboos cannot diminish our value. Thank you for reminding women young and old in this country and around the world that pay equity is worth fighting for. There simply is no reason why biology should determine economic destiny.

Thank you for being so damned elegant. Thank you for telling us that this is what 40 looks like, then 50, 60, 70 and now 80. And on you, it looks good.

Thank you for being out there, on the forefront. Thank you for being a bold writer whom I now introduce to Boston University students born on the cusp of the 21st century, born into easy assumptions about women in combat or stay-at-home dads. Thank you for serving as a model for women a generation your junior, women who (unlike their own mothers) could march into a male boss’s office and demand the same salary as the guy at the next desk. Thank you for so very much. Thank you for being out there, on the forefront.

But okay, sorry, Gloria. My mom taught me to write thank you notes. I have many forms of stationery and I believe, based on my manic consumption of commemorative stamps, that I may yet receive a certificate of appreciation from the US Postal Service. But I will not be affixing a stamp to an envelope today, not after you suggested that young women volunteering to work on the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders were doing it as an easy way to meet men.

“The boys are with Bernie?”

Admittedly, you backtracked when you realized your gaffe. Your Facebook post the day after that fateful conversation with Bill Maher referred to “talk-show interruptus,” very clever and coy. You did acknowledge that you “misspoke” and that your remarks had been “misinterpreted as implying that young women aren’t serious about their politics.” You did say that “young women are activist and feminist in greater numbers than ever before.”

But come on, Gloria. As feminists, we are useless if we have not learned to mature. I came up as “the girl” in newspaper newsrooms all over California. One editor, yes, made derogatory comments when I showed up wearing pants. Another generously said he had no problem with my covering any kind of news, except sports. Many years later, I had great fun sending him clips from numerous sports events, including the Olympics.

Back then, there were still things called “women’s pages,” featuring weddings, engagements, recipes and gardening hints. At my very first post-graduate school job, I had to edit something called “Club Orbits,” a daily listing of activities for women whose brains had been sentenced to activity-purgatory. The logo featured stars or planets (who knows?) circling around one another. “Orbits,” get it?

But we moved on. We turned those women’s media ghettos into bastions of the best writing in journalism. We took the gender-bias out of feature reporting long before it was fashionable to do so. And we nurtured the next generation. We raised them up to believe what we ourselves had always understood, that we had to be that much better, that much more ethical and also that much more sober than the guys who fled to the bar across the street the minute they pressed “send” on their stories.

Never, never, ever, ever, ever did we say 'this is a great way to meet guys.' Or, 'cover the presidential primaries because there will be a bunch of cool dudes around.'

Never, never, ever, ever, ever did we say “this is a great way to meet guys.” Or, “cover the presidential primaries because there will be a bunch of cool dudes around.” What we said was, you will work like crazy, and you will talk to a whole lot of people who will show you why the American democratic process is the ideal and envy of much of the planet. You will speak to very, very old people who have made this system work for as long as they have had air in their lungs. And you will speak to young people whose views may change a dozen times before they reach that very, very old stage, but who are standing forth because it is the right thing to do.

And you will learn that people make voting decisions for a myriad of complicated reasons. Never once, in all the years that I have stood half-frozen in the electoral trenches of New Hampshire or canvassed the caucuses in Iowa has one woman said she chose a candidate or his/her campaign because it was the political equivalent of a singles’ website.

So shame on you, Gloria Steinem. Shame on you for suggesting that any smart young woman who does not work for Hillary Clinton is merely trolling for dates. Shame on you for implying that feminism is some kind of monolithic mindset, like Chinese communism, in a cute outfit. Shame on you for pooh-poohing Bernie Sanders’s notion of revolution. I remember, way back when, when you yourself called for revolution, and a much younger me was happy to take part. Shame on you for not recognizing that its outcome might be opinions based on ideology, not strictly on gender.

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Elizabeth Mehren Cognoscenti contributor
Elizabeth Mehren is an author, journalist and Boston University professor.

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