My first revolutionary was (actually) Gloria Steinem. I’d heard whispers of her and of “Women’s Lib” when very young. A song on the radio, “I Am Woman,” was related to the whispers, and then Gloria’s magazine came out when I was 10 and she was in the news all the time. She and her magazine, Ms.
At least it seemed to be Gloria Steinem’s magazine, though there was a large team of smart women behind it. I didn’t know about the rest of them, which women were connected to the civil rights movement, which questioning gender itself; I don’t think anyone within a 200-mile radius of our house in Houston knew about them. We just knew about Gloria, the center of Women’s Lib, the lady with the long hair and big glasses; she might even have written the popular (if irritating and vaguely embarrassing even then) song. We were for Women’s Lib, which was somehow linked to the certainty that women were smart; my mother, her mother, her mother-in-law, they were definitely smart. They were always saying so.
My mother subscribed to her magazine for a few years. I doubt I understood the articles. I thought Gloria was strange looking and knew she had no husband. She had said, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” That was funny—fish and bicycles—but there in the suburbs, a woman without a man had problems: maybe a husband, a father, was like water for a fish. And lots of people, especially men, didn’t like Gloria, which made her more interesting and a little scary.
Which is to say I didn’t know if the reason she was unmarried was because she had these Women’s Lib ideas, or if these Women’s Lib ideas arose because she couldn’t get a boyfriend. Which is to say I didn’t know if my mother took the magazine because my father had died and she had to become a Women’s Libber, or if she would have been liberated anyway.
Scary as she was, Gloria rocked my world.
The word Ms. was the detonator. After all, if men are called Mr. no matter what, why shouldn’t women have a word for themselves, independent of marital status? Why should women be exposed in such a way? Gloria had brought the word to us, I thought wrongly. (In fact the Times has a terrific piece on the word’s 1901 beginnings.) Her new word had solved one of the problems with words, and words have always bugged me. Words for men and words for women, especially. At school and on Sundays we heard of Christ who’d come to save all men, of goodwill toward all men, in school I’d learned all men were created equal. I assumed “men” included me; I was told so at some point, and I might have looked in a dictionary to see for sure. The definition was probably a lot like what’s on my apple dictionary now, definition 2 (Of course! We’re always number 2!) man: “a human being of either sex; a person.” That made sense. Christ had come to save all persons, we wanted goodwill toward all persons, all persons are created equal. I was doing the translation work that women are always doing. But bothered by it, and concerned about the effect of so many of us—half the world—saying men men men men men all the time when there were men, actually, who were not women. When men would never allow the world to refer to them as women.
It’s silly to write all this, a child’s thoughts, but I still wonder about that, and I like that English professors from New York to Sacramento now move students away from such word use, scribbling “sexist language” in the margins of millions of papers every year. (I like the serious resisters, too, like genderqueers and others who resent language and its instructions to us.)
All this was Gloria’s doing, to me. And so it was.
In 1973 or 74, my class held a debate on women’s lib. Are women equal to men? Are girls as valuable as boys? I don’t remember the exact question, and I doubt I consulted Ms. for the debate, but I felt having the magazine itself was meaningful, and it didn’t seem like any of the neighbors had it. Maybe that’s why I was on the team. (In a few years I’d be babysitting far and wide and would learn that none of those families subscribed to Ms., but they all, every one, had a stack of Playboys tucked away somewhere, sometimes pretty carefully.)
Forty years have passed; I don’t recall much except that I was given the closing arguments, and (I think) my voice cracked. Men and women were equal, obviously. Or girls were as good as boys. Duh now. Then we played the Helen Reddy song on someone’s Panasonic 8-track.
The judge was a priest who walked over from the rectory for the show. At the bitter end, after some speechifying, he reluctantly concluded that our side had won because we’d been more passionate.
I was furious. I didn’t want to win a debate because of passion. I wanted to win it because we were right. I wasn’t sure we were right, to tell the truth. But Gloria Steinem was. And I was so enormously glad that someone important, someone on the news who had made a magazine, said so and was saying it all the time.