Earlier this month President Obama honored Gloria Steinem and 15 others with his announcement of this year's recipients for the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Steinem, a key figure of the early feminist movement, joins 500 people who have won the award since John F. Kennedy created it in 1963. While Steinem will be primarily recognized for her leadership in the 1960s and '70s, the 79-year-old's continued involvement in women's rights indicates that her fight for equality's not over yet — and that might be her biggest lesson to the young feminists today.
Steinem's recognition is well-earned. She got her start as a freelance writer but quickly turned her writing into activism after being pinned with substance-less stories about beauty products and textured socks. She eventually went undercover as a Playboy bunny at the Playboy Club in order to expose the working conditions of bunnies for Show magazine. She co-founded the pioneering feminist publication Ms. magazine and went on to campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment and a host of other policy issues in favor of women's reproductive and equal rights, ultimately emerging as figurehead for the movement.
She spent the next few decades involved in the anti-war and Civil Rights movements, and worked toward gay rights. She became a vocal opponent of the Gulf War as well as a key feminist voice for issues ranging from the Clarence Hill trial to the Clinton impeachment hearings.
She has also faced her share of controversy; in fact, she took pride in her ability to raise ire. "One great tribute to the success of the woman’s movement was the degree of the backlash against it," Steinem told producers of the Makers: Women Who Make America documentary series. Steinem was met with criticism from the inside and out, leaving many to ponder whether making an attractive white woman the face of the movement was truly representative or helpful. Unfortunately, the concerns were not unfounded; the critique that feminism is only for the white and privileged still hinders the movement today.
The critics of Steinem’s personae include herself. Steinem did not necessarily volunteer to be the face of the movement but was chosen by media outlets — likely because of the same beauty standards she worked to undo. Because of this, she has been deemed the poster child of second-wave feminism for generations, undermining the actual strength of the movement: collaboration.
However, Steinem's philosophy was actually closer to the type favored by feminists now. Unlike the stereotypical second-wavers, millennials prefer populist movements to a clear leader — and a once privileged form of feminism has been replaced by many different coalitions with no singular narrative.
Steinem agrees. When the New York Times asked her last year whether there should be a new figurehead for this generation, a second "Gloria Steinem" she said: "I don’t think there should have been a first one."
Whether or not she enjoyed her status as the face of feminism, the impact of Steinem and her colleagues is key to the movement today. While Steinem’s Medal of Freedom may mark a victory for feminism, it is important not to equate the achievement to the end of an era. Second-wavers may have successfully fought for legislative equality but feminists today confront a world of more subtle inequities. There is still a staggeringly disproportionate ratio of male writers featured in prominent magazines like Harper's and The Atlantic. Reproductive freedom continues to be at stake — look to the dismay of many anti-abortion groups when Steinem's Medal of Freedom was announced.
It's clear that the fight is not over, a reality that surely wouldn't surprise Steinem. "A movement is only composed of people moving," she said. "To feel its warmth and motion around us is the ends as well as the means."
If anything, the recognition of Steinem's work highlights that what she and her colleagues started requires multiple generations to finish. We must never stop moving.