On October 13, 1972, Gloria Steinem arrives in Seattle for a two-day visit full of meetings, lectures, and media interviews. As a writer, feminist, political organizer, and founder of Ms. magazine, Steinem uses her pulpit to call attention to the Equal Rights Amendment, which the U.S. Congress had passed in March 1972 but is awaiting ratification by a mandated 38 states. Steinem’s visit includes five standing-room-only public appearances, several private functions, and numerous media interviews. Although she is met with enthusiastic support, some protestors and hecklers dog her events, and a $10-a-plate dinner sponsored by the Washington State Women’s Political Caucus receives a bomb threat. Steinem shares the stage with her friend and Ms. staffer Margaret Sloan, a Black feminist, civil rights advocate, and poet.
Talking About Revolution
Gloria Steinem’s reputation as one of the most passionate and articulate leaders of the women’s rights movements preceded her October 13-14, 1972, visit to Seattle. All five of her public appearances drew sellout crowds, with an estimated 3,000 total attendees. Her trademark style of snappy commentary interspersed with acute observation was eaten up by the mostly white middle-class audience. "They say women’s libbers don’t have a sense of humor but Steinem left them laughing and clapping at various speaking engagements ... Her humor might have left a lot of men waiting for the punchline" ("Ms. Gloria Steinem Wows Seattle"). Although her events appealed primarily to women, men attended in smaller numbers. About one-fifth of the 750 people at the Washington State Women’s Political Caucus dinner at the Olympic Hotel were men. Proceeds from the $10-per-plate caucus event went to local and state campaigns working to ratify the hotly contested Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
The ERA, approved by the U.S. Congress on March 22, 1972, needed to be ratified by three-quarters, or 38, of the 50 states in order to become the 27th amendment to the Constitution. When Steinem visited Seattle, the amendment had not yet been approved by the Washington State Legislature. (Washington ratified the ERA in March 1973, becoming the 30th state to do so. Even though Congress extended the ratification deadline from 1979 to 1982, the amendment fell three states short. After various legal challenges and three more state approvals, the ERA is still awaiting final certification to become the 28th amendment.)
Steinem’s two days in Seattle were booked solid. On Friday, October 13, she spoke at a joint public meeting of the Junior League and the League of Women Voters, had lunch at the Seattle-King County Bar Association, attended a reception at the University YWCA, and gave an evening lecture at the Student Union Building on the University of Washington campus. The following day, she gave media interviews and spoke at the Women’s Political Caucus dinner. She was also hosted at a reception by alumnae of Smith College, her alma mater.
Her direct and at times humorous delivery was a hit with audiences, many of whom saw themselves reflected in her remarks: "We are convinced of our own inferior status. We put down our own sisters ... When people used to say: 'You write like a man,' I would say, 'Thank you’ ... Women and blacks are the cheap labor on which the system runs. Women are supposed to be terrific at detail work, as long as it’s low-paid detail work, not brain surgery" ("Crowds Saw Themselves ...").
When one audience member asked if the ERA would destroy the family, Steinem’s retort drew laughs: "If your family can be broken up the first time the Constitution is applied to women, maybe it should be broken up" ("Crowds Saw Themselves ..."). On a more serious note, she urged women to take pride in their accomplishments, and credited the women’s movement with providing more options: "The movement is trying to develop alternatives and provide more freedom of choice – freedom to stay single, marry but not have kids, live in a commune" ("'Revolution, Not Reform' ..."). The important point, she said, was that all women should have value. Passage of the ERA "is going to go much deeper than legislation. It’s the deepest kind of revolution" ("From Steinem, Kind Words for Seattle"). She also denied that Black women were left out of the movement, stating that childcare and economic equality were important to all women regardless of race.
Gloria Steinem and Margaret Sloan
Gloria Steinem was born in Toledo, Ohio, on March 25, 1934; her parents divorced when she was 10. After high school, she attended Smith College, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1956. A fellowship enabled her to spend two years in India, an experience that stoked her interest in grassroots activism. Back in New York, she started her career as a freelance journalist, and in 1968 helped found New York magazine. Spurred by the energy of the women’s movement, Steinem realized the time was right for a national feminist publication. With two other women, she launched Ms. magazine, which debuted in 1971 as an insert in New York magazine and then became a stand-alone publication the following year. The magazine set records from the start. "Its 300,000 'one-shot' test copies sold out nationwide in eight days. It generated an astonishing 26,000 subscription orders and over 20,000 reader letters within weeks ... In short, Ms. was the first national magazine to make feminist voices audible, feminist journalism tenable and a feminist worldview available to the public” (About Ms.)
Steinem’s activism went beyond the written word. In 1972, she formed the National Women’s Political Caucus with Betty Friedan (1921-2006) along with U.S. Representatives Bella Abzug (1920-1998) and Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005). She co-founded the Women’s Action Alliance in 1971 and Voters for Choice in 1977, to name a few.
Margaret Sloan (1947-2004), later known as Margaret Sloan-Hunter, was an early editor of Ms. A poet and a leading Black equal rights activist, Sloan had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights and became the first chairwoman of the National Black Feminist Organization. Despite Sloan’s lower profile, Steinem viewed her as an equal on the lecture circuit, later describing her friend as "a woman of great energy and humor and courage who was one of the first traveling lecturers of the women’s movement. We traveled together as partners" ("Margaret Sloan-Hunter"). At the Women’s Political Caucus dinner, Steinem gently teased Sloan about her audience appeal and lecture style. "Steinem said her talk preceded Sloan’s because to follow the warm, articulate black feminist would be anti-climactic. The audience loved them both, laughing and clapping at frequent wisecracks, and giving them standing ovations before and after they spoke" ("From Steinem, Kind Words for Seattle").
Protestors and a Bomb Threat
Steinem’s Seattle visit was not without controversy. On the University of Washington campus, she was met by members of the Young Socialists, who protested her endorsement of George McGovern (1922-2012) for president. A bomb threat was made to the Olympic Hotel before her address at the Women’s Political Caucus dinner and about a dozen protesters took up space outside the hotel to hand out leaflets against the Equal Rights Amendment. These reactions did not faze Steinem, who complimented Seattle for its role in the women’s movement: "I’ve never come to a town with as much going on for women. So it’s only natural that there’s a small backlash ... We welcome [the protestors’] freedom of choice. But if you’re whole and well, why oppose hospitals?" ("From Steinem, Kind Words for Seattle").
The media coverage of Steinem, 38, often mentioned her long blonde hair, great face, and figure, even her "kind brown eyes behind the tinted glasses she favors" ("Crowds Saw Themselves ..."). Some of the coverage was more overtly sexist. In describing Steinem’s appearance as a guest on an upcoming KING-TV program, The Seattle Times television editor wrote: "That should be a lively session next Monday ... with Gloria Steinem, the sexy women’s libber (sorry about that, all you Ms’ers)" ("Strange Choice for Major P-TV Post").
Several letters to the editor took exception to how Steinem was portrayed during her visit. Three women, who jointly signed their letter "In Sisterhood," wrote: "As a general rule, women who take the liberation movement seriously do not care to have primary attention paid to their bodies. I can’t imagine why you must write about Ms. Steinem as if you were a fashion editor and she a mindless model" ("Write On ..."). Another writer angrily observed: "Certainly a news story covering Gloria Steinem’s and Margaret Sloan’s appearances here in Seattle October 13 and 14 to over 3,000 people should deserve Section A or B placement in The Sunday Times. Editors, this is not Women’s News (Section G) to be lost amid Heloise, Dear Abby, Milk Fund activities, the Seattle-King County Bar Auxiliary or the Swedish Club’s anniversary celebration with royalty. Gloria Steinem and Margaret have national appeal. That’s what it’s all about!" ("Write On ...").