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Journal of Women's History 14.2 (2002) 151-153
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Outrageous and Everyday
The Papers of Gloria Steinem
As an archives assistant for the Sophia Smith Collection, I arranged the papers of Gloria Steinem who is, needless to say, a noted feminist activist, journalist, speaker, and organizer. She is also a founder, editor, and spokesperson for Ms., a magazine that has recently attempted to resume its former status as the popular, mainstream voice of feminism. Many people might identify Steinem and feminism as one and the same. Though she was not a pioneer of the women's movement, the media singled her out for her beauty and charisma; she was an articulate, telegenic representative of women's liberation. To this day, she remains a powerful symbol of feminism.
I began work on the Steinem papers as an undergraduate at Smith College. A large part of my job at the time involved mundane preservation tasks, but as a young feminist, I was honored to remove Gloria Steinem's rusty staples. As a student of American culture and history, I was fascinated by her papers' content. The papers occupy 105 linear feet and span the years from 1940 through 1997, and they provide a comprehensive record of Steinem's life and career. The biographical material documents her childhood in the Midwest, much of it spent traveling with her itinerant father, her work for a variety of progressive social causes in the 1990s, and everything in between: her education at Smith College and abroad; her pre-feminist career as a "girl reporter" and one of the "beautiful people," working for Glamour and Mademoiselle while also volunteering for the United Farm Workers and Angela Davis's defense; and her life from the early 1970s on, including the founding and nurturing of Ms., her writing and speaking career, and her activism on behalf of progressive causes and political campaigns. Some of the material is personal, and provides insight into her sources of inspiration and the nature of her friendships and professional associations. It illuminates such questions as why Steinem, in particular, became so closely associated with feminism and which segments of the general public were most affected by her. Using this material, scholars might examine the strengths and limitations of her vision and the ways those within feminist circles responded to it. Furthermore, by studying Steinem's involvement in the anti-war, civil rights, and labor movements, and the responses to such work, researchers can explore the relationship of the women's movement to other movements and to the cultural landscape in general. [End Page 151]
As is frequently the case with larger-than-life public figures, Gloria Steinem has been widely misunderstood. The media and the general public assume a false familiarity with her and have crafted a mythic representation of her as the definitive feminist. Her papers provide ample opportunity for researchers to deconstruct this image. On the one hand, both friendly commentators and hostile detractors have magnified Steinem's role as a feminist leader. Her papers document the large network of feminist theorists who laid the groundwork for Steinem's feminist consciousness and shaped its evolution over time. The material is not silent on the subject of activists who preceded, worked in concert with, or opposed Steinem; nor does it overlook lesser-known women who worked at the grassroots level to implement feminist ideas in ways that Steinem never could. From her subject files and the material generated from Ms., the Ms. Foundation for Women, and the Women's Action Alliance, researchers can use the papers as a starting point for the study of a wide variety of feminist activism that has been overshadowed by the press's attention to Steinem and Ms.
Conversely, critics within the women's movement have devalued Steinem's contributions. Many contend that her brand of feminism was limited and watered down. Some see her as nothing more than a figurehead who became a leader via her connections to the Democratic Party and her associations with an array of wealthy and powerful politicians and...