By Laura Sillerman

Naturally one would weep at a birthday party for a icon who calls upon everyone there to be outrageous.

Weep people did last night, at one of many celebrations of Gloria Steinem’s 75th birthday at the home of her dear friend Marlo Thomas.  Steinem was as funny as inspiring as when she told students at Smith College’s commencement:

In my generation, we were asked by the Smith vocational office how
many words we could type a minute, a question that was never asked of
then all-male students at Harvard or Princeton. Female-only typing was
rationalized by supposedly greater female verbal skills, attention to
detail, smaller fingers, goodness knows what, but the public
imagination just didn’t include male typists, certainly not Ivy
League-educated ones.
computers have come along, and ‘typing’ is ‘keyboarding’. Suddenly,
voila!—men can type! Gives you faith in men’s ability to change,
doesn’t it?

This post is an invitation to be a fly on the wall of last night’s party. But first, it is also to alert you that you are also probably about to throw a party of your own.

The site Ms. Foundation has created in honor of Gloria turning 75 has all the instructions. It calls upon all women to have an outrageous party, and it includes a party kit.

But wait, there’s more.  Here’s what Gloria wants from us:

“Because I have reached the outrageous age of 75, I feel I can call upon people to do an outrageous act every day for 75 days.”  One very demure woman asked, “would a subtle upheaval do?”  The answer came back: “No!  Outrageous is what is called for.”

  • Another woman who has a regular gig on CNN (and who is married to a minister) decided she would wear her Wonder Woman T-shirt under her proper business attire and then unbutton her blouse to display it on the air.
  • A conventionally dressed older woman said she’d be showing her tattoo regularly.
  • A stunning singer stood and led everyone in chanting the name Gloria over and over in different keys at different tempos.  She then sang over the chant about the glory of Gloria.

There was weeping.

During the toasts a young woman stood and said that she didn’t know where she would be without Gloria’s example.  She said that knowing about the battles carried out by Gloria and the other leaders of the women’s movement was the only way she could have possibly believed — in herself, in the possibility of a career, in the respect she now realizes all people are owed. People wept.

Another woman stood and said that though she knew Gloria hates to be called an icon, she had to tell her she had been an icon around her house when she was growing up— the bad kind!  Her father (famous—but names are being omitted to protect the guilty here) would say things like, “you’re going to grow up to be like that
Gloria Steinem!” as if it was the worst damnation he could imagine.*

People laughed till they wept.

Someone told this story: In the first building where Ms. had their offices someone went to the elevator operator and asked “Is it true that this is the building where Gertrude Stein works?”

Marlo Thomas spoke about the time Gloria asked her to go to Detroit to speak to welfare mothers.  Marlo protested that they would hate her, she was not on welfare, she was not a mother.  She represented everything those women would resent.  Gloria said, “trust me.  They’ll love you.”  Marlo Thomas went and what happened was they loved each other.  She wasn’t a welfare mother, but they were all women and she said it was a transformative moment for her and her commitment to women’s rights.

The weeping went on.

A ten-minute video shown at the event outlined the trajectory of a woman’s life and the arc of Steinem’s. It told the story of what was once an improbable belief, in a movement that would insist on worldwide equality for all people and what would become part of the standard for human rights.  It showed women who are no longer here.   It showed marching and laughter and cajoling and, most of all, deep connection.

There was a palpable connection among the women who were present at the creation of the outrageous notion that there should be equal opportunity, equal protection and equal pay for women and therefore for all quadrants in society. It connects us all.  The video also showed Gloria looking exquisite when she was young — as she sat there still looking exquisite, in a long black dress and cowgirl boots, when she no longer is.

It showed us ourselves.  For we are nothing if not the repositories of the history that has taken place in our lifetimes. It was enough to make you weep.

The occasion of this birthday should make us all want to go out and do something outrageous.  I hope everyone reading this does just that.  In celebration of the life of one very purposeful woman and the sense of purpose and possibility she’s added to each of ours.

*(He likely meant both Steinem as undercover Playboy Bunny in the photo on the right, and as the 1972 radical feminist, left — Ed.)

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  • Alexandra MacAaron March 17, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    I had the privilege of hearing Ms. Steinem speak at Bunker Hill Community College a couple of weeks ago (she was kind enough to sign my first issue of Ms. magazine afterwards too). She was smart and funny and compassionate, and genuinely interested in the diverse audience gathered there.
    Happy Birthday, Ms. Steinem. And thank you!