Steinem Shows Personal Quest For Insight

ALICE STEINBACH

February 06, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Of the many things we know -- or think we know -- about Gloria Steinem, some items instantly leap to mind. For instance:

The image of a slim, youthful-looking woman who confidently marked her 40th birthday by telling admiring photographers, "This is what 40 looks like."

The image of a sexy, glamorous woman who never lacked for male companionship but chose, ultimately, to remain single, saying "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle."

The image of the hard-working, outer- directed feminist -- an activist always on-the-go who maintained that "the examined life is not worth living."

And, judging from the face she turned toward the world, there seemed to be little in Gloria Steinem's inner life that required examination. Self-sufficient, self-confident, self-actualizing, Steinem seemed to embody the feminist ideal: a strong woman who had made choices about her life, rather than letting life choose for her.

In fact, for more than 20 years Steinem has been so emblematic of the women's movement that she is, as W. H. Auden said of Freud, "No more a person now, but a whole climate of opinion." Indeed, to the countless numbers of women whose lives she helped change, she is the women's movement.

Which is why many women may be surprised when they read Steinem's new book which is, she writes, "the product of several years of therapy, of self-examination and 'insight' gained from a failed romance."

Come to think of it, surprised may be an understatement.

Perhaps the best advice for readers of "Revolution From Within: A Book of Self-Esteem" would be: Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy ride.

Jolt No. 1: For years Steinem was a "burnt-out" case. Suffering from feelings of "being neglected, deprived and insecure," she was a woman "turning away from a well of neediness that I feared would swallow me up if I admitted it."

Jolt No. 2: A few years ago she came to a point where she was "tired" and "depressed" that she "reverted to a primordial skill that I hadn't used since feminism had helped me to make my own life: getting a man to fall in love with me." And she says it's "alarmingly easy" to make a man fall for you, "providing you're willing to play down who you are and play up who he wants you to be."

Jolt No. 3: She chose a man with whom she shared few interests, enticed instead by his wealth and ability to shelter her in a time of extreme vulnerability; a man who "made every decision . . . so all I had to do was show up, look appropriate, listen, relax at dinner, dance . . . whatever was on his agenda."

But the biggest jolt of all is Steinem's description of a life not so much chosen as driven by her bone-deep feelings of worthlessness. Inside the vibrant, confident woman, it turns out, there was a lonely, neglected child who needed to be recognized.

Steinem has told the story of her childhood before -- the absent father, the mentally ill mother whose sole caretaker was her young daughter, the rat-infested house in which they lived -- but until this book, it seems, the adult Gloria had never really connected with that child.

"I was fueled by insecurity," Steinem said recently on a radio talk show. "I was always driven by the need to help other women. I always identified with the victim without realizing it was part of me."

Her personal revelations have elicited mixed reactions -- including expressions of confusion about what, if anything, it all means to the women's movement. Does the disparity between zTC Steinem's public image and personal reality, for instance, negate or dilute the feminist adage that "The personal is political?"

One critic, writing in the New York Times Book Review, assessed Steinem's message this way: "It is an assertion of self-esteem as the driving force of the feminist movement and, indeed, of all positive social change -- and as such, it provokes disturbing questions about whether this phase in Ms. Steinem's thinking is an advance or retreat."

But some women found Steinem's imperfections reassuringly human: "I think to see that, like the rest of us, she is riddled with doubts and can still achieve is very heartening," one director of a university woman's studies program told a reporter.

We all go through it: the struggle to deal with childhood ghosts, the search for a place to rest, the need to find out why we do what we do. And for each of us -- man, woman and child -- there are inner realities as well as outer realities. It's almost laughable to think it would be any different for a feminist.

In fact, you could make a case, as Gloria Steinem does, that she finally has located the missing half of the feminist equation. Which is: The political is personal.

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