Heilbrun's 'Gloria Steinem': A wall of aloofness

September 03, 1995|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to The Sun

"The Education of a Woman: The Life of Gloria Steinem," by Carolyn G. Heilbrun. New York: Dial Press: 451 pages. $24.95 Don't be misled. Critic and former Columbia professor Carolyn Heilbrun, author of "Writing a Woman's Life," has written not a biography of Gloria Steinem, icon of the women's movement, but a valentine. Exalting Ms. Steinem as "the epitome of female beauty and the quintessence of female revolution," Ms. Heilbrun devotes most of this overlong book to attacking Ms. Steinem's critics from the Redstockings to Betty Friedan, who is denigrated mercilessly and accused of jealousy of Ms. Steinem's looks.

Ms. Heilbrun doesn't even offer the evidence before dismissing Ms. Steinem's flaws as inconsequential. In the late '50s and early '60s, Ms. Steinem wrote for the C. I. A. memos reporting on the political beliefs of members of the delegation to the Vienna Peace Festival. She enlisted anti-Communists and shuttled them to foreign youth festivals. None of this appears in Ms. Heilbrun's book because it doesn't fit her thesis that Ms. Steinem was "a radical" and a "revolutionary" devoted to "the dispossessed." Ms. Heilbrun actually contends that "anticommunism was then . . . virtually the only acceptable political attitude in the United States." The C.I.A., Ms. Heilbrun instructs us, "protected liberal employees against the scattershot accusations of the McCarthyites." Anything to defend Ms. Steinem. But hagiography is not distinguished by its scholarship.

Accusing "the patriarchy" of responsibility whenever her heroine stumbles, Ms. Heilbrun brings no political perspective to Ms. Steinem's role in the women's movement, no coherent sense of how Ms. Steinem's early C.I.A. work influenced her later politics. Nor does Ms. Heilbrun bring critical intelligence to Ms. magazine, which in its heyday was notorious for rejecting any article in which a woman was even mildly criticized. Ms. Heilbrun doesn't notice that Ms. Steinem, pop journalist, New York celebrity, was no radical and hardly qualified to lead a mass movement. Nor is Ms. Heilbrun aware that the faltering of the movement may be a result of Ms. Steinem's leading it into the Democratic Party as a supplicant. Even Ms. Steinem's blindness to the civil liberties issue posed by the anti-pornography movement is glossed over.

No less turgid, cant-ridden and dishonest is Ms. Heilbrun's foray into Ms. Steinem's personal life. The biographer all but salivates over the list of Ms. Steinem's lovers: Robert Benton! Ted Sorensen! Mike Nichols! And, lo and behold, good feminist Gloria didn't marry any of them!

Ms. Heilbrun tells us in her acknowledgments that Ms. Steinem cooperated with the project. Yet Ms. Steinem remains behind a curtain of inaccessibility, the wall of her aloofness that this biographer believes it would be bad manners to penetrate. We don't hear Ms. Steinem talk; we don't even see her image. There are, however, paeans to her beauty, which Ms. Heilbrun frequently suggests led to Ms. Steinem's rise as the most visible symbol of the women's movement. Called upon for psychological perspicacity, Ms. Heilbrun dubs Gloria's mother, Ruth, "crazy." The terms "functional" and "dysfunctional" are tossed around, in keeping with current fashion. The word "patriarchy" turns up with regularity. The prose is like sludge.

Ms. Heilbrun applauds Gloria Steinem when at 50 she embraces the issue of self-esteem and enters therapy. The movement had disintegrated when the fallen icon, the mini-skirted feminist with dyed blond hair, girlfriend of rich and powerful men like Mortimer Zuckerman, discovered introspection, self-examination, an "inner revolution." How deep then was her "radicalism?" Only when Ms. Steinem poses naked in a bubble bath for People magazine does her idolator-biographer take pause.

Little Gloria cannot be happy with this sycophantic, embarrassing pseudo-biography, which does credit neither to the important, ongoing cause of women's equality nor to its subject. Who is Gloria Steinem? What were her strengths besides the beauty with which Ms. Heilbrun is obsessed? Where lay her limitations? You won't find out here.

Joan Mellen is the author of 12 books, most recently "Kay Boyle: Author of Herself" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Her "Hammett and Miss Hellman" will be published next year by HarperCollins. She teaches in the creative writing program at Temple University in Philadelphia.

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