If you're, say, a programming coordinator at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, and you're looking for somebody to come speak on campus -- both as part of your ongoing Arts & Issues Series and in commemoration of Women's History Month -- you're due for a big, fat promotion when you land Gloria Steinem for the gig.
Not only are you snagging a woman whose name carries more feminist-movement recognition than anyone before her (such as the little-known-anymore Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Cady Stanton) or since (O Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf, where art thou?), you're also treating your audience to a speaker renowned for such memorable, tart, politically astute one-liners as "A woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual" and "The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off." And the truth is what Steinem aims to deliver by the mouthful when she appears at SIUE with a talk she's titled "What You've Always Wanted to Know About Feminism and Been Afraid to Ask."
Says John Peecher, coordinator of the school's eighteen-year-old Arts & Issues Series of performers and lecturers, "I'm not sure we've ever had a woman of Ms. Steinem's stature speak here before, especially for Women's History Month. At this point, she's pretty much considered a living icon."
Ain't that an understatement. But today's college coeds, of course, were born a full decade after the launch of Ms. magazine, the feminist journal Steinem famously co-founded in 1972, so much of what the young whippersnappers may be afraid to ask (or even not know much about in the first place) is Steinem's own history. For example, Ms. wasn't the first magazine Steinem helped start; in 1968, she was one of the founders of New York magazine, for which she covered such earth-rattling events as the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the revolutionary efforts of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers. Moreover, Steinem has helped start more than just magazines. She co-founded the National Women's Political Caucus the year before launching Ms. and was also a founding member of the Coalition of Labor Union Women. (Postadolescents today, however, may know her best as the mother-in-law of American Psychohottie Christian Bale; Steinem became a 66-year-old first-time bride back in 2000, when she wed the actor's South African-born entrepreneur/anti-apartheid-activist dad, David Bale.)
Before the lecture, Steinem will meet with students from SIUE's Kimmel Leadership Center for a Q&A session. Explained Peecher, "We wanted her not just because she's a feminist but also because she's a political strategist and a little bit of an anarchist." But judging from Steinem's recent trips to the University of Indiana and Marshall University in West Virginia, she can pretty much predict how that line of questioning will go. "I've yet to be on a campus," says Steinem, "where most women weren't worrying about some aspect of combining marriage, children and a career. I've yet to find one where many men were worrying about the same thing."