New York's feminist

| 21 Sep 2016 | 04:57


There is no limit to the amount of subjects you can cover in an interview with Gloria Steinem. The breadth of her life and career is so rich the conversation could be limitless.

For this interview, the focus was on her life in the city and how it shaped her work as a journalist and feminist. Although New York did influence her, she also played a major role in affecting its politics. Her activism continues to spark change.

An Ohio native, Steinem moved the city in 1960 as a budding journalist. She quickly became frustrated by the fluff pieces she was assigned and longed to write and report articles of substance. When Clay Felker founded New York Magazine in 1968, he brought her on as a writer. There, she was finally able to cover politics and begin to make a name for herself as an emerging feminist leader. She was the only female on staff.

In 1971, she went on to launch Ms. Magazine, which was the first publication to be owned and operated by women. They called themselves the Thank-God-it's-Monday Club as a testament to the atmosphere of support in that office. One of the women in that club, Suzanne Levine, will be interviewing her coworker-turned-lifelong-friend, Steinem, at the Milford Readers and Writers Festival this month. There, she will speak about her first book in 20 years, “My Life on the Road,” a New York Times bestseller.

What was it like for you when you arrived here? Where did you first settle in the city?At first, I was living with friends, sleeping on the floors of friend's apartments. [Laughs] And then, finally, I had my own apartment which was on West 81st Street in a brownstone. It was right across from the planetarium, however, at the time, the block west of us was supposed to be the most dangerous block in New York City. It was a somewhat different neighborhood at that time. If you look at that block, between Central Park and Columbus, there are big, tall buildings and then there's a long, dark hole, and then there's a little brownstone, and I had a room in that brownstone. But I was so happy to have an apartment of my own. It was a first. I'd always had dormitory rooms or had been traveling. So no matter how small, it was heaven.

In your HBO documentary, you said that landlords at that time didn't think that single women could afford rent. Yes, they thought you were going to get married and skip out or if you could afford the rent, perhaps you were doing something illegal to afford it. [Laughs] I don't mean to overgeneralize, but you ran into some of those. It was a problem.

Tell us about your path to New York Magazine.First, I was freelancing for many different magazines. For Glamour, Show Magazine, which no longer exists, but was a big arts magazine, Esquire, the Herald Tribune Magazine, The New York Times. A variety of places. And then, Clay Felker, who was the editor of the New York Magazine that was part of the Herald Tribune, decided, after the Herald Tribune closed, to start what was really the first city magazine. So with a lot of other writers, Jimmy Breslin, Tom Wolfe, Dick Schaap, and many others, we tap danced to raise money. [Laughs] That's what we used to call it. And that took quite a long time, but ultimately, Clay was able to start New York Magazine.

The column you wrote there was a political one. What are some stories you covered that were memorable?First, we all helped to name the department and shape the magazine. And because I had been unable to get political assignments, I gave myself a political column [Laughs] called “The City Politic.” There, I could do a wide variety of things. I went to Queens to the hospital where Vietnam vets were being brought back direct from the battlefield on a plane. I wrote about Kwashiorkor, which is a protein deficiency disease that was thought only to be in Africa, but it was in the Bronx. Many different things.

What was the atmosphere like at the Ms. Magazine office?It was a combination of an office, a movement headquarters and a dormitory all in one. [Laughs] The Thank-God-it's-Monday Club was especially true for women with kids. And people could bring their children to the office; we had a room with toys. We had the Sisterhood Pile where we all brought the clothes that we were not using to see if other people could use them. It was quite a casual office. And it was in a space that had been a textile manufacturing floor, so the spaces were very atypical. Of course, we couldn't afford to remodel them, so we just left them the way they were.

There's a chapter in your book called, “Why I Don't Drive.” Tell us about a conversation with a cab driver that resonated with you.I'll tell you a conversation with a cab driver that happened right after I finished the book. [Laughs] And I regretted that I couldn't put it in. I got into a taxi near my house and we were going towards the West 40s and I saw a big sign advertising one of the television serials about the phenomenon of vampires. I've forgotten what the name of the series was. So while we were stopped at the red light, I said to the taxi driver, “You know, I think I understand many things, but I do not understand the appeal of vampires and why fiction with this theme got started.” It turned out that he, the taxi driver, was from Transylvania. [Laughs] He told me that some distance from the villages where his family lived, there was a very well-to-do family that for hundreds of years had lived in a castle on elevated ground. They treated people very badly, so they were greatly hated. And legend grew up about their being vampires. So I said to the driver, “What are the odds that I would get into a taxi in New York City and have a driver from Transylvania?” [Laughs]

In another part of the book, you said that if you could pick a place to hang out, it would be a bookstore. What have been your favorite bookstores in Manhattan? I'm sure some of them have closed. Yes, I'm sorry to say that Books and Company and a couple of others that were closer to me, have closed. But I do believe that the small, personal bookstores have staying power. It seems to be mostly the chains that are closing. I think the idea of having a personal connection to books you might not otherwise know about and being able to have a cup of coffee and stop, means that the individual, personal bookstores will survive. There are many around the country.

I saw the video of you being interviewed by Emma Watson. Who are some young women you feel are emerging leaders in the movement?Oh there's so many. I mean Emma Watson because she was known because of her acting career, has created a very substantial and wise book club that introduces women around the world. There's also Everyday Sexism. Laura Bates, a young English woman, started just recording her own experiences in the street and then, other women began to do it too. And it's very helpful because an individual experience of harassment on the street seems minor, but when it's collective and constant, it isn't minor. And out of that has come books and also women in countries around the world talking about harassment in the streets.

Who are some men you credit with supporting your career and causes over the years?There are so many. Frank Thomas made the Ford Foundation a place of social justice for movements in this country and around the world. And it still is. Darren Walker, who is now the president of the Ford Foundation, is a great advocate and activist. Clay Felker, as an editor, was supportive and always interested in new ideas.

With your busy schedule, why is it important for you to participate in the Readers and Writers Festival? Like most things in life, we follow the bonds of friendship and Suzanne and Bob Levine are among my oldest and best friends. So that's how I knew about it and probably why I was invited. And it sounded like a very positive event because it's a two-way street. It's not just authors talking at people, there's also listening.