March 25th is Gloria Steinem's 81st birthday. While it's not receiving the amount of attention her 80th got (people love big round numbers), newspaper archives reveal that since at least the age of 45, Gloria's ever-increasing age has been as good a reason as any to find something to say about her. Scratch that: Gloria plus any birthday at all has been a good reason as any to find something to say about women en masse.
It was Steinem's 50th that really started this trend, mostly because she threw a big party and posed nude in a tub. In the years after, her birthday sparked plenty of other interviews and profiles. Sometimes she had a book coming out or there was some other reason to chat with her, but as the unofficial/official mouthpiece of the feminist movement and a celebrity to boot, her birthday seems to consistently have been seen as a great peg for chatting about The Future of Women and how she fit into it.
She looked pretty good. A tallish (five-seven), slender woman with those trademark eyeglasses and the long, trademark hair. Well, she said, I'm lucky. I have my health. I feel pretty good so maybe I don't look bad.
Your teeth still all your own? I inquired. Gloria laughed. That's something too many feminists lack: the ability to laugh at themselves. Perhaps that's why Gloria is so good at what she does, which is to get people to think about occasionally difficult choices. She doesn't beat you over the head. She says, "Please."
Gloria's birthday was a great time for Brady to share his own person thoughts on the state of the feminist movement:
The Equal Rights Amendment went down the tubes a year or so ago and Gloria is once again working for a fresh new ERA. Maybe she'll get it and maybe she won't. Personally I think some of her fellow feminists became so strident in the ERA campaign they turned off potential advocates unnecessarily.
That last comment segued into this next section, which was entitled "Never Gets Hysterical":
Gloria isn't strident and never gets hysterical. When we talked about her birthday party she said she hoped there'd be plenty of music and time to dance. I love to dance, she said.
She will politic this year against Reagan. She prefers Mondale among Democrats but will support any Dem against the president. He is, she insists, the most anti-woman chief executive we have ever had. I think her history may be a bit rusty here. At least Reagan hasn't put anyone in jail as was done tot he suffragists a couple of generations ago.
"I don't know if she'll consider this sexist but I happen to think she's a pretty good guy," Brady ends. Remember folks: before the internet existed, people were still blabbing.
On the opposite end of the spectrum (or is it?) is this 1977 piece by "trailblazing newspaperwoman" Patricia McCormack. As you can see, sometimes these pieces didn't even need to be about Gloria's birthday, but about the birthday of a very important project of hers: Ms. magazine, which was turning five. The headline reads: "'The Liberation Look': Feminists have weight problems too," and here's how the article begins:
It took five years but I finally learned Gloria Steinem's secret for staying thin.
The feminist leader and president of MS. magazine boiled it down to four words when I asked her how she continued thin through all the thick of the women's movement.
Betty Friedan, mother of women's liberation, loses her waistline, then fights to get it back. Then loses and fights some more. Bella Abzug's weight also goes up and down.
Karen De Crow, immediate past president of the National Organization for Women, seems naturally pudgy.
Kate Millett, feminist double threat – sculptor and writer – has settled into the roundness of middle age. She seems comfortable there.
Only Gloria Steinem rivals Jackie Onassis in the "forever thin" department.
So what was her secret?
"Gorge and then starve," she said.
Four little words.
Gloria's birthday was even randomly thrown into trend pieces mostly unrelated to her, like in "To tell or not to tell: Women and birthdays" by George Dullea of the New York Times, published in 1987.
Going public about birthdays is becoming the thing to do among a new breed of feminists–the glamour women in their 40s and 50s. Not that there is a lot of lying still going on, among men as well as women.
Jane Fonda, 49 years old and still kicking – higher than anybody else in leotards – is reigning champion of the mature woman. But many others, from Gloria Steinem to Shirley MacLaine, have made a point of blowing out the 50 candles on their cakes with such fanfare that women of their generation could not help noticing.
Lastly, for fun, here is a nice calendar published in The Deseret News in 1984 meant to keep you up to date on all the hotties you knew that year who were turning 50.
Image via AP of Gloria Steinem on her 50th birthday with Alan Alda (if you would like a good read about Alan Alda, may I suggest this People magazine feature from 1981?)