As wise women and men in every culture tell us: The art of life is not controlling what happens to us, but using what happens to us.
Like all great oaks, this understanding began with a very small acorn.
It was the late sixties, those days that were still pre-feminist for me. I didn’t question the fact that male journalists with less experience than I were getting the political assignments that were my real interest. Instead, I was grateful to be writing profiles of visiting celebrities – a departure from the fashion and family subjects that female reporters were usually given – and this included an interview that was to take place over tea in the Palm Court of the Plaza Hotel.
Because the actor was very late, I waited while the assistant manager circled disapprovingly and finally approached. “Unescorted ladies,” he announced loudly, were “absolutely not allowed” in the lobby. I told him I was a reporter waiting for an arriving guest who couldn’t be contacted any other way – an explanation that sounded lame even to me. The manager escorted me firmly past curious bystanders and out the lobby door.
I was humiliated. Did I look like a prostitute? Was my trench coat too battered – or not battered enough? I was anxious: How was I going to find my subject and do my work? I decided to wait outside the revolving door in the hope of spotting the famous actor through its glass, but an hour passed with no success.
Later, I learned that he had arrived, failed to see me, and left. His press agent called my editor to complain that I had “stood up” his client. The actor missed his publicity, the editor missed a deadline, and I missed a check that I needed to pay the rent. I also blamed myself for not figuring out how to “get the story” and worried about being demoted permanently back to the ghetto of “women’s interest” articles I was trying to escape.
By coincidence a month or so later, I was assigned to interview another celebrity who was also staying at the Plaza. To avoid a similar fiasco, I had arranged to meet this one in his suite, but on my way through the lobby, I noticed my former nemesis standing guard. Somehow, I found myself lingering, as if rooted to the spot – and sure enough, the manager approached me with his same officious speech. But this time I was amazed to hear myself saying some very different things. I told him this was a public place where I had every legal right to be, and asked why he hadn’t banished the several “unescorted men” in the lobby who might be male prostitutes. I also pointed out that since hotel staffs were well known to supply call girls in return for a percentage of their pay, perhaps he was just worried about losing a commission.
He looked quite startled – and let me stay. I called my subject and suggested we have tea downstairs after all. It turned out to be a newsworthy interview, and I remember writing it up with more ease than usual and delivering it with an odd sense of well-being.
What was the lesson of these two incidents? Clearly, the assistant manager and I were unchanged. I was even wearing the same trench coat and freelancing for the same publication. Only one thing was different: my self-esteem. It had been raised almost against my will – by contagion.
Between those two interviews, a woman doctor had made a reservation for herself and a party of friends at the Plaza’s Oak Room, a public restaurant that was maintained as a male-only bastion at lunchtime on the grounds that female voices might disturb men’s business meetings. When this woman was stopped at the Oak Room door for being the wrong gender of “Dr.,” as she knew she would be, her lunch group of distinguished feminists turned into a spirited sidewalk picket line and held a press conference they had called in advance.
Now, I had also been invited to join this protest – and refused. In New York as in most cities, there were many public restaurants and bars that either excluded women altogether or wouldn’t serve “unescorted ladies” (that is, any woman or group of women without the magical presence of one man). Certainly, I resented this, but protesting it in the Oak Room, a restaurant too expensive for most people, male or female, seemed a mistake. The only remedy was a city council ordinance banning discrimination in public places, and that would require democratic support. Besides, feminists were already being misrepresented in the media as white, middle class, and frivolous, a caricature that even then I knew was wrong: the first feminists I had heard of in the sixties were working-class women who broke the sex barrier in factory assembly lines, and the first I actually met were black women on welfare who compared that demeaning system to a gigantic husband who demanded sexual faithfulness (the no-man-in-the- house rule) in return for subsistence payments. If groups like those were not publicized – and if well-to-do women who lunched at the Plaza were – I feared this new movement’s image would become even more distorted.
As it turned out, I was right about tactics and the media’s continuing image of feminism: “whitemiddleclass” did become like one key o the typewriter of many journalists (though polls showed that black women were almost twice as likely to support feminist changes than white women were). But I was very wrong about women’ responses – including my own. For instance: By the time of that demonstration at the Plaza, I already had picketed for civil rights, against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and with migrant farm workers, often in demonstrations that were far from tactically perfect; so why was I suddenly demanding perfection of women? When blacks or Jews had been kept out of restaurants and bars, expensive or not, I felt fine about protesting; so why couldn’t I take my own half of the human race (which, after all, included half of all blacks and half of all Jews) just as seriously?
The truth was that I had internalized society’s unserious estimate of all that was female – including myself. This was low self-esteem, not logic. Should a black woman demonstrate for the right to eat at dimestore lunch counters in the South, where she was barred by race, and then quietly leave when refused service at an expensive New York restaurant on account of sex? Of course not. The principle – and, more important, the result for one real woman – was the same. But I had been raised to consider any judgment based on sex alone less important than any judgment based on race, class, or anything else alone. In fact, if you counted up all the groups in the world other than white women, I was valuing just about everybody more than I valued myself.
Nonetheless, all the excuses of my conscious mind couldn’t keep my unconscious self from catching the contagious spirit of those women who picketed the Oak Room. When I faced the hotel manager again, I had glimpsed the world as if women mattered. By seeing through their eyes, I had begun to see through my own.
Gloria Steinem is a writer and activist who has been involved in feminist and other social justice issues for over fifty years. A major figure in the launch of the women’s movement in the 1960s, she is one of the few to span generations and cultures with such newer U.S. feminist groups as the 3rd Wave and Choice USA, and international human rights/women’s rights groups including Equality Now. Steinem is the co-founder of New York Magazine and Ms. Magazine, and author of such touchstone books as Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions; Revolution from Within, and Moving Beyond Words, among other influential writing.
“On Self-Esteem” by Gloria Steinem published with permission from the author. Story excerpted from Revolution from Within Copyright ©1993 by Gloria Steinem. Printed by permission of Little, Brown & Company