What Does 90 Look Like?Just Ask Gloria Steinem – Women’s eNews

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This essay originally appeared in Ms. Magazine. 

Gloria Steinem at the Global Citizen NOW Summit at Spring Studios on May 23, 2022, in New York City. (Rob Kim / Getty Images)

I’m 90?!” my mother horrifyingly exclaimed the day I told her she reached this extraordinary birthday milestone. “Ooooh, don’t tell anybody!” she warned, cautioning me to keep quiet about what seemed, to her, to be a fate worse than death. Although her memory was already fading to where she could no longer remember what day, month or year it was, she remained steadfast enough to ensure that no one ever knew her real age.

And that brings me to a famous quote by the feminist icon, author and activist, Gloria Steinem who, upon turning the age of 40—50 years ago today—wittily responded to a reporter’s flattering comment of, “Oh, you don’t look 40,” with: “This is what 40 looks like. … We’ve been lying for so long, who would know?!” 

This is not the first time Gloria’s words served as antidotes to my mother’s way of thinking—or to so many of the ways women of her generation were taught to think.

So today, as Gloria Steinem herself turns 90, I will not flatter her with compliments about how she still doesn’t look her age or how considerate, clever and courageous she remains. What I’d like to do, instead, is celebrate her and the feminist movement she continues to devote her long life to, enabling me, and countless others of my generation to, as she once put it, “Live out the unlived lives of our mothers, because they were not able to become the unique people they were born to be.”

Lori Sokol and Gloria Steinem. (Courtesy)

But now I face a conundrum. When I recently told Gloria I wanted to write a book about her, she responded, in her usual modest and magnanimous way, that too much had already been written about her, encouraging me to write about other feminists instead. So, then, how do I write a birthday tribute to Gloria without it being all about her? Again, I found the antidote in another of her memorable quotes:

“Most writers write to say something about other people—and it doesn’t last. Good writers write to find out about themselves—and it lasts forever.”

Fortunately, my personal journey of self-knowledge has long included Gloria’s tenets—so I get to do both.

The first time I felt the freedom to connect with my true self was in 1973, a year after Ms. debuted, when I was 13—an age beset by turmoil, chaos and confusion, a bridge between a young girl’s innocence and ensuing teenage angst. For girls who believed, behaved and dreamed differently from their similarly-age peers, that angst can readily turn into agony—as it did for me.

The traditional values of the ’60s and early ’70s placed girls in positions of complacency, whereby the preferred sport was Hopscotch (“don’t move more than one of your two feet, or you’ll lose”), the popular card game was Old Maid (“be careful not to be left with the Old Maid card, or you’ll end up unmarried and alone forever”), and the preferred attire was a knee-length dress (preferably adorned with patent leather Mary Janes that should, just like your legs, never show a scratch).

I failed miserably at all of these, preferring to catch footballs from far afield (which required the use of both my feet), collect baseball cards (which I secretly swiped from my older brother’s collection), and wear muddied baseball cleats (which I proudly donned both on and off the field). But no one—not one relative, classmate or neighbor—understood me.

“If we are alone for long, we come to feel uncertain or wrong,” Gloria once said. And it was that one word, “wrong,” that my parents cast upon me daily, just as one would a favorite family nickname.

Yes, words have power, but just as they can be used to harm, they can also be used to heal. 

In fact, it was through that inaugural issue of Ms., and in Gloria’s first article published within, that I first learned how to use writing to “find out about myself,” just as she did.

In “Sisterhood,” Gloria recounted how joining a circle of strong women in the feminist movement, enabled her to feel like she had experienced “a revelation … as if I had left a small dark room and walked into the sun.” Finding it both “contagious and irresistible,” she discovered that it is only through a sisterhood, whereby “women get together with other women that we’ll ever find out who we are,” and that, finally, she no longer “[feels] like I don’t exist … I am continually moved to discover I have sisters.” She then closed the article with, “I am beginning, just beginning, to find out who I am.” 

So now, a half century later, as reporters have switched from primarily commenting about Gloria’s youthful appearance to asking the venerable activist, “Who will you be passing your torch to?” Gloria continues to respond in a way that will help educate and empower others: “I’m not giving up my torch, but using it to light the torches of others, because if we each have a torch, there’s a lot more light.” 

And this is what 90 looks like, in the most enlightened way.

About the Author: Lori Sokol, PhD, is the Executive Director of Women’s eNews, and is currently writing her memoir.



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