Daughter of the revolution

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 July, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 July, 1996, 12:00am

The Education of a Woman by Carolyn Heilbrun Virago $340 If Betty Friedan is the mother of American feminism, Gloria Steinem is probably its most famous daughter. Now in her 60s, her life has spanned decades of campaigning for women's rights in the United States and included the co-founding of Ms Magazine, which was for many years after its launch in 1971 the central focus of feminist thought.

Her adoption by the US media as the acceptable public face of feminism has been both a curse and blessing. It gave her an extraordinary prominence and influence, but it also led to persistent attacks from more radical factions in the feminist movement.

Given Steinem's fame, it is hard to believe this is the first biography to be published. It is a colourful and passionate story. Her childhood was spent in poverty in the tenements of Toledo, Ohio, where Gloria, her older sister and her anxious, depressed mother lived in fear of the rats.

Her parents had separated when she was young. Her father was a happy-go-lucky character, who always ate dessert first because it was his favourite course. Constantly in debt, he endlessly entered slogan-writing competitions, convinced that each one would bring them riches and an end to their troubles.

After college, Steinem spent a year in India where she went native, abandoning her possessions, living in a sari and walking from village to village with the followers of Gandhi, spreading a political message.

Her first jobs when she returned to New York were as a freelance journalist, following the career her mother had hoped for but never managed to realise.

Her breakthrough came with a dubious assignment to work undercover as a Playboy Bunny.

The stunning good looks, which had earned her the nickname the World's Most Beautiful Byline, were throughout her life a frustrating obstacle to her attempt to be taken seriously. As a Playboy Bunny, they served her well enough and the resulting article shot her to prominence. Her life gradually picked up speed. In between national campaigning tours, during which she spoke out with passion on a range of women's issues including the right to choose abortion, Steinem became increasingly preoccupied with the idea of a national feminist magazine - the seed which later grew into Ms Magazine.

As well as editing and contributing to the magazine in the following decades, Steinem fought a continual battle against its financial ruin, taking part in fund-raising events and lunches to court reluctant, even hostile, potential advertisers.

Her star status as a household name, appearing often on television and radio talkshows as the glamorous and coherent voice of the women's movement, brought her enemies from left and right.

She was subject to so-called thrashing, character assassination of the most personal sort, much of which came from radical feminists who saw her as too white, middle-class and conventional to represent them. One of the more extraordinary claims against her was that she was a CIA mole.

Her series of long-term relationships (she never married) with powerful men, often establishment figures, also brought her derision and accusations that she had sold out as a feminist by making the most of her appearance and sleeping with the enemy.

There is a hint of eulogy in this biography which gives it a sense of unhealthy bias. Carolyn Heilbrun leaves us in no doubt of her admiration for Steinem and she is quick to take Steinem's side when her subject is under attack, implying that accusations against her are inevitably either inaccurate or unfair.

In fact, the life is strong enough material to speak for itself. Perhaps after Steinem's death, it will be easier for a biographer to set out her contribution without the uneasy feeling of her subject reading over her shoulder.