Happy 80th, Gloria Steinem

Editor’s Note: Kathleen McCartney is the president of Smith College.

Story highlights

Kathleen McCartney: Gloria Steinem changed rules on what it mean to be a woman

In 70's Steinem co-founded Ms. magazine to upend sexist status quo. McCartney was hooked

Steinem helped her find voice to seek posts reserved for males, resist 'policed' gender roles

McCartney: Steinem's work still resonant, necessary; we don't live in post-gendered world

CNN  — 

When I think of Gloria Steinem approaching 80, I think about the women of my generation, growing up at the end of the Baby Boom. We internalized a lot of stereotypes of what it meant to be a woman in those days. Until Gloria changed the rules.

My earliest memories of gender inequity involve “I Love Lucy.” I was 7 years old when I asked my mother, “Why does Ricky act like Lucy’s boss?” My mother laughed and said it was “just a joke.” I didn’t get it.

The unspoken rules were evident in grade school, when teachers signaled their high expectations for boys but not girls. And when I looked at the larger world, I found that men were the leaders of countries, companies, churches, schools – although the teachers were mostly women.

Kathleen McCartney

I felt different, really different, but mostly I kept quiet about it until I was 17. In the summer of 1972 I bought the first issue of Ms. magazine, a vivid image of Wonder Woman bursting from its cover. Steinem, a founding editor, examined the myth that “Women Voters Can’t Be Trusted.” Letty Cottin Pogrebin wrote about the insidious ways that women compete with other women. A piece titled “Populist Mechanics” helped women demystify the workings of their car, complete with a detailed diagram of an auto engine. An etiquette column headlined “Manners for Humans” counseled, “Anyone can hold doors for anyone else. It is only decent to see that it doesn’t slam behind you.”

I used my babysitting money to subscribe. I was hooked.

Gloria’s words rang in my head when I challenged the status quo for girls in high school. A faculty advisor for the National Honor Society announced that the boys could run for president and treasurer and the girls for vice-president and secretary. Like Gloria, I came from a working-class family where you didn’t question authority. My heart pounded as I argued for gender equality. I found my voice through Gloria’s.

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By the time I was in college, I was taking courses on sex roles and dressing like Gloria for Halloween: I streaked my straight blonde hair and topped off my outfit with aviator glasses.

After college, life got more real. And so did the pressures to conform. “Gender roles are policed,” Gloria taught us. I went on to study psychology and learned the academic term for this policing: “coercion to the bio-social mean.” Stray from the behavioral norms of your social group, and people – men and women alike – will conspire to push you back to the middle.

In the workplace, such policing is clear when it involves discrimination. Other times it is subtle, but it can be just as effective. Be good, but not too good; be strong, but not too strong; be competent, but not too competent. Cross those subtle lines and you’ll be branded with the “B” word: “bossy.” A recent article in the European Business Review put it this way: “Women must live up to collective expectations of what makes a leader, while at the same time remaining true to gender expectations.”

A year ago I led an executive education workshop for school principals aspiring to become superintendents. I asked how many of them had been accused of being bossy. Nearly every woman raised her hand. I talked about society’s gendered perceptions of leadership. Some participants welled with tears as they began to understand that sexism often masquerades as a hurtful personality attack.

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In a 1995 speech to graduating seniors at her alma mater, Smith College, Steinem analyzed this phenomenon with her typical anthropological incisiveness: “Some of us women have been successfully socialized to feel that women can’t be leaders, and vice versa.”