Feminist activist and Ms. magazine co-founder Gloria Steinem was the first woman to speak at the National Press Club in Washington, begrudgingly accepting a necktie—the NPC’s traditional souvenir at the time—in 1972. Tongue firmly in cheek, she told the audience she’d be happy to complete the look with a men’s jacket to “confirm your worst suspicions.”
Steinem, who turns 80 in March, returned to the NPC podium earlier this week to discuss an altogether more satisfying piece of neckwear: the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest honor the U.S. can bestow on a citizen who isn’t in the military—which Obama draped around her neck during Wednesday’s ceremony at the White House. He praised her for promoting “lasting political and social change in America and abroad and, among other things, for “inspiring us all to take up the cause of reaching for a more just tomorrow.”
“I can think of no president in history from whose hand I would be more honored to receive this medal from,” Steinem told the NPC audience, adding, “I’d be crazy if I didn’t understand that this was a medal for the entire women’s movement.”
Before Steinem became a feminist icon, she was known as the “girl writer” who helped found New York magazine (her male colleagues reassured her that she wrote like man) and went undercover as a Playboy bunny for a 1963 feature in Show magazine called “A Bunny’s Tale” (Years later she reflected on the experience: “The waitresses had to have internal exams and Wassermann tests for venereal disease, and they were told it was a requirement of the state—hello—it wasn't at all.” It wasn’t until 1969 that Steinem officially became turned onto activism while reporting on an abortion speak-out in downtown Manhattan.
“There was something about seeing women tell the truth about their lives in public, and seeing women take seriously something that only happens to women,” she wrote in New York magazine’s 30th anniversary issue. “In my experience, things were taken seriously if they also happened to men...It was one of those moments when you ask, ‘Why? Who said?’”
Steinem quickly became a leader in the pro-choice movement and, more than forty years later, remains one of its most prominent voices. She devoted the next 20 years of her life to writing and speaking publicly as one of America’s foremost feminists. In the ‘70s she testified in front of the Senate on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment and co-founded groups like the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) and the Women’s Action Alliance dedicated to “eliminating concrete manifestations of economic and social discrimination." Over the next decade, she broadened her activism to include civil rights for minorities and gay rights. Not long after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1986, Steinem was forced to step back from the feminist frontlines, though she remains an outspoken advocate today.
“In my old age—really old age, since I’m going to live past 100, I hope—I would love to have a diner,” she wrote in New York’s 30th anniversary issue. “Everyone goes—truck drivers go, people from the neighborhood, people in their tuxes after parties go...They’re truly populist places. And in the back room, we could have a little revolutionary meeting from time to time.”